Detective School Dropouts

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/30/08 14:41:51

"I was Yamagata!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Detective School Drop-Outs” is cheap, moronic, and embarrassing. Its direction is flat and uninspired, its production values questionable, its punchlines obvious. It is base and crude in every possible way. Its cheesy synth-rock musical score hits a new low in obnoxiousness. The supporting cast is lousy. The editing is worse. From top to bottom, it is a horrible movie - and yet, somehow, it is also one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Go figure.

Written by and starring David Landsberg and Lorin Dreyfuss, “Drop-Outs” marked a rare venture into comedy for Golan-Globus, the production team responsible for a solid majority of the worst action movies of the 1980s. This would be the first of two films the duo would make for Golan-Globus and their distributor, Cannon Films (the second being the even more obscure “Dutch Treat”); both films went nowhere fast.

What “Drop-Outs” lacks in subtlety or, let’s face it, quality, it makes up for in raw, dopey laughs. It’s a collection of groaners, only in this case the groaners all come with great big smiles and hearty guffaws. If, as David St. Hubbins once suggested, there truly is a fine line between stupid and clever, “Drop-Outs” is that line.

Donald Wilson (Landsberg) is a bumbling nerd obsessed with detective novels. Intrigued by one of those ads promising to teach you how to be a gumshoe, he winds up in the office of Paul Miller (Dreyfuss), a con man who’d rather spray paint a poodle to collect quick reward money than actually take a case. Wilson sees Miller as the guy living out his dreams; Miller sees Wilson as an easy mark.

After some cheap gags involving Miller’s ever-dwindling bank account and Wilson’s ever-increasing gullibility, we’re tossed into the story proper: a feud between three Italian crime families has escalated as a wedding is planned, hoping to unite two clans. Ah, but the groom is instead in love with Caterina (Valeria Golino, in her first English-speaking role), the daughter from the third family. To keep the peace, Caterina has been kidnapped.

Our titular buffoons stumble upon all of this one day, and for their own reasons (Wilson out of nobility, Miller in hopes of a cash reward), the duo journey to Italy, where they hope to find the groom and save the day. Or something - “Drop-Outs” isn’t at all about plot, or even detecting. The whole thing exists as an excuse for a string of goofy chase sequences and goofier comedy set pieces, never mind the actual story.

And while it’s all far too broad for its own good, it gets away with it. Here is a film with a terrific knack for comedy, its laughs bursting through the cheapness at every turn. Credit for this goes squarely to Landsberg and Dreyfuss - director Fillippo Ottoni offers no help with his clumsy pacing and drab eye. His direction consists mainly of simply pointing the camera at his stars and hoping they’ll do something funny. Fortunately, they do. These clowns make a terrific comedy team, bouncing off each other’s rhythms with expert timing. It helps, of course, that they wrote their own material, owning their characters with no interference from the rest of the movie.

The screenplay often goes for lazy slapstick and weak visual gags, but there’s also a sly wit at play. Most of the best jokes come from Wilson’s geeky naïveté and Miller’s cowardly self-importance (“People are shooting at you,” Miller grumbles, “and they might miss you and hit me!”), or from moments of pure absurdity (one running gag gives our heroes Japanese aliases; the final pay-off, saved for scenes later, is quick but brilliant), and it’s clear that Dreyfuss and Landsberg have a head for solid humor.

Even when aiming for the lowbrow, the pair connects. The screenplay displays a sharp ear for dialogue-as-punchline, like in this silly exchange, in which Miller hopes to lure Wilson into a financial partnership:

Miller: “You were born to be a detective!”
Wilson: “I was?”
Miller: “You reek of detective!”
Wilson: “I reek?”

Obvious and moronic, to be certain, but it works, like a solid Three Stooges routine, kooky bits tossed in to hold things up between all the slapstick. I could see Larry and Moe settling down comfortably with this material, with its wide-eyed reaction shots and cartoonish violence (in addition to all the poking and punching and kicking, we also get running gags in which a hit man and a rude American tourist each continually meet violent fates).

The movie has a habit of taking things too far, as when cartoon sound effects are added to the soundtrack, or when the camera lingers a little too long on a humiliated local; whether these dim-witted asides are the fault of the screenplay or a director unable to handle comedy is not known. Yet even when the film overplays its jokes, the sheer energy of the shtick carries us through.

Indeed, it pours so much into every joke that even when the rest of the movie is busy being downright dreadful, we couldn’t care less. We’re too busy laughing.

As of this writing, “Drop-Outs” remains unreleased on DVD, and with its VHS release out of print for some two decades now, it’s become nearly impossible to find. Yes, but the hunt is worth it: somewhere in this lousy, stupid, cheap little movie is pure comedy gold.

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