The Best Movie You Never Saw: Kingpin (1996)

Last Updated on April 28, 2023

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at KINGPIN (1996)!

THE STORY: A shady, washed-up bowling prodigy (Woody Harrelson) strikes gold when he finds a naïve Amish player (Randy Quaid) he hopes to exploit for profit. The two hit the road with a gangster’s moll (Vanessa Angel) in hopes of striking it rich at a $1 million winner-take-all tournament in Reno.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Vanessa Angel and Bill Murray. Directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly.

“The one thing that kept us going was on that Sunday morning, Siskel and Ebert came on and they gave that movie the best review of any movie, ever. And I mean to the point where they looked into the camera and said, ‘Okay, guys, we’re talkin’ to the filmmakers now: thank you. Because you have no idea how many times we go to these comedies and never laugh. And here we just howled and we’re grateful. Thank you for giving us this movie.’ And I’m telling you the truth, that thing, that review, I held onto that review for the next six months. It was like, ‘Okay, maybe I’m not a hundred percent wrong.” – Peter Farrelly – Kingpin Oral History – Fast Company

kingpin vanessa angel randy quaid

THE HISTORY: In the mid-nineties, Peter and Bobby Farrelly were riding high off the success of Dumb & Dumber. Although having been released at the peak of Jim Carrey’s first wave of stardom, there was the thought that it might have been a fluke. Thus, for their follow-up, Kingpin, the Farrelly brothers opted for more unconventional comedy casting. In the lead, the cast Woody Harrelson who, despite being no stranger to comedy after a long run on “Cheers”, at the time was coming off of a starring role in Natural Born Killers, and not the guy you’d choose to lead a PG-13 studio comedy. Ditto Randy Quaid, who was a last-minute replacement for a more conventional choice, Chris Farley.

Despite good reviews and excellent test screening results, Kingpin landed with a thud when it opened at the box office in the summer of 1996, a victim perhaps of ill timing as it came out the same weekend the Atlanta Olympics bombing happened. It grossed a tepid $25 million domestically and did negligible business overseas, only to eventually turn a profit when it became a cult hit on home video.

kingpin woody harrelson randy quaid

WHY IT’S GREAT: Kingpin is one of my favorite comedies. I sometimes get a bit of a reputation on this site about hating comedies, as I tend to torpedo many of them in my reviews, but that’s not true at all. I just hate unfunny comedies, and too often, filmmakers and performers mistake being loud or lewd for being funny. In their heyday, the Farrelly’s were funny as hell, and this might be their best work.

Of course, many of you will think I’m nuts for including it in this column, as it’s built up a solid cult following over the years amongst those in the know. However, I still think it’s under-appreciated, with people always talking about Dumb & Dumber or There’s Something About Mary when it comes to the Farrelly’s. Kingpin, in my opinion, is better than both. Kingpin is proof positive you can have a PG-13 and still be hilarious. You just need to be a little more clever in what you show and don’t show.

kingpin bill murray

Woody Harrelson is hilarious in the lead, going full tilt into a scuzzy comic performance that I don’t think a bigger name like Jim Carrey would have been able to pull off. A more established comedian would have gone for pathos. Instead, Harrelson goes for impishness, and you wonder why he’s so rarely cast in legit comedy roles. Randy Quaid- God Bless Him- is great as his simple, innocent Amish sidekick. Given Quaid’s public meltdown some years later, it’s tempting to forget how versatile he was, but consider this – in the same year he did Kingpin he stole the show in ID4, did three TV movies, and found time to do a cameo in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus. In his day, he was legitimately great. And, of course, there’s the delectable Vanessa Angel, who I must admit, was the reason fourteen-year-old Chris rushed out to see this. At the time, she was at the peak of her Maxim Magazine – oh my God, she’s hot- fame with TV’s “Weird Science.” It’s too bad this wasn’t a bigger hit as she’s not only quite funny, but she gives what could have been a two-dimensional “hot chick” part some real gravitas and sympathy.

“Randy called and the next day he said ‘Yeah, he said he’d do it.’ We were like, ‘Really? So what do we do next, Randy?’ He goes, ‘Oh, I told him when to show up.’ And then we were three weeks into production by the time Bill came along. So we had this fear that he wouldn’t show up but sure enough, seven o’clock on the day he was supposed to arrive, we were shooting that night, he suddenly just comes walking in. There you go.” – Peter Farrelly – Kingpin Oral History – Fast Company

Notably, the film also sports a supporting role from Bill Murray, which was unusual at the time because back then he was still fronting studio comedies. His participation had a lot to do with Randy Quaid, and most of the dialogue is just him riffing. He’s hilarious as Roy’s adversary, sporting a memorable comb-over (none of the guys fare well in the hair department here), and Murray, for his part, looks like he’s having a blast playing a scumbag.

PARTING SHOT: Ok, so maybe Kingpin isn’t obscure, but I do definitely think it’s under-seen and under-appreciated. It’s a legit comedy classic that holds up probably better than any of the other Farrelly Bros films and one that can be watched over and over. It’s the best!


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.