Before rewatching Dirty Work, the only thing I fully remembered about it was I saw it twice in theaters. To the point that, when the person I was about to watch it with asked if it was good, I responded, “When I was in college I thought it was funny enough to see twice in theaters. Other than that, I don’t remember.”
First, to get this part out of the way, it is still very funny. I laughed many, many times. But it’s also, strangely, a movie that’s kind of sad to watch under these circumstances. The obvious one being that both the star of the movie, Norm Macdonald, and the director of the movie, Bob Saget, would die within just a little over three months from each other. The other being the whole “what could have been” from both of their movie-making careers. Obviously, both had success in the years following Dirty Work, but Saget would never again direct another movie given a wide theatrical release and Macdonald would never again star in a movie this good. (I haven’t seen his follow-up film, Screwed, in many, many years, but I remember it being unpleasant. Watching Dirty Work today, it’s just sad we didn’t have more collaborations between Saget and Macdonald because they seemed to bring the best out in each other.
After the news of Saget’s death broke on Sunday night, social media was filled with tributes from people who knew Saget and truly seem to love the guy, then people like us who admired him – usually mentioning how different his raunchy standup could be from the character he was most known for playing, Danny Tanner on Full House. (Though he doesn’t get enough praise for his work on America’s Funniest Home Videos, a show that, maybe more than any other, predicted our cultural future.) But Saget’s tendency to be raunchy is what’s so surprising about Dirty Work. Especially in the heyday of Full House, Saget seemed to relish in his raunchiness, often pointing out to unsuspecting audience members at his shows that maybe this isn’t what they were expecting from the star of one of the most popular family situation comedies of all time. Which is why, given the keys to directing a Norm Macdonald movie, it would kind of be expected for him to lean onto that here, too. But instead, Dirty Work is almost surprisingly sweet. (Yes, it’s true, Dirty Work was supposed to be rated R and a lot was cut out. But that still wouldn’t change the basic premise of the story and the genial sweetness of Macdonald’s Mitch Weaver.)
The plot of Dirty Work kind of fits in perfectly with the comedies that were popular at the time, which always seem to start with meeting the two main characters when they were children, for no reason in particular other than to prove, look, they were losers then and, today, guess what? Still losers. Mitch (Macdonald) and Sam (Artie Lange) can’t hold down a job, so, after a series of events, they go into the revenge-for-hire business. Basically, did someone do you wrong? Well, hire us and we will make sure that person gets what’s coming to them. This all culminates when Travis Cole (Christopher McDonald, because of course he’s in this movie) hires Mitch and Sam to get a building condemned, which turns out to be a trick and innocent people are about to be evicted, so the boys learn a hard lesson and set out to make things right. (It’s funny, like in Happy Gilmore, Christopher McDonald’s character’s evil plan relies on evicting someone from their residence.)
On its opening weekend Dirty Work would finish eighth, in a time when, maybe, this kind of movie had run its course. At the time, there wasn’t anything particularly unique about Dirty Work (though, keep in mind, I saw it twice) but, in retrospect, it benefits today that no movies are like this anymore. There are no low-stakes comedies in theaters. So, today, yeah, it kind of does feel unique. Especially considering it brought together both Macdonald and Saget. And, like I said, there’s something here. These two worked well together and it feels like they could have gone on making comedies together for the foreseeable future. That’s the thing about Saget, he was raunchy, but he was a warm human being that everyone truly seemed to love. No matter how raunchy his comedic sensibilities might have been, it worked for him because, deep down, he was a genuinely good person. And that comes through in Dirty Work because he gets the best out of Norm Macdonald.
(As an aside, last week I was listening to Marc Maron’s podcast when he was interviewing Tom and Dick Smothers. They are both in their 80s now and still sound great and are still legitimately funny. Maron asked them why they retired their act together. They responded that they didn’t want to die on the road. At first, I thought this was a joke, but they were serious. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot this past week, then especially Sunday night.)
The scene in Dirty Work that struck me the most involves an amusing setup as Mitch convinces Sam to moon a bunch of people, out of a passenger side window, waiting in line at a movie theater. Sam does this and Mitch immediately pulls the car over, parks it on the street right next to the movie theater, gets out and walks off, leaving Sam there with his ass still hanging out the window.
What got me about this scene is just how happy Macdonald looks. Like, he’s beaming right before the punchline of this scene. I wish these two had made ten more movies. They didn’t. And now they’re both gone. At least we have this one.
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