(originally published on Talkbacker on March 28, 2014)
James: This is the last year we throw trash.
Carl: You said that last year.
James: Yeah, but this year I mean it.
Carl: You meant it last year.
Stewart Copeland’s propulsive, and very recognizable music opens Men at Work. We start from the bottom of the ocean, with the camera gliding through murky waters and revealing barrels of questionable material being dumped by some shady operators. This operation is overseen by dirty City Councilman Jack Berger (Darrell Larson) and the main villain, Maxwell Potterdam III (played as a total cartoon villain by John Getz, probably best remembered as Geena Davis’ boss/ex-boyfriend from David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Very soon, it’s revealed that the Councilman has grown a conscience and is recording evidence against Potterdam. The tape that has the recording soon becomes the McGuffin of the film. Men at Work has some shade of an environmentalist plot, but the plot very quickly takes a step back as we meet our main characters:
James: What an absolutely gorgeous day. Warm Sun, beautiful women…
Carl(and James, together): And the air is just right for drinking!
James St. James (Emilio Estevez) and Carl Taylor (Charlie Sheen) are slackers and best friends (There are some sources over the web that claim them to be brothers, but this is not referred to in the film, and the different last names also speak against it. Yes – I know Sheen and Estevez ALSO have different last names, but let’s refer to James and Carl as “friends” for now, shall we?), who are just passing time as a pair of garbage men, while keeping up a hopeless pipe dream of opening a surf shop at the beach. The poster of the film might give an impression that they are the BEST garbage men in the world. They are NOT. They are just passing the time, throwing the trash-bins (and trash, including melons and a bowling ball) everywhere, making one hell of a noise, investigating – and criticizing – peoples trash (underwear, porn, whatever…), and are constantly harassed by a pair of hapless bicycle cops, just itching to arrest the pair.
They are also constantly pulling pranks (most of which include a delicately placed airbag, filled with shit) on an annoying pair of B-TEAM garbage men, who mostly fail to retaliate to these gags.
In their outside-of-work lives, James is a serial womanizer (actually picking women even from the garbage route), Carl’s relationship has just ended and he passes the time by stalking the next-door building in full Rear Window-mode, and target practicing with his pellet gun (shooting councilman Berger’s election ad, for example). The object of Carl’s stalking is Susan Wilkins (Leslie Hope, best known as Jack Bauers ill-fated wife Teri in season 1 of 24), who actually happens to be Berger’s campaign manager. Like an old-fashioned screwball-comedy, EVERYTHING is connected. After Carl and James get reprimanded by their boss about their behavior, they spend the evening drinking and playing Trivial Pursuit. At that time, a bewildered Berger shows up at Susan’s apartment, looking for the McGuffin which has accidentally ended up with her. Carl gets annoyed by Bergers aggressive behavior and shoots him in the ass with his pellet gun when Susan’s in the other room. As Carl and James hide from sight, Potterdam’s thugs enter the apartment, strangle Berger, take the body away, and put it in a barrel, which get’s misplaced.
Well, there’s the opening act in a nutshell. But all is about to change. See – because of their behavior, their boss Walt has given them a ride-along supervisor, his brother-in-law, and then the boss bursts into hysterical laughter. He clearly knows something we don’t. And the next hungover morning we get this exchange:
Carl: James, do us both a favor. Whatever you do, don’t give
this observer guy a hard time today. I figure if we behave
ourselves, show him that we’re a couple of good guys, we’ll
get him out of our hair a lot quicker.
Carl: For all we know…he could be some crazed combat veteran.
Boom. Cue marching music, cut to the guys on their route, and sitting next to them is the Ultimate Secret Weapon of this film, Louis Fedders (Keith David), dressed in an army shirt. Louis in fact IS a crazed combat veteran, and during the next stretch of the film, we see just HOW crazy he is. Keith David just downright steals his film from the moment he appears. He seems to be wearing his wardrobe from “Platoon”, and maybe this film in a kind of bizarro sequel to that film, as Charlie Sheen starred in it, too. David’s Louis is a jittery cluster of anger and resentment towards all others. He clearly has a post-traumatic syndrome of some kind. And is most likely a psychotic. As James bitches about his overseeing them, he first laughs, and then lunges at James, accidentally slugging Carl in the process. As they are sitting at a luncheon, he’s drawing a sketch oh a lovely pier with people on it, the we are revealed that he’s drawn an attack helicopter shooting missiles at the pier. He shows some signs of kindness, only to grab James’ arm when James tries to snag a french fry off his plate. Then he proceeds to give this menacing dialogue:
Louis: There are several sacred things in this world that you
don’t *ever* mess with. One of them happens to be another man’s fries.
