By Matt Fleming. As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching comedies on cable and VHS. My mother would insist that I go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. I would respond, “but Mom, Back To The Future is on HBO right now.” As an adult, I’m attempting to unpack the films of my yesteryear to see how they have held up, how they have affected my life, and where they stand in the annals of nostalgia.
Nothing But Trouble (1991)
Prologue: With Friends Like These
Dan Aykroyd is likely my favorite original cast member of Saturday Night Live. Without him, SNL fans might have been deprived of the full potential for televised sketch comedy, what with the unfortunate demise of both Gilda Radner and John Belushi. SNL was rightfully lauded in its inception, as television had yet to produce such far-reaching comedic content, and as the show’s youngest cast member/writer, Aykroyd created legends. He was a Conehead, a Blues Brother, a wild and crazy guy. Chevy Chase broke out as a star with his stupid pratfalls, John Belushi’s charisma was other-worldly, but Aykroyd was the workhorse. He was on a mission from God. When Aykroyd and Belushi both departed from the show in 1979, expectations were feverish for the careers that lied ahead. Belushi’s untimely overdose in 1982 dramatically altered Aykroyd’s life, to say nothing of the future of comedy.
Dan Aykroyd had written the original script for Ghostbusters with Belushi in mind as Dr. Peter Venkman, and though Ghostbusters was a hit and is now revered as a classic without Belushi, thanks must be given to those around Aykroyd who filtered through his off-beat sense of reality. Without Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman bringing the film down to earth, as well as Bill Murray’s natural comedic performance, Aykroyd could have certainly veered Ghostbusters into unsettling and unfunny territory.
You know, something like 1991’s Nothing But Trouble.
Part One: Nothing But A Bad Time.
This thing opens with Ray Charles singing Sinatra over a montage of New York City at night, giving the opening credits a kinda Woody Allen meets Randy Newman vibe (nothing close to the tone the film will take on later). Chevy Chase is Chris Thorne, a tediously-titled financial publisher who puts out a newsletter advising clients on investments, or something. He arrives to his wealthy Manhattan penthouse, and bumps into a frazzled babe named Diane Lightson (Demi Moore, at what I think is her peak), a corporate lawyer new to the building who travels around with two small dogs for no discernible reason. Chevy Chase – so drowsy from painkillers that he sleeps through most of the movie – informs her of the “thanks for all the money” party being thrown upstairs in his honor. She visibly doesn’t care until she discovers something lascivious about her ex-boyfriend/client in the seemingly random pile of paper Chase is carrying around, wherein she wigs out. She leaves Chris in the elevator with a bag of dogshit. This bag of dogshit is the best joke in the movie.
The beautiful Diane persuades Chris to drive her to Atlantic City the next day, where she will confront her ex, and Chris can, I don’t know, gamble or get a hooker. They are begrudgingly joined by annoying brother-sister duo Fausto and Renalda (Taylor Negron and a Carmen Miranda clone named Bertila Damas), whose passports claim they are from Argentina, but Chris refers to as “Brazillionaires.” The reason these two join? Because they love to go for drives (but read that in a bad South American accent). The foursome hit the road in Thorne’s decked-out BMW, and commence with awkward small talk. (Chevy Chase seems to love this sequence, what with all the sitting.) Sleepy Chris is begged by the Brazillionaires to take a detour so that they may picnic in the middle of New Jersey’s industrial wasteland. Diane uses the primitive GPS to take the gang around a scenic ghost town called Valkenvania. The scenes here were clearly shot in a Hollywood backlot “Old West” set, and the entire drive employs the most obnoxious ADR (additional dialogue recording, or dubbing) in order to keep the characters present as all the audience sees are a dusty, dilapidated town and a BMW.
In the burned-out hamlet, the crew run a stop sign and draw the attention of Constable Dennis Valkenheiser (John Candy, not yet in drag, telegraphing it in). Rather than reasonably pulling over like a sane person, Chris defends his ego and leads the cop on a high speed chase. After the Constable pulls out some automated road blocks, the yuppies are apprehended and escorted to the second act of the movie, where Candy’s Constable warns them of “more trouble than (they’re) already gargling.'”
