THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (1990), or: Andrew Dice Clay, the MTV Era and Postmodernism at the Dawn of the 90’s

fordfairlane

You’re ten seconds away from the most embarrassing moment of your life.

So many assholes, so few bullets.

I coulda been a fisherman. Fishermen, they get up, they fish, they sell fish, they smelt fish. Reminds me of this girl I used to go with, Yvonne. She smelled like fish.

I love this movie. I fucking love this movie so much. Heralding Andrew Dice Clay as the next renaissance man of comedy and cinema, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane takes advantage of the exuberantly vulgar but pulsating style of the Diceman’s standup by expounding a zany, flamboyant canvas of sleaze and decadence. Rampant self-awareness and sight gags embody it as an ultimate novelty film, relying heavily on the deified image of Clay in a pop culture lexicon where MTV has taken ubiquity beyond cable subscribers and into everyday life. This is the cinematic, monolithic equivalent of a neon-hued Jackson Pollock painting, a grotesque but wild and energetic slice of Warholian pop art.

Nary an attempt is made to cement the film as timeless—Ford Fairlane rode in on the tail end of Dice’s colossal shadow of controversy and quickly became an antique like the namesake classic car he drives. Fairlane is a “rock and roll detective,” but certainly it is a pseudonym for the man who got banned from MTV, sold out Madison Square Garden, ruffled feathers behind the scenes at Saturday Night Live and infuriated women everywhere. Nevertheless, the Diceman exhibits an incredible screen presence, dripping wet with hegemonic masculinity and a rugged physique that evokes James Dean by way of Bruce Willis. In spite of his nonstop quips about women—see the fisherman line above and the part where he kills his morning erection by saying “Roseanne Barr naked”—Clay proves himself as more formidable than his moniker.

The crude comedy style holds nothing but shock value as a gut reaction, devoid of cultural or social insight. However, the universe that surrounds Fairlane is an amusing satire of the corporate, manipulative mindset of the record industry in the 70’s and 80’s. This is apparent from the moment rock star Bobby Black—played by Vince Neil as a paper-thin version of himself—propels onstage with the assistance of a zip line, only to drop dead in front of his horrified fans. Neil’s participation is arguably an in-joke relating to his Motley Crüe bandmate Nikki Sixx’s 1987 near-fatal overdose and subsequent revival. Fairlane’s cash flow is disrupted by piles of goods such as autographed drumsticks and koala bears used as payment, showcasing the cowardice of actual compensation from his clients.

The presence of Wayne Newton as ironically lecherous mogul Julian Grendel and Priscilla Presley as an industry-connected socialite are further postmodern footnotes on the film, the former deconstructing Newton’s reputation as the swooning, clean-faced emblem of Las Vegas showbiz. Presley’s credentials go without further explanation, and her presence feels welcome in Fairlane‘s universe, where she is a celebrity by association. Morris Day plays Don Cleveland, an R&B producer whose name riffs on Soul Train maestro Don Cornelius, while cameos from Sheila E. and Tone Loc as a sultry club singer and a boombox-clutching rap enthusiast, respectively, add to the strong clout of self-referential bliss.

The most compelling thematic device in Ford Fairlane is the power of nostalgia, that those who have stuck with the music industry for years have become jaded by the excessive, vulgar direction that an artist like Bobby Black has taken music in. Ford Fairlane was released concurrently with the obscenity controversies of artists such as 2 Live Crew and N.W.A., and in the wake of Tipper Gore’s crusade for censorship in rock music years earlier. In perspective, the heroism of Ford Fairlane is a paradox, but his noble cause in exposing the corruption and remembering more innocent times vindicates him, especially as he teaches a kid who views him as a role model not to smoke or curse.

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Fairlane was friends and bandmates with shock jock Johnny Crunch, a Howard Stern caricature played by Gilbert Gottfried. Crunch is a misogynistic equal to Fairlane, screeching on the radio for “teenage virgins” to “show up at KDRT right now with a jar of petroleum jelly.” Still, beneath Crunch’s brand of discussing his sexual conquests is a deep-seated friendship with Fairlane that shows a fleeting glimpse of charm inside of them. When Crunch is murdered by the cackling Australian psycho Smiley (Robert Englund), his legacy is a series of bizarre sex tapes that Ford is horrified to see. “What is this, the Rob Lowe channel?” he bellows, firmly etching the film in its time. Furthermore, Crunch’s on-air death plays out as a sort of bastardized, darkly humorous parody of talk-show host Alan Berg’s murder, which Eric Bogosian later used as the inspiration for Talk Radio—right down to Smiley’s receding hairline and slimy appearance singling him out as a neo-Nazi.

In what is arguably the film’s funniest scene, hard-ass LAPD detective Lt. Amos (a stoic, humorless Ed O’Neill) arrives at the scene of Crunch’s murder. Amos laments Crunch’s murder could be the work of “everyone from the Glendale skinheads to Magic Johnson” and wastes no time in projecting his initial frustration on tearing into Ford’s outrageous attitude and behavior. Ford seizes the opportunity to not only refer to him as “Anus”—a great example of the extent of the juvenile sense of humor on hand in the film—he also embarrassingly reveals that their feud stems from Ford’s contempt for Disco Express, a one-hit wonder group that Amos fronted in the 70’s. Watching Ed O’Neill, sporting a suburban-dad mustache and permanent glower, embarrass himself at a crime scene singing a song called “Booty Time” with the same passion Al Bundy would sing the Psycho Dad theme is this film’s stroke of genius.

While he has wallowed through the lowly ranks of barely-there theatrical films like the recent Legend of Hercules and direct-to-DVD fare for the past several years, I feel like not enough credit is given to the directorial style of Renny Harlin. Die Hard 2 is the best Die Hard sequel. Cliffhanger is a truly breathtaking action film. The Long Kiss Goodnight is a work of multiple manic geniuses. When he got the Ford Fairlane gig, his biggest films were a financially successful but middle-of-the-road slasher sequel (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) and a fucking incredible horror film that only got a disc release recently (Prison). His style here flourishes like Tony Scott in his prime, a smoky, music-video finesse that nevertheless has a colorful, symphonic slickness.

Fairlane may be far from the classiest film he’s made, but it may be his most visually vibrant and offbeat film. Separated from the novelty of Andrew Dice Clay’s persona, it plays like a predecessor to what the Coens perfected in The Big Lebowski, a coked-out derivative of Altman’s The Long Goodbye with accentuated sex appeal and flashier material goods. Destined to be a cult classic from the get-go, the stigma of (co-)winning the Razzie Award for Best Picture felt unjust as retaliation for Dice’s 15 minutes running out: 20th Century Fox even went as far as to dump his concert film Dice Rules from a Christmas 1990 release after this film tanked. Watching it now, it’s fallen into place as a breed of misunderstood brilliance. Many have accused his comedy of being brash and disgusting, and the film has weathered myriad criticisms for doing the same mean-spirited wrongs. Like what Mike Judge would end up doing with Beavis and Butt-head years later, however, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane proves something paramount—it takes a lot of thought to be smart, but to churn out something this madcap and harebrained, the workload is twice as much.

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