Interestingly enough, this movie’s strategy involves coleslaw.

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John Landis may not share with Bob Clark the distinction of having directed films in both the IMDB Top 250 and the IMDB Bottom 100, but his lowest-rated effort, 1996’s The Stupids (currently at a 4.1), does noticeably stick out from his more acclaimed work.  Tom Arnold may not be a comedy legend on the level of Belushi, Aykroyd, or Murphy, but to this viewer’s eyes and ears, he holds his own as patriarch Stanley Stupid.  Comedy is famously subjective, so even the most acclaimed laughers don’t make everyone chuckle equally.  So I understand that The Stupids may not bring everyone as much delight as it has brought me, but it does several things objectively right that most viewers have missed.

Since as far back as I can remember, I have loved the comedy wrung out of stupid people.  But as I have grown older and developed a humanistic worldview, I have tried to avoid thinking of anyone as inherently stupid.  Yet, foolish behavior still makes me laugh.  I have decided to appreciate this generally in one of two ways: in the first case, even the smartest among us occasionally make mistakes – being made of fun for it is humbling in a valuable way; in the second case, those who are continually foolish are not necessarily stupid, but they do definitely see the world differently than everybody else, and that doesn’t have to be wrong.

The Stupids might mean to disabuse me of this justification, since, after all, “stupid” is right there in the title.  But that is the last name of dad Stanley, mom Joan, daughter Petunia, and son Buster, not a description.  Actually, it really is a description, but, “stupid” or not, each member of this family does see the world differently than everybody else, and it is actually quite charming if you look at them from the right angle.  The most memorable scenes of The Stupids work because of their intense commitment to an unusual worldview.

After accidentally leaving their trashcans out on the curb, Stanley and Joan Stupid awake to discover that their garbage has once again been “stolen.”  In true absurdist fashion, it is never once explained how the entire Stupid family is able to carry on without ever having learned how many of the basic features of modern life work.  Stanley decides to tail the garbage truck one night, and at the dump, he stumbles upon a black market weapons deal between U.S. Army Lieutenant Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf, named after his Animal House character) and a group of terrorists.  Stanley introduces himself to Niedermeyer for the sake of getting a ride home (he had used rollerblades to follow the garbage truck).  His obliviousness to the danger of the situation contributes to the mistaken impression that he is a government spy.

The conspiracy of garbage-stealing is assumed to be the work of one Mr. Sender.  You see, Stanley used to work “inside the system,” as “a courier for the U.S. government” (that is, a mailman).  When Stanley begins to notice that several pieces of mail have been marked “Return to Sender,” he starts asking the questions that get him fired: “Who is this Sender? And what he is doing with other people’s mail?”  In an extended fantasy sequence, the Stupids imagine Sender as an evil mastermind (Christopher Lee, having a blast tapping into his villainous reputation) bent on world domination by means of stealing “the one resource no one ever thinks to protect”: garbage.  An actual man with the last name Sender is discovered in the phone book, and just for fun, he is played by Captain Kangaroo himself, Bob Keeshan.

One other scene to note among many others is that of Stanley and Petunia’s “death” and “resurrection.”  When the lights go off while they are sneaking around a planetarium, father and daughter assume that they have died.  When a janitor appears, Stanley proclaims, “Hail to thee, O Lord.”  The janitor explains that his name is actually pronounced “Lloyd,” and instead of realizing that they have not actually met their maker, the two take it to mean – in typical Stupid fashion – that all these years they’ve been saying it wrong.

These scenes and several others (the “Drive B”, Stanley singing “I’m My Own Grandpa” on a sleazy daytime talk show, Joan mistaking a flamethrower for a fire extinguisher) have worked for and should work for anyone who gives The Stupids a chance because of the actors’ commitment.  This movie may be exceedingly silly, and the Stupids as characters are patently absurd, but – crucially – they are never winking.  I am totally convinced that Tom Arnold believes that the world can be ruled by stealing people’s garbage.  The extent to which the Stupids are so far from any recognizable reality calls attention to artifice in a similar fashion to one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Stella.

Landis’ reputation may not have been enough to make The Stupids a hit, but it was presumably his cachet that attracted the cameo appearances by several distinguished filmmakers.  Atom Egoyan appears as a TV studio guard, Costa-Gavras is a gas station attendant, Norman Jewison is the French chef, and Robert Wise is the Stupids’ bemused neighbor.  If for no other reason, The Stupids is worth watching to see David Cronenberg as the supervisor to Tom Arnold the mailman.