The path leading to Valkenvania’s Shire Courthouse of Terrors is littered with abandoned equipment, scrap metal, and the creepy remnants of who-knows-whose past. This scene brings us more terrible ADR, including the worst joke of the movie (Diane: “They must be into folk art.” Chris: “Folk ‘em.”). The sloppy mishmash of the sulking score and tinny music being piped into the driveway makes for more audio confusion as the yuppies continue to annoyingly read every sign aloud as they are lead to their judgement.
The interior of the house is admittedly incredible (the courtroom is one of a couple really excellent set pieces), and it is here where the big casting reveal is made: Dan Aykroyd’s Shire Reeve Alvin Valkenheiser, in his early-100s, is a mix of physical monster and backwoods mumbo jumbo. He is terribly painful to look at, a clear attempt to make the audience say, “eww old people,” but it’s a little too much. (For the love of Zuul, his nose is made from the tip of someone’s penis.) The Reeve discovers Thorne’s occupation and accuses him of being a banker, and he sure does hate bankers! Our city slickers scoff at the rural justice system and are held overnight, mostly so Alvin can flirt with Diane and accuse Chris of more banking.
They’re dropped into a pit of plastic toys beneath the floor, revealing more of the house’s Rube Goldbergian mechanisms. The yuppies argue and bicker as we segue to the next set of lawbreakers.
The true intentions of the Shire Reeve’s backwoods justice is revealed in the next segment. When Dennis pulls over a car full of drugged-up, drunken Jersey stereotypes, Daniel “The One We Forget” Baldwin pulls a gun, but Dennis counters his pistol with a semi-auto. The greaseballs are taken to court, their drugs and guns confiscated, and their justice is meted out swiftly. A conveyor then drags them to their sentenced death: a quick roller coaster ride into the mouth of Mister Bonestripper, an impractical device that literally chews its victims up and spits out their skeletal remains onto a tactfully painted target at its end.
What follows is a gross yet slightly amusing “supper scene,” where the yuppies sit with the family of Valkenheisers around a table adorned with a functional condiment train set. They feast on whitish-grey hot dogs, Ants-on-Logs, and warm Hawaiian Punch. Watching Alvin wolf down a shrimp salad-covered frank nestled in a slice of white bread is particularly stomach churning. This might be the second-funniest joke in the film.
We meet Alvin’s other grandchild, Dennis’ mute twin, Eldona (a frightening John Candy in drag, batting flirty eyelashes at Chevy Chase). The judge recalls how his grandfather was swindled by an investment banker, resulting in the desolation of the town and pockets of natural gas fires around the estate. Alvin shoots a gherkin at Fausto, and he has had enough: “I won’t have my sister, who was once the Queen of the Mardi Gras, sitting at a table with a pickle-shooting train!” The siblings survive a two-story jump and evade automatic gunfire long enough to escape through a toxic trench that reminds them of Sao Paolo. Dennis is there to catch them, but seeing his way out of Valkenvania (or seeing his way out of half of the movie), he ushers them to safety in exchange for, I dunno, a Brazillion dollars?
Chris and Diane are sent to a bedroom, where they make out and fall asleep in a bed together, because sometimes you have to write it that way. Dennis has agreed to attempt to free them as well, but must use the house’s hidden doors, chutes, and booby traps in order to conceal his actions. This directs the two now-romantic leads to an attic covered in newspaper clippings and ID cards. Turns out that if bad people come through Valkenvania, they get the Shire’s justice. (It’s implied that this is what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, among others.) After Chris and Diane pointlessly light up a pair of cigars, the room reveals a slide to freedom, only Chevy (I mean Chris) stupidly takes the fork to the left rather than following Diane. She lands outside the house, he lands in a pile of bones next to the Reeve’s bedroom. He witnesses Alvin removing his dick-nose, and doesn’t scream or throw up, because Chris, like Chevy, is on mad painkillers.
Diane’s escape is thwarted by a pair of grossly overweight, adult-aged Valkenheiser toddlers in diapers, Bobo and Li’l Debbull (featuring Aykroyd as the former), who appear to be the victims of toxic mutations, incest or both. They abscond with Diane, save her from Eldona’s jealous streak, and finally kidnap her again to “play with her.” While this is happening, Alvin catches Chris snooping in his bedroom, and then they fight using amazing props like a human femur, a dead skunk, and a dirty bedpan. Chris escapes the room and bumps into Eldona, which by house rules makes them engaged for marriage.
