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Moving Violations
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Nice Time-Killer of a Comedy"
4 stars

While it bombed at the box office, it's earned a bit of respect over the years on home video.

While not as uproarious as his excellent Tom Hanks star vehicle Bachelor Party, director/co-writer Neil Israel's Moving Violations is one of those undemanding comedies that, despite a few speed bumps, manages to put a smile on your face a fair amount of the time. It's lacking in the inspiration and rip-roaring zaniness that Robert Zemeckis's masterpiece Used Cars had in spades, but it plays out way better than expected for a motion picture that uses traffic school as a comedic premise. What we have here is an array of misfits in the Houston area who belong behind the wheels of cars as much as a Republican manning the front desk at a Planned Parenthood clinic. With their vehicles impounded and licenses suspended, they're made to sit through enough boring classroom lectures that would put even the quintessential nerd to sleep; and when they're not taking tests and watching gory better-seatbelt-up movies, they're out on the city streets with a martinet of an instructor who seems to have his nightstick permanently lodged up his butt. Not very promising, no? Yet some of the characters have some color and charm, led by John Murray, brother of Bill, who doesn't have his sibling's timing and control but exudes enough good-natured goofiness to make us yield to him throughout. His tree-nursery-owner Dana Cannon is a screw-up and smartass, and goes up against dastardly instructor Deputy Halick, played by James Keach with the energetic bravado akin to Ron Liebman's show-stopping turn as a similar martinet character in Up the Academy -- he can do slow burns with the very best of them. They match up well together, with Murray's underplaying and Keach's overplaying perfectly meshing and resulting in some indelible give-and-take. There's also the love interest, of course, and the way the ultra-high-voiced, busty Jennifer Tilly plays her, she's the ultimate contradictory-concoction: a truly spacey vixen who just happens to be a rocket scientist at NASA. (Yes, there's the unavoidable "She's certainly not a rocket scientist" quip. If you want subtlety, go elsewhere, moviegoers.) Not all of the supporting characters are scream-a-minutes, mind you. There's a horror-movie aficionado who can't keep asking women if they've seen the latest Friday the 13th installment, and not so much as a smile gets elicited; the same goes for a shy children's puppet-show employee who falls under the lustful spell of an underage punk teen that never takes off. (It also doesn't help that Todd Graff and Brian Backer, who play them, are winsome actors.) But bringing in assists are a game Sally Kellerman as a corrupt, take-no-guff judge who's got the unbridled hots for Halick, much to the chagrin of his buzz-cut female partner; and the incomparable Nedra Volz as an elderly woman whose eyesight is so hopelessly myopic she would have made the perfect wife for Mr. Magoo.

If there's anything resembling an actual plot, it's that of the judge and Halick scheming to intentionally flunk the students so they can make a small bundle by selling their confiscated cars at an auction and secretly pocketing the funds for themselves. But, as you can probably surmise by now, it's purely incidental -- it's just there to give the screenplay, co-written by Pat Proft of the Naked Gun series, an element of conflict. For the most part, the moviemakers are perfectly content in treating the proceedings more as a series of vignettes than as an organic whole; it's not a sustained hilarious vision like Bachelor Party, but it doesn't dawdle. Israel may not have an admirable grasp of cinematic language, and yet he gives the scenes that are workable some semi-flair: he milks them with a patience of someone who knows there's humor to be found, and does his best not to be uncouth in bringing it out. Right when we think poor Ms. Houk can't get any funnier, there she is stopping her student-packed car on a train track with a locomotive coming in her direction; oblivious to her surroundings and the warning whistle of the train, she remarks, "I hear bells." And when she's sent through a bedroom window to get an incriminating document that will hang the villains, while they're greedily fornicating on the bed, she stumbles on top of them and is as ignorant to what they're doing as they are to her presence. An arm-wrestling confrontation between Dana and Halick has a visual punch line that's dandy; and Dana's mocking Halick during a driving session while whining, "Daaaaad, are we there yet? I'm hungry!" had me in stitches. It's neat that the more Halick tries to bring Dana down, Dana, knowing how to work an angle, slyly fixes it so it's Halick's superior officer is the unintentional target of Halick's destructive actions. (Halick's like a Wile E. Coyote who'll never get wise.) After a while, you can't help but root for the heroes; and if you're willing to overlook some dud scenes, like a woman mistaking a car doctor for a medical doctor and lubing her orifices rather than her car, and guzzling cooking oil rather than putting motor oil in her car, you can't help but root for the movie. Israel's not above throwing in something bombastically silly just for the hell of it, so even though a bowling ball ejecting out of a hatchback and landing in the crotch of an old man sitting on a park bench right after he says to a nearby child, "Come sit on grandpa's lap" may not seem like a laugh riot, you'd be hard-pressed (and perhaps a bit priggish) not to laugh at it. And, gosh forbid, the movie actually has some not-bad cinematography, giving as unexciting a locale as Houston some vitality. (Bachelor Party had good lighting, too.) Moving Violations isn't out to achieve world peace or redefine its genre, and it's refreshing that it asks only to be judged by face value. It's not revelatory, but you can happily revel in it without feeling guilty in the morning.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is well worth owning, with a very nice video transfer and an informative audio commentary, with the director revealing that his first choice for the lead role was Michael J. Fox.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23007&reviewer=327
originally posted: 09/03/11 10:20:53
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  19-Apr-1985 (PG-13)
  DVD: 12-Aug-2005



Directed by
  Neal Israel

Written by
  Neal Israel
  Pat Proft

  John Murray
  James Keach
  Jennifer Tilly
  Sally Kellerman
  Todd Graff

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