AAM at the Movies: A Look Back at “Tommy Boy”

By Matthew McMullan
Oct 18 2023 |
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Is it a buddy comedy about manufacturing? Or the dignity of a steady job? Or both? Yes, yes and yes.

I bet, over the years, that I’ve watched the buddy comedy “Tommy Boy” starring Chris Farley and David Spade around 30 times.

I think that’s a lot, but the timing lines up for me. It came out in 1995, when I was in junior high school. My friends and I, who were consuming a steady diet of The Simpsons and Late Night with Conan O’Brien at the time, thought Chris Farley was the funniest person alive. And so this movie was often on or caught on television. Watching it again all these years later I found myself knowing all the jokes and comic beats in it. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Or maybe it’s still a good one; a movie on which you’d linger if you were channel surfing, back when people used to do that kind of thing.

But is “Tommy Boy” a work of art? Should it have been feted by the Academy? It’s a little formulaic and a little sophomoric – it’s got Fat Guy In a Little Coat in it – so probably not. And yet, in retrospect, it’s also not just a cookie-cutter comedy from the mid-’90s. Chris Farley was his generation’s John Belushi; a hugely influential comedic actor and barrel of energy. And, because his life was tragically short, the movie almost by default is Farley’s best work apart from his Saturday Night Live oeuvre.

And it’s a movie about manufacturing, to boot!  

Hear me out.

Or rather, it’s a movie set around a factory. And how many such movies are there? “Gung Ho” came out in the mid-eighties and is about a takeover of an American car factory by a Japanese corporation and the resulting clash of work cultures. “Norma Rae” has a factory setting, but is ultimately about union organizing. “Blue Collar” is about union corruption. “Roger & Me” is Michael Moore’s comedy-laced documentary of the fallout from GM layoffs at its auto plants in Flint, Michigan.

Those are all movies with a point to make, and some are better than others. “Tommy Boy,” on the other hand, was a contemporary comedy about the coddled scion of Midwestern industrialists who must save the family business, and it doesn’t explore the context that its setting and story implies very thoroughly. But while it doesn’t deeply examine the challenges facing American manufacturing and its workers at the time, no one was asking that from a 90-minute vehicle starring SNL alumni. We were there for the laughs!

And yet, nearly 30 years later, it offers a glimpse onto how Americans at the time thought about the manufacturing sector.

Spoiler alert! Spoilers ahead!

Farley stars as Tommy, only son of Big Tom Callahan, the owner of a Sandusky, Ohio auto parts plant, who returns home after nearly a decade at college to take an office job with his family company. He’s immature and incompetent, but goodhearted and well-liked by most of the workers on the floor.

Since he’s been away his widower dad (Brian Dennehy) has proposed to a pretty lady (Bo Derek) he met at a fat camp, but dad drops dead of a heart attack at their wedding reception, and the factory’s future is threatened when the local bank reneges on a promised loan to cover a new brake pad production line.

Without the steady presence of Tommy’s dad around, the bank doesn’t want to back the company’s big bet and his shady mother-in-law is looking to cash out. So Tommy puts up his company shares and the house his dad left him as collateral, and hits the road with his dad’s cynical assistant Richard, played by straight man Spade, in Richard’s well-kept 1967 Plymouth Satellite to make some brake pad sales. The car is slowly destroyed over the remaining course of the movie, lots of dumb jokes are made, and there’s plenty of physical Farley humor.

“Made by the American working man, for the American working man.”

“Tommy Boy” then becomes a road movie, but there are hints throughout at the deeper context in which its story is set. On his return from college, for example, Tommy is concerned to see that other local factories have closed down. That’s a nod to the trouble to come, but also to the de-industrialization that had settled over the Midwest and given rise to the “Rust Belt” term. The bankers withholding the loan are personally sympathetic, but their fiduciary responsibilities aren’t, and the financial pressure helps drive the plot. Meanwhile the Callahans themselves – Big Tom and ultimately Tommy – are depicted as deeply benevolent bosses who are beset by con artists and rivals unconcerned with what the Callahan factory’s survival means to their northern Ohio town.

This is about as far as it goes, but determining the fate of the factory is still the movie’s climax, and Tommy prevails. He straps a fake bomb to his chest and storms the office where his mother-in-law and the bank are finalizing a deal to sell the company to auto parts magnate Ray Zelinski (Dan Aykroyd), who wants it solely for its valuable brand name. Tommy secures from him on live TV a huge purchase order for brake pads “made by the American working man, for the American working man.” The cameras leave, and his mother-in-law is revealed to be a grifter who is actually married to her purported son (Rob Lowe). That’s bigamy! Her marriage to Big Tom was illegal! So her stake in the company reverts to Tommy, who cancels the scheme to sell. The factory is saved.

The movie then wraps with Tommy, now president of Callahan Auto with the bank’s backing, addressing the assembled factory workers, who saw what he did to secure the company. He promises he’ll work hard to ensure that everyone will always have a job “right here at Callahan,” and receives a roar of applause.

Who could have seen all the (real) job loss coming?

It’s a nice, tidy, and appropriately happy ending, but it belies the movie’s most pointed moment, which comes just before in a series of throwaway jokes while Tommy comes into his own as a salesman and saves the company. As mentioned before, he does it in front of a television camera, and while Tommy makes his on-air pitch – during which he invokes the plight of Callahan’s employees – the movie cuts to characters that he and Richard met during their sales trip. They are now watching him on the afternoon news.

A store owner who received one of their sales pitches sit in front of the television with his wife, who says, “honey, look at this human bomb on the news.” He stirs on the couch and says, “I buy brake pads off him. I thought we were watching cartoons?” And switches to Looney Tunes.

A waitress at a diner they had visited flips through the channels and stops on Tommy, passionately making the case for his company and hometown. To the working stiffs sitting around a lunch table, she asks, “do you guys want this or ‘American Gladiators?’”

“Gladiators,” the room says disinterestedly. Because nobody cares.

Look, first and foremost these are jokes, funny little moments in a comedy movie. Secondly, American Gladiators ruled. But take this scene at face value: There’s a guy on live TV threatening to detonate a bomb unless his factory and the jobs it represents are saved. And the viewing public just kinda shrugs at it.  

Do you guys want this or "American Gladiators"?

They had no idea what was coming. In the mid-’90s an era of steady manufacturing employment had ended, and it was not yet widely noticed. The U.S. had just signed NAFTA, which ultimately cost Ohio tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs. Once proud industrial cities along the Great Lakes were depopulating, and the national economy’s turn away from these places was encouraged by political leaders enamored with markets and convinced that big tech would fill the economic void left by offshored industry.

It didn’t, and things like NAFTA became early, significant dominoes whose fall helped create a national political earthquake in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump, who won in communities like the one depicted in “Tommy Boy” by promising to bring all the jobs back.

Tommy fakes a bomb threat to save an American manufacturing company, his in-film audience is disinterested, and the fact that this joke works reveals how little the American public appreciated how politically potent de-industrialization was. We’re talking about livelihoods on the line here. And people will make heated, irrational decisions about them.

Maybe it’s a stretch, but it’s the scene that jumped out at me during my latest viewing.

“Tommy Boy” is a manufacturing movie, that places heavy weight on the importance of jobs and community. So maybe it’s a jobs movie? Or a road movie, or a buddy comedy. And it’s really not asking you to think too hard while enjoying it. Whatever it is: It’s funny, and can be streamed at Hulu and Max.