Seeing a comedy with a small audience always works against it, and that's the way I saw Johnny Dangerously. With fewer people in the audience to build up the laughter, comedies just don't seem as funny. Keeping this in mind, I would rate Johnny Dangerously as a fair comedy. Even with a slight dispensation for poor attendance at an early show, it isn't really funny enough to get by. The idea behind it is neutral. A spoof of gangster films starring Michael Keaton could have been quite funny, or it could have been a total loser. Johnny Dangerously winds up somewhere in between.

The story is told in flashback, as Keaton, a pet store owner, cautions a youth against a life of crime, using his own life as an example. This setup is a little shopworn, and is fairly typical of the entire film: a few good ideas well executed, a few good ideas thrown away, and several not so good ideas. The remainder of the film is a parody of the rise-and-fall-of-the-gangster cliche. Johnny, a basically good boy, is forced to enter a life of crime to pay for the treatment of his mother's bizarre ailments. Meanwhile, his kid brother is studying law to become a crime-fighting DA. Befriended by a kindly mob boss (Peter Boyle), Johnny Malone, under the pseudonym of the title, is becoming a wealthy and important figure in the crime rackets. Eventually, inevitably, his incorruptible brother sets out to nail him, little knowing that his sibling is the notorious gangster.

They probably made a couple hundred films using variations on this plot during the 1930s, so it's ripe for parody. The filmmakers have unwisely chosen to use Airplane! as their role model, however. Without the zany inventiveness of the makers of that film, the all-out, anything-for-a-laugh approach collapses under the strain of too few funny jokes. The anachronisms and irrelevancies become tedious instead of funny. Somewhere along the line, someone must have thought that having Johnny switch from a Charleston to break dancing was funny, someone must have thought that the mere mention of the Cambridge diet plan was amusing, and someone must have thought that having Maureen Stapleton, as Johnny's mother, perform obscene gestures was uproarious. Well, they're not funny. The ideas aren't funny and the execution isn't funny.

The last of these, the continuing and unlikely vulgarity of Maureen Stapleton's character, points up another plus and minus of Johnny Dangerously. There's a lot of sex and toilet humor in this film. Most of it isn't funny, but some of the film's best moments come when an immigrant crime boss of unknown provinence mangles various dirty words into hilarious distortions which are clearly recognizable and yet almost printable in family newspapers. A couple other very funny moments arise from sex jokes. Director Amy Heckerling, who last did Fast Times At Ridgemont High, is perhaps too willing to prove that being a woman doesn't keep her from telling dirty jokes. I think the point is made after two films full of them, so she can now go ahead and only tell the funny ones.

Johnny Dangerously is filled with ambivalences. Its treatment of violence is a good case in point. Most of it is of the Roadrunner variety, where bombs explode and the victims emerge with scowls on their blackened faces. I would say that this is certainly the right approach, since you can't easily switch gears from farce to black comedy, and the latter is the only way death plays funny. Why, then, did the filmmakers choose to actually kill a couple of people? At least one of the deaths seems motivated by plot demands, but working around it would very likely have provided a funnier twist. The occasional outburst of real death is rather like finding a bit of bone in a chocolate souffle.

Michael Keaton doesn't seem as funny in this film as in Mr. Mom or Night Shift. I don't think that parody is Keaton's forte. He seems to be more inventive in a realistic setting. Also, Keaton shows no aptitude for working in a comic ensemble. His previous films gave him almost all the jokes, with everyone else mostly serving as straightmen (and -women). He's not nearly as good at receiving a joke as at telling one. Joe Piscapo has a medium sized part as a psychopathic hood. As with Keaton, this part doesn't seem to play to his strengths. Peter Boyle is amiable, Danny De Vito is good as a corrupt DA, and Dom Deluise puts in a mercifully brief appearance. Maureen Stapleton does well enough with the persistent vulgarities dealt to her, but she deserves better. Marilu Henner is OK as Johnny's girlfriend, and even gets a couple of good lines. A number of fairly well known character actors show up for brief scenes, and are mostly wasted.

Johnny Dangerously just isn't funny enough. Everyone involved tries hard, but this sort of comedy makes me yearn for the professionalism of the Marx Brothers, who tried out their gags on stage in front of audiences before putting them in films. Modern comedians and their directors could do much worse than to follow this example.

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