Friday 4 March 2011

Obscurity Files #43 - Men at Work

Remember when Charlie Sheen was known for being an actor rather than the carnival of celebrity scandal he's become recently? Feeling nostalgic for different times, I though I'd take a look at 1990's Men at Work...

Working as trash collectors whilst they save up enough money to open a surf shop, best friends Carl and James (Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez) must contend with their bosses Brother in law who's joining them on a ride along. Louis (Keith David) is there to make sure the boys stay out of trouble, but when they open a large yellow canister that contains the corpse of local mayoral candidate Jack Berger, Carl and James start to worry they might be charged with his murder. The three men decide to keep hold of the body whilst they figure out what to do with it, and Carl tries to woo Berger's assistant in the hope she'll be able to provide information that could clear their names and find the real killer.

Men at Work was Emilio Estevez's first major film as director, choosing to go down the action/comedy route that had served both him and his brother well in their acting careers so far. Sold on the double act of the real life Estevez brothers, Men at Work was the first time Charlie and Emilio had a proper chance to work together. Yes, they'd both appeared in 1988's Young Guns, but that was more of an ensemble cast along with Kiefer Sutherland, Casey Siemaszko, Dermot Mulroney and Lou Diamond Phillips. Here they could show off the comedic chemistry they must surely share after 25 years of practice.

It's so 1990 it's untrue, featuring the Technotronic song 'Pump Up The Jam' heavily, and some awful mulleted haircuts on the Estevez boys. Charlie even commits the double hair crime of placing his in a pony tail. Keith David's irate maniac is probably the best thing about the film, but even he turns a bit soft on the boys as the film progresses. Personally, I'd have found the whole thing a lot more entertaining if David had continued to bully them for the rest of the film.

The biggest problem the film has it that it splits up the Estevez's for a large amount of the running time, sending them off on their own stories, a la The Empire Strikes Back. The one trump card the film had was having real life brothers playing Carl and James, but we're not given enough opportunity to see their natural chemistry in play. Instead Charlie's sent off on a romantic sub-plot with Leslie Hope (better known as Jack's wife Teri from the first season of 24), which the film really doesn't need. It's obviously been done to allow Emilio a bit more time behind the camera, but if you can't juggle the dual responsibilities of director and actor, don't cast yourself in your own movies. Instead, whilst Charlie's putting his well rehearsed moves on Jack Berger's assistant Susan, Emilio's left with a dead body and the psychotic Louis to contend with.

Men at Work does have some comic moments, but there's nothing that's particularly memorable. For me Charlie Sheen's comedic high point was the two Hot Shots films, showcasing his incredible ability to keep a straight face in all the wackiness. His brother Emilio might not have captured audiences attention quite as much in the less fondly remembered National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1, but I re-watched that movie recently and will freely admit to having a soft spot for it. It's a darn sight better than Men at Work.

Emilio Estevez has improved dramatically as a director, and his 2006 biopic Bobby is an interested drama, if not also a little worthy. I've always considered Charlie Sheen's best work to be on television; perhaps not in his long running sitcom Two and a Half Men, but his stint on Spin City certainly provided some laughs. It's interesting that in both of his sitcom successes Sheen played a character called Charlie, and perhaps you can view his work there as paralleling where Sheen was in his life. Two and a Half Men may have managed a good 8 years on the top, and maybe it'll have some more if Charlie can sort out his well documented demons.

I'd definitely rather see him there than back on the big screen. Just in case I've not made it abundantly clear, I am not a fan of Men at Work and think it's just one of those films that's been clouded with nostalgia over the years. Frankly, if the Estevez brothers were 12 year olds making films in their backyard with their father's video camera, you'd expect to see better results than this. It's basically Weekend at Bernies meets Stakeout, but only 1% as good as that sounds.

Save from obscurity? NO

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