Now, you remember that, and you will live a long and healthy life.
Yup. Good old Louis is crazier than a bag of crazy glue.
While collecting trash, the guys find the Councilman’s body, misplaced by the killers, and more craziness ensues:
Carl thinks he killed Berger with his pellet gun, Louis sees the strangle marks and now they believe that Susan
killed Berger. The bicycle cops appear, and since no-one wants trouble from them, cue some Weekend at Bernies-type comedy as they are now all trying to cover their own asses. Berger’s body finally ends up sitting in the toilet of the guys’ apartment, wearing a Richard Nixon(!)-mask… Carl decides to go investigating Susan’s apartment for evidence, while James and Louis observe from across the street. A poor pizza-delivery man ends up kidnapped by Louis, because “he’s seen too much”. Meanwhile, Carl ends up pretending to be a Frenologist (a scientist interpreting the size of Walt’s asshole – I mean: skull features) as he ends up in Susan’s place. Pretty soon ALL the different parties with different agendas (Potterdam’s hitmen, The B-TEAM, the bicycle cops) gather in the same location, and all kinds of slapstick and chase-comedy follows, culminating at the City Dump, where Potterdam and his goons are finally dealt with, and a happy ending (TM) follows.
There’s the overall story of the film. The reasons it works are:
– Estevez’ direction. This was his second feature as a director, his first being the film “Wisdom (1986)”. I saw that one on TV in the early 90’s, and remember it being a really solid debut. A story of the rise and fall of a young delinquent (with some shades of the story in “Badlands”, starring father Martin Sheen. Fun fact: he played a garbageman in that…), but kinda screwed by a blatant “Dallas”-quality twist ending. Estevez directs with a steady hand, great timing and creative camerawork (the trash-picking scenes are edited almost like an action film, with fast cuts and cool slow-motion).
– The chemistry between Carl and James. Well, duh – as real-life brothers, the chemistry comes naturally for Estevez and Sheen. Too bad they have not worked together on more projects aside from Young Guns and Rated X, and with Sheen’s recent public meltdowns, it seems very unlikely they will. SOME dialogue might played a bit too smart-assy, but let’s give ‘em that.
– The different comedy pairings. From Carl & James to Potterdam’s hitmen Biff & Mario (who as a pair of bickering, bullshitting hitmen seem like a weird prototype for Jules & Vincent in “Pulp Fiction”), The bicycle cops Mike & Jeff (who are clearly all tough talk behind a badge and end up tied in a sexual position to a playground ferris-wheel in their undies by Louis – one more bizarre act by him) and the B-TEAM Luzinski & Frost, this film is filled these weird, caricatured teams, who just work.
– KEITH EFFING DAVID. He deliver’s the best – and funniest – performance in this film. His crazy character in kinda acting as a catalyst to all the chaotic moments that happen. David plays this character completely straight too, not winking at the audience at any time. I would say, that this is almost worthy of a nomination for “best supporting actor”. David has further shown his comedy chops in later films, most memorably as Mary’s Father in There’s Something about Mary (remember the zipper scene?).
I first discovered Men at Work as a used rental VHS tape. It was actually in good condition, so I guess not many rentals, then. That tape got pretty worn out after that, and it’s good that a DVD now exists. I have friends who don’t understand some of my bizarre favourite movies – The Adventures of Ford Fairlane is another one I get picked on occasionally – but why should I care? Once again, the phrase “it’s not high art, but it’s funny” stands. It’s entertaining, HIGHLY quotable and features some extremely funny performances.
Like Jim Carrey’s Colonel Stars & Stripes said in Kick-ass 2: “Try to have fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?”