At this point, Digital Underground, best known for “The Humpty Dance” and Tupac Shakur, are caught speeding and brought to the courthouse in time to shoot a music video for “Same Song.” This is the best scene of the film. It features Tupac’s first appearance in any movie, Greg Jacobs performing as both “Shock G” and “Humpty Hump,” and an Aykroyd/Alvin Valkenheiser organ solo. He keeps the group around to perform at the wedding of Chevy Chris and John Candy-in-Drag.
The wedding goes forward – Chris knows it’s either marriage or death – yet the banker can’t seem to smooch the blushing bride. (Wonder why.) Anyhow, Chris tries to escape again, and Alvin throws him onto the Bonestripper. More bad ADR accompanies Chris on the horrorcoaster, and at the last minute the contraption breaks down for no reason whatsoever. He saves Diane from the clutches of his murderous new Candy-wife, and the two dodge bullets until they hop a train car and ride into the sunset. The end.
No, it’s not. The duo tells their story to Brian Doyle Murray and some authorities (state police? it’s unclear) who insist on dragging them back to Valkenvania for an impromptu raid. Upon arrival, Chris and Diane learn the joke is on them, and that the authorities know well and good what the Reeve has been up to, and are reliant upon his brand of justice. Just when it seems like the end for the two yuppies, the underground mine fires take over and the whole place shakes and pops until the building is eaten in a massive sinkhole. The end.
Nope, sorry. Epilogue: Brazil. The Argentine Brazillionaires have retired to their luxurious estate, where Dennis (John Candy, not in drag) is their head of security and Renalda’s lover. (So… in this movie John Candy bats 1.000.) Then, back in New York, Chris is having bad dreams on a couch when Diane wakes him. Seems like a great future ahead for these two! Chris turns on the news, which is covering the big New Jersey mine fires, when it is revealed that Alvin has survived, kept his son-in-law’s ID (giving him his Manhattan high rise address), and intends on moving in. Chris then abandons Diane in truly surreal, cartoonish fashion by dashing out through the wall, leaving behind a Roger Rabbit-style silhouette. The actual end.
Part Two: The Cast, or: “We’re Here For You, Barely.”
It is a hardly-kept secret that some of the big names of the cast of this shit-show were mostly Dan Aykroyd’s pals, playing along with his desire to direct a feature-length film. (Chevy Chase threw Aykroyd under the bus in his biography I’m Chevy Chase… And You’re Not, written by Rena Fruchter.) This ensemble of mostly improv aficionados (Chase and Aykroyd from SNL, Candy and Valri Bromfield, cohorts of Aykroyd’s at Toronto’s Second City, and Negron via a personal class given by Lucille Ball) should shine, but with the Aykroyd Bros’ script (brother Peter co-wrote and cameos as the doting high-rise servant), this cast falls flatter than a two-dollar pancake.
Let’s be honest. Chevy Chase hurt his back with all his cocaine-fueled SNL slapstick, and – Vacation movies aside – coasted through his post-Saturday career with the help of muscle relaxants and Vicodin. The dude is present in body and voice, but that’s all. Dude’s birth name is Cornelius Crane Chase, so no doubt he was qualified to play a sad financial publisher thrown into a heap of trouble, but c’mon. You were supposed to be the chosen one! You drive a BMW, act like it! Chevy is sedated throughout this slump, and it’s not the movie’s flop that caused him to make Cops and Robbersons. Chevy Chase is famous for being funny*, which he is in several other movies (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is my family’s It’s a Wonderful Life). He is not funny in this movie. The notoriously dickish Chevy delivers the performance of a middle-aged man reading the newspaper and farting in bed. He just wears a suit and sunglasses and (begrudgingly) kisses Demi Moore.
Oh, but Demi Moore. If there is a highlight to this film (aside from Digital Underground), it is she. From the moment she first appeared onscreen with two small dogs for no reason other than to deliver a dog crap joke, she was delightful. Demi is the voice of reason throughout, and aside from being a babe, she really stands out in her stupid scenes with the grotesque Bobo and Li’l Debbull. Where Chase is checked out, Moore is cool, natural, and clearly the only person having fun.
