Monday, July 13, 2009

Strange Brew

Anybody who grew up in Canada during the 1980s should be familiar with the McKenzie brothers – Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug (Dave Thomas) – the missing link that bridges the gap between Cheech and Chong and Bill and Ted. The McKenzie brothers had cultivated a sizable cult following with their memorable and largely improvised skits on SCTV. Eventually, Hollywood beckoned, only Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas decided to the make the film on their own terms, directing it themselves on location in Toronto. The result is Strange Brew (1983), a quest for beer money with allusions to Hamlet.

The film begins much like their skits on SCTV with the boys on the set of their Great White North show with the topic, not surprisingly, being movies. Bob and Doug show off the film that they made together and it turns out to be a crudely shot science fiction tale called The Mutants of 2051 AD that pokes fun at post-apocalyptic films that were all the rage at the time. When their film fails to satisfy a theater full of people (what were they expecting?), Bob and Doug give their dad’s beer money to a man and his pitiful two children begging for a refund. To mollify their irate dad (his voice provided by none other than Mel Blanc), the boys unsuccessfully try to get free beer with the ol’ mouse-in-the-beer-bottle gag which, of course, doesn’t work.

So, they decide to go to the source: Elsinore Brewery, an ominous-looking castle-like complex located right next to the Royal Canadian Institute for the Mentally Insane. Bob and Dog end up saving a woman whose car is stuck in the electrified gate of the complex. Her name is Pamela (Lynne Griffin) and her father, who used to run Elsinore, has been killed by his brother (Paul Dooley) who proceeded to marry Pamela’s mother. Sound familiar? However, it is the malevolent Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow) who is the puppetmaster, manipulating the brother so that he can take control of Elsinore and perfect his mind control formula through an electronic music device that he experiments on the neighboring mental patients.

In a nice touch, the patients don plastic armor and play hockey while this creepy synthesizer music plays reminiscent of Rollerball (1975) with a bit of the Stormtroopers from Star Wars (1977). Doug even pretends he’s Darth Vader to which Bob proudly says, “He saw Jedi 17 times.” As thanks for saving Pamela, Bob and Doug are given jobs in the brewery counting bottles of beer on the assembly line. It’s a dream come true and they end up bringing cases of free beer home to their ecstatic father. However, the McKenzie brothers also become unwittingly involved in the power struggle between Pamela and Brewmeister Smith.

Strange Brew displays its Canadiana with pride. During the opening credits, TTC streetcars can be plainly seen and, at one point, Bob and Doug’s van launches into Lake Ontario and the distinctive CN Tower can be plainly seen in the background, gracing the Toronto skyline. That’s kinda the point with Bob and Doug as they were Canada’s cultural ambassadors during the ‘80s, preserving and also poking fun at the Canadian stereotype: the beer-drinking, doughnut-eating, hockey-playing Canuck. Bob and Doug speak with words like “hoser”, “knob”, “take off, eh”, and “beauty” that were meant to poke fun at the way Canadian accents are perceived by those outside of the country but they ended up being absorbed into our popular culture lexicon anyway.

The McKenzie brothers were created in 1980 when the Canadian version of SCTV had to be two minutes longer than the syndicated version on American television. However, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission dictated that the two extra minutes be Canadian in content. Thus, Bob and Doug were born as a flip response to that decree. A typical skit would involve the brothers announcing a topic of discussion, like back bacon or snowshoes, and end up getting into an argument about beer or other petty sibling disagreements. The skit became quite popular and in 1981, they recorded a comedy album which sold a million copies. Because the record did so well, Moranis and Thomas thought about parlaying that success into a film.

After fellow SCTV cast member John Candy got an offer from Universal Pictures to do a film called Going Berserk (1983), Moranis and Thomas started talking about writing a screenplay for a Bob and Doug film. Andrew Alexander, executive producer for SCTV, reminded them that he had exclusive contracts and if they wrote a script he would sue them. So, they hired Steve De Jarnatt (the cult film genius behind Cherry 2000 and Miracle Mile) to write the first draft. Initially, Thomas told De Jarnatt that he wanted to base the film’s story around Hamlet but the writer stuck to it too faithfully and Thomas told him to have fun with it by making Bob and Doug like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Pamela like Hamlet. Their agents sent the script to various studios in Hollywood and a few days later they had a deal with MGM based not on the script but on record sales, “the breakout potential, and the fact that it was being advertised on a television show,” Thomas remembers. He and Moranis were unhappy with the script because Bob and Doug were improvised characters done in their “comic voices” and they felt that nobody but them could write these characters.

