Prime in the Dustbin: ‘Funland’ (1987)

The difficulty in describing a movie like 1987’s Funland lies in the fact that I don’t know your boxes. That is to say, I don’t have a working understanding of all the things that make you excited about watching a particular film. Let’s say you really enjoy the music of Hans Zimmer. You notice Zimmer has composed the score for a movie, so you check it out based on that information. For you, Hans Zimmer is a box. You watch the flick, you hear the soundtrack, you check off the box on your mental punchlist. It’s all part of a decision-making process, one we may not be cognizant of as it’s happening, but we usually don’t see a movie unless it ticks our boxes.

So, when I tell you that Funland boasts David L. Lander as a deranged clown, does that tick a box for you? Are you instantly intrigued? What about Bruce Mahler in an excellent dramatic turn? Do you like that? How about Jan Hooks in the same film with William Windom? Got your nose open yet?

Okay. Maybe not. Hold on. Let me give you some more boxes.

Funland takes place in an amusement park gearing up for another season of thrills and whatever else one gets at theme parks. Botulism, maybe? We bear witness to all sorts of teenagers applying for jobs at Funland, with such exciting positions as lard courier, scum scraper, sanitary napkin clog monitor, and member of the customer regurgitation brigade.

I’m not even kidding about that. Those are actual jokes from the movie. See, Funland wants to trick the viewer into believing that it is some kind of cheap, raunchy, teenage sex comedy. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s almost as if the film is afraid to stand on its own merits, to show its audience what it really is. Think about your first internet dating profile, where you couldn’t help but embellish your romantic resumé with a few little white lies. Tricky, but once the date has begun, you might as well ride it through until the end. No one enjoys being fibbed to, but if you like movies that offer more than what their marketing implies, Funland has you covered.

Next box: crazy clown, and I don’t mean in some kind of grimy Eli Roth sort of way. David Lander (best known as Squiggy from the television show, Laverne & Shirley, and founding member of Lenny & the Squigtones) plays Neil Stickney, who plays Bruce Burger, a Ronald McDonald knock-off who represents not only Funland, but a chain of fast food joints that serve pizza burgers. He’s embraced the life of a burger shiller, but he wears a costume that looks like a slice of pepperoni pizza. He’s also just one of many Bruce Burgers across the country, the equivalent of a mall Santa. Is it any wonder Bruce is beginning to dissociate, not acknowledging his real identity, and having most of his conversations with his hand-puppet sidekick, Peter Pepperoni? Burger is an interesting character, and Lander refuses to turn him into a caricature. You feel badly for him as his world slowly falls apart, even though it happens through comical means. A complex character trapped in an absurd situation that slowly turns into an existential nightmare? Sign me up and tick that box.

The rest of the casting seems absolutely mad, but in the best possible way. Bruce Mahler, perhaps more recognizable to genre fans as Axel from Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter than for his exquisite comedy work on Fridays, plays it straight as Mike, one of Neil/Bruce’s only friends on the park’s board of directors. With an expressive Matthau-esque face, it would have been easy for Mahler to mug his way through scenes, but the scenery around him remains unchewed. Venerable character actor William Windom also appears as a dead guy. Jan Hooks has a small but funny role as the front office receptionist. Her deadpan delivery allows her to have some memorable lines.

But the casting gets weirder. Robert Sacchi has a large supporting role. He was a Humphrey Bogart impersonator who Bogied it up so well, he got his own movie! The former Mrs. Donald Trump, Marla Maples, has a small role as “Mother.” Pretty self-explanatory, that. There’s also a great turn by soap opera actor Lane Davies as the national Bruce Burger, the Squire Fridell to Neil Stickney. Davies infuses his bits with a Shatnerian arrogance, overdramatizing every little thing. It’s kind of brilliant.

You like interesting performers in unconventional roles, right? Well, there you go. Another box ticked.

Things aren’t all peachy in Funland. Some subplots go nowhere, and characters disappear for long stretches of time. They’re annoying characters, so maybe that’s okay, but the absences are noticeable. Funland is also not a high-budget movie, and it shows. If you need your movies to be slickly produced entertainment machines that smell like Joel Silver’s musk, that’s one box likely to remain unticked. There are also scenes involving racist humor, which while not permeating the entire film, needs to be mentioned. That’s probably not your thing. It’s not mine, either.

And yet, even with all the elements working against it, I need to recommend Funland. It is dark (check), absurdist (check), is nowhere close to being the horror movie the poster makes it out to be (check), and skewers corporate culture and commercialism with weirdness and wit (double check). There are a lot of elements that have gone unmentioned in this article, because Funland is really best gone into as blind as possible (check). The less you know, the better.

In this column, I’m usually telling people to stay away from certain movies if they value their sanity. It’s refreshing to tell you that I really enjoyed Funland and don’t feel the need to shred it into tiny bits for your amusement. In fact, it may be one of the best discoveries I’ve made in the Gorge of Eternal Peril that is Prime Video.

Give it a shot, yeah? And if it doesn’t tick all your boxes, I’m sure you can find a decent movie with a Hans Zimmer soundtrack somewhere.

Funland is available on Prime Video, and you can cut straight to the front of the line.

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