Speaking of checked-out, Nothing but Trouble is John Candy’s clinic in phoning it in. Aside from the running joke that is Candy-as-a-Lady, the big Canadian laugh-bringer is stoic and flaccid in this picture. He openly chain smokes, delivers lines like a high school drama student, and, above all, looks unhealthy. His rapport with Aykroyd circa The Great Outdoors is absent, as is his charisma. John Candy was a goddamned hilarious man. In this shithouse, he is relegated to an overplayed drag joke and a fat cop stereotype. Here is a list of films in which John Candy is funny: The Blues Brothers, Stripes, Going Berserk, Splash, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Summer Rental, Volunteers, Armed and Dangerous, Little Shop Of Horrors, Spaceballs, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, The Great Outdoors, Hot To Trot, Who’s Harry Crumb, Uncle Buck, Delirious, Cool Runnings, Wagons East and Canadian Bacon. Note what is missing.
And this brings us to Mister Aykroyd. In complete control of the film, he bothers to cast himself as two monstrosities, and still manages to miss the mark. I will say that Alvin Valkenheiser has his moments (“A hula hula hula, a bula bula bula” being one), and he is the obvious star of this hoedown. However, the Justice of the Peace is far too creepy and gross to look at, and clearly Aykroyd put more effort into the character than the script or the direction. You can see him trying, but the premise is contained within a convoluted and ridiculous world. This is a far cry from Dr. Ray Stantz.
As for the rest of the cast? Character actor Taylor Negron may have hit his stride here. His on-screen sister is a legit singing star in South America, so she has no career to ruin. Valri Broomfield is just fine as the toughlady, though her relationship to the Valkenheiser family is left obscure. Digital Underground is great, and 2Pac would go on to a respectable film career and a solid legacy of faking his death after being in this movie.
Part Three: Conclusions, or: “Requiem For Saturday Night.”
The story goes that in 1978 Dan Aykroyd was pulled over in a small, presumably less fantastical northeastern hamlet, and was ushered into a midnight court proceeding. There is a brilliant comedy to be found in this premise, provided it was directed or produced by Ivan Reitman or Harold Ramis. However, an unassisted Dan Aykroyd simply cannot make a cake out of this turd. I can honestly say that I have nostalgic feelings for Nothing But Trouble, but I can objectively call it out as a bad movie. Between the absurd plot and Chevy Chase’s painkiller-fueled “performance,” this one is retrospectively awful. The only redemption lies in its awfulness; it’s thoroughly quotable (“why don’t you dress yourself a couple o’ dogs?”), and exceptionally tacky. It killed Aykroyd’s career, and he’s now left to bit parts in ham pieces (My Fellow Americans, Blues Brothers 2000, Get On Up), and endlessly championing a Ghostbusters 3 (without Bill Murray, who is uninterested, Harold Ramis, who is dead, and Ernie Hudson, who is not that desperate).
This is what you get when paranormal-obsessed Dan Aykroyd has free reign on a story. There has to be something telling in that he made a Coneheads movie immediately afterwards: Dan Aykroyd’s time had come and gone as a comedic voice. Despite his wonderful turn in Driving Miss Daisy and his earlier contribution to comedy, Aykroyd fails without someone to pull him back to reality. The tone of Nothing But Trouble is never stable, and one wonders if the creator was stable as well.
While I love much of this mess, Nothing But Trouble is a clusterfuck of a vanity project by a funny man who forgot what funny was, starring a peak-era starlet and a medium-talent comedic actor on meds. Dan Aykroyd should stick to chasing aliens, and avoid ruining what we have left of 80s comedic nostalgia. Best watched with a friend who loves 2Pac or Ghostbusters 2.
*Chevy Chase had a brief comeback late into his career by playing Pierce Hawthorne, a slightly lovable old guy on the NBC sitcom Community, until everyone involved realized he was a tremendous asshole, and he left the show to go back to his previous role as an irrelevant wash-out.
Next: Matt reviews Stephen Spielberg’s 1991 critical flop, Hook.