Dirty Work (1998) – A Review

Dirty Work Norm MacDonald Artie Lange comedy
Artie Lange and Norm MacDonald in Dirty Work

There was a time when Norm MacDonald was one of the most popular members of the Saturday Night Live cast. Him anchoring Weekend Update with his dry delivery and deadpan jokes were one of my favorite parts on the show during that period.

When he would appear in actual skits his lack of acting ability was sorely noticeable, but it really didn’t matter. No matter who he was meant to be playing he would essentially be Norm. The best and most popular impression he had on tap was his Bob Dole, but I always preferred his Burt Reynolds, but even that was more of a goofy caricature of Burt being done by Norm.

It seemed like Norm would inevitably try to branch out into the movies like so many SNL alumni had done. And he did. Soon after getting fired from SNL in 1998 his headlining role in Dirty Work arrived.

Artie Lange Norm MacDonald Jack Warden Dirty WorkMacDonald is Mitch Weaver and Artie Lange is his buddy Sam, a pair of losers who are forced to come up with $50,000 to pay for a heart transplant for Sam’s tough-as-nails father Pops (Jack Warden). With absolutely no skills and no hope of making any money the guys finally find their calling by opening a revenge for hire business.

Dirty Work Inc. opens and the guys come up with creative, nasty schemes to help their customers get retribution from the tormentors in their lives. Things start to look up, with Mitch even meeting the cute Kathy (Traylor Howard) who he immediately falls for.

Then a big job comes their way that will allow them to earn all the money they need. Shifty property developer Travis Cole (Christopher McDonald) asks them to destroy one of his buildings bad enough that it will have to be condemned. No problem! Unfortunately, after the guys do it they learn Cole wasn’t the owner of the building. They were duped and now Kathy’s poor sweet Grandma has nowhere to live!

Now it’s time for Mitch to set his revenge sights on Cole and try to make everything right again. And what a coincidence, Cole is having a big fancy grand re-opening of an opera house. Maybe that will ignite some devious ideas in Mitch’s head.

Directed by Bob Saget (that might sound somewhat surprising for those who only know him as the squeaky clean performer from Full House and America’s Funniest Videos, but if you’ve ever seen his stand-up Saget participating in such a low-brow movie won’t be as shocking).

Dirty Work is very amateurish. It’s extremely cheap looking. The gags range from vulgar, to sexist to completely tasteless. Some are so telegraphed from the get-go it would have been more subtle if a warning sign flashed across the screen telling the audience that a joke was being set up.

And the punchlines to some of those jokes are drawn out for what seems like minutes sometimes. The acting is almost nonexistent by most of the cast, especially by the leading man! Some of the physical comedy is clearly stuntmen hiding their faces. And on top of all that some of the worst CGI skunks you could ever imagine show up.

So why do I still like this movie?

Norm MacDonald Traylor Howard Dirty Work
Every movie needs romance – so Norm had to do it too

I always enjoyed Norm’s humor. Even way back before he landed his SNL gig, I just thought his stand-up was bizarre and funny. That monotone way he would deliver a joke and keep rambling non sequiturs. He always came across as a guy who didn’t seem to care whether he was making everyone laugh or not. There’s this indifference and lack of enthusiasm he has.

Even while watching Dirty Work – his big-screen debut – I can imagine them stopping a scene, telling everyone the studio pulled the plug on the movie and envisioning Norm just shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Ok”.

So we have that unique brand of Norm humor running throughout the movie (not surprisingly since MacDonald co-wrote the script). He even manages to incorporate his ‘Note To Self’ signature bit of taping non-useful freaky reminders and ideas into a tape recorder.

If you’re not a fan of Norm than you are not going to be laughing at any of this. It’s as simple as that. I can easily see how someone might react to this movie and say it is one of the worst movies they had ever seen.

Norm MacDonald Sean Connery Dirty Work comedy
Mitch and his secret love for Sean Connery

Perhaps his brand of comedy works better in a five-minute weekend update bit for most people and it’s just too much to handle for ninety minutes. I can understand that. Although for me I would much rather spend time watching a feature film with Norm than Adam Sandler. I think Dirty Work is much funnier than the majority of Sandler crap comedies that audiences have had to endure for what seems like an eternity.

The jokes and humor are completely, without a doubt tasteless, but I still can’t help but laugh at them. Prison rape, incest, repressed homosexuality and the use of the word “whore”. The movie doesn’t pull any punches and isn’t worried about offending anyone. I have to admire that. It actually takes some pride in its vulgarity.

In fact the movie was toned down by the studio for a PG-13 rating. Around this time the stigma of releasing an ‘R’ rated film started becoming a no-no and the philosophy of wanting to reach as wide an audience as possible with a friendlier PG-13 rating really started to catch on.

So unbelievably MGM forced them to cut things out to make it a bit softer and land that PG-13 rating. It was a huge mistake. Not only did they try to neuter a clearly R rated film – Dirty Work seemed designed as a no-holds barred R-rated comedy – that PG-13 rating didn’t help it at the box office anyway. They should have just allowed Norm and the gang to just cut loose.

I was always curious to see the rumored scene of a naked Norm and Artie delivering doughnuts hanging around their genitals. Just that idea sounds like it’s one of those over-the-top, memorable lewd gags we used to see in raunchy comedies in the ’80’s. It’s clearly not a PG-13 idea.

Unfortunately Dirty Work has never gotten a special deluxe edition treatment of any kind – surprising huh – so I have never seen if this particular joke worked or not.

Don Rickles Norm MacDonald Artie Lange Dirty Work
Rickles readies some insults

It sounded like MGM really were really fiddling with this flick and just wouldn’t leave it alone and just let it be what it was intended – good or bad.

The film is peppered with popular 90’s songs. I guess it was because the studio were looking to sell a soundtrack album. That’s what it seems like watching it now. Although The Pina Colada Song pops up as a funny punchline involving Chris Farley, a bar fight and a jukebox.

The movie never for a moment takes itself seriously or ever tries to keep a straight face with its story. Even when a scene looks like it’s headed for a sweet genuine moment it’s punctured by some obscene crowning capper. Even the romance between Mitch and Kathy feels like its only here because people expected there should be a ‘girl’ in the movie. You won’t find any tacked on sentimentality or an uplifting message at the end of this. Nope. It just wants to go for laughs.

The movie is made up of a patchwork of scenes and gags. The guys try to get jobs, the guys hatch revenge schemes and dirty pranks, the guys get a big final revenge on the big bad guy.  There’s not much else to it. There’s some pauses here and there for random bits of fun as some of the actors enjoy some over-the-top profane scenes (notably Warden of all people), but the story doesn’t complicate itself and simply exists for MacDonald to exercise his brand of comedy.

There are tons of cameos – Gary Coleman, David Koechner, Rebecca Romijn, John Goodman, Sandler and Farley in his last movie appearance and of course Chevy Chase as the gambling addicted heart surgeon. It’s Don Rickles as a pain in the ass movie theater owner who really steals the spotlight for his brief time on-screen tossing off some classic insults at Norm and Artie.

Dirty Work army of prostitues whores Norm MacDonald
Mitch and his loyal army of prostitutes

It is an awfully strange movie. I’m not even sure where it’s supposed to be set. It seems like some kind of warped fantasy city where within a few miles there’s drug gangs, opera houses, circuses, frat houses, hookers, dive bars, with endless long quiet suburban streets and everyone walking around wearing brightly-colored, ugly-looking clothing. Why do I notice that in this movie???

Right out of the gate Dirty Work bombed. And it’s too bad because I always liked it. Rewatching it I still got a kick out of many of the jokes and scenes. The planting fish scene is still a hoot!

It’s certainly not for everyone, but it doesn’t try to be. Norm fans and the niche audience its designed for should be quite happy with it. The cold reception it got showed that mainstream audiences weren’t going to warm up to MacDonald in theatrical comedies and he wouldn’t be enjoying a career in the A-List echelon of comedy stars.

Norm MacDonald Artie Lange Dirty Work 1998

I always found it so ironic his SNL co-star and pal Sandler would carve out a successful career in movies, that despite being regarded by some as being some of the worst, unfunniest movies ever made is still churning them out twenty years later.

I’ll never understand how Sandler