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Old Movie, New Review: The Slammin’ Salmon

July 24, 2010

In some significant ways, The Slammin’ Salmon gives you precisely nothing you haven’t seen before. It serves up the theme of, “Service industry jobs are awful and the only thing worse than the bosses are the customers,” which has been done to death in everything from Clerks to Waiting to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and points in between. Like these other films, The Slammin’ Salmon is a long treatise on misanthropy, in which virtually no characters are sympathetic and we identify only with who can get the best laughs at the expense of the universally deplorable customers.

And yet, in the hands of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, also responsible for Super Troopers and Beerfest, Salmon’s recipe of not-so-fresh ingredients is whipped up into a pretty tasty dish. OK, I promise, no more restaurant puns.

There’s a stretch of about five minutes in the middle of the movie in which Salmon’s strengths, even compared to the movies from which it so liberally borrows, became apparent to me.

The first of these strengths is the casting, especially of recognizable faces. The best example is Michael Clarke Duncan, best known for his admittedly stirring performance as a supernaturally gifted inmate in the otherwise grossly sentimental schlock-fest The Green Mile. I simply had no idea that the guy could be the primary driver of effective comedic scenes. He did score a few laughs as Ricky Bobby’s crew chief in Talladega Nights, but he was primarily the foil for Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.

But Duncan’s performance as an ex-heavyweight boxing champion turned restaurateur in The Slammin’ Salmon is a tour-de-force. The five-minute stretch mentioned above begins when Duncan calls the entire wait staff up to his office and berates them for their lackluster sales performance on a night when the restaurant needs to do $20,000 of business. The staff responds by scamming several of their tables to send bottles of expensive champagne to a couple who aren’t quite as courageous and inspiring as the staff makes them out to be. I won’t spoil the scenes by telling all the jokes. Suffice to say that I watched Duncan in awe during the entire scene in his office (and really, during the entire movie).

I’ve watched the scene several times now, and I still can’t decide if I think it’s primarily written or primarily improvised. Either way, I think the scene and a few others like it reflect well on the Broken Lizard troupe. If the scene was largely improvised, then cheers to the Lizard guys for recognizing true comedic genius in Duncan, whom I would have regarded as an unlikely source. If the scene was mostly written, then Duncan’s still a great casting choice, and that’s some fantastic writing that plays to his strengths and those of other cast members. Other scenes, such as the champagne scam mentioned above and the requisite “I just got a better job and now I’m going to vent years of frustration by telling a lot of people to go fuck themselves” scene, also benefit from a nice combination of serviceable writing and exuberant performances.

Like its Broken Lizard predecessors, the Slammin’ Salmon is, by design, an utterly frivolous film that has nothing meaningful to say. But overall, I found it to be a fine addition to their “canon.” I’ll be adding it to the list of movies I might put on when I need a few mindless laughs at the expense of amusing morons. Two other Lizard films, Super Troopers and Beerfest, are certainly on that list, and Salmon gave me neither substantially more nor substantially fewer big laughs than those predecessors. All three have their dead spots, and all three have their moments of utterly inspired lunacy. None are groundbreaking; all fall squarely within a long lineage of comedies populated by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But sometimes, such wonderful frivolity as that displayed quite effectively in what’s now a trio of enjoyable Broken Lizard films (I’m purposefully omitting Club Dread, which I didn’t enjoy at all) is by far the best choice on the movie-watching menu.

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