Moranis and Thomas faced the challenge of expanding their improvisations from “two guys talking about how hard it was to get parking spaces in donut shops to a full-length story,” said Thomas at the time of the film’s release. He began re-writing the script without Moranis who began to get cold feet about doing the film. After working on the first 50 pages, Moranis took a look at what he’d done and they worked together rewriting it. However, they weren’t sure just how much they could legally change and did most of the major alterations in the first third with Bob and Doug’s cheesy lo-fi SF film and the McKenzies watching it in a movie theater and causing a riot. Thomas remembers that the script was “far more bizarre and conceptual in the beginning ... If we had been able to rewrite the whole thing, we would have made the whole thing like that.”

Originally, Moranis and Thomas were not going to direct or write Strange Brew but ended up doing both with the guidance of executive producer Jack Grossberg, who had produced films by Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. They were given a modest budget of $5 million. Before filming, all of the major breweries wanted the McKenzie brothers to appear in beer ads. Molson’s Brewery was even featured prominently in their SCTV segments. They had the promise of Molson’s but once the company found out that there was a joke in the film about putting a mouse in a beer bottle so that a complaint can be made in order to get a free case of beer, the company distanced themselves from the film. The filmmakers were also banned from filming in a Brewers’ Retail store so they built a replica of an outlet at a cost of more than $15,000 and used the Old Fort Brewing Co. in Prince George, British Columbia to double for Elsinore Brewery.

Moranis and Thomas had already been playing these characters for some time by the time they did Strange Brew – in fact, the characters were at the height of their popularity at the time of the film – and so they effortlessly slipped into these roles. They really capture the sibling dynamic so well. Bob and Doug may bicker and pick on each other but when it counts they get it together and save the day. The casting of Max von Sydow as Brewmeister Smith was an inspired choice as he brings a certain amount of gravitas to the role and is actually a threatening presence, not some cartoon buffoon, which is in sharp contrast to Paul Dooley’s easily bullied character.

Strange Brew received generally positive reviews from critics. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Anyone who's partial to the McKenzies' humor doubtless has a fondness for beer. The price of a ticket could buy enough beer for an experience at least as memorable as this one.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold called the film, “neither triumph nor fiasco, Strange Brew leaves plenty of room for improvement, but I hope Thomas and Moranis get the chance to demonstrate that they've learned a lot from the mixed assortment of nuttiness in their first movie comedy.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “What's terrific about the McKenzie Brothers is their offhand depiction of two English-Canadian working-class dimwits ... and what's terrific about the movie is its equally offhand surrealism.”

For a film about two goofball brothers, Strange Brew is surprisingly clever with a fairly elaborate plot that riffs on Hamlet quite a bit with Bob and Doug essentially playing the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern parts. By today’s gross-out comedy standards Strange Brew is kinda tame but that is certainly part of its appeal because it reflects the Canadian identity at the time. There is almost a sweetness to the goofy humor that is endearing. A film like this one probably couldn’t be made today, which may explain how a few years ago a proposed sequel fell through at the last minute when financing didn’t come through. Moranis’ self-imposed exile after the death of his wife didn’t help matters but Thomas was able to coax him out of retirement for a television special that took a irreverent look back at Bob and Doug’s legacy. At least we will always have Strange Brew.

Here are two great fan sites dedicated to all things Bob and Doug:

An Unofficial Bob & Doug McKenzie Page

The Hoser


  1. "he ain't dead, his stomach's movin'!"

    Oh, how I love this movie. I wore out a VHS of this with friends back in the day. Like you said, it's much more clever than you'd imagine, and the Hamlet structure makes it all the more entertaining.

  2. Another great line, "I got whiplash from my burps." I have fond memories of seeing this when it first came out in theaters. Made me proud to be a Canadian.

  3. I've never seen this before. I hate to admit that I've never even heard of it. Thanks for introducing me to it. Great post.

  4. Keith:

    You're welcome. It's not the most well-known film, probably would be considered a cult film now but worth checking out if you are so inclined.

  5. One of my favorite movies! I had surgery the summer that this first aired on HBO way back when and I must've watched it at least thirty times while I was housebound. And no matter how many times I watched it, the same silly moments still managed to break me up. Classic!

  6. Jeff Allard:

    Ah, great to connect with another fan of this film! Yeah, when it first came out on video I must've watched it tons and tons of times, quoting dialogue, etc. Watching it again recently was a great trip down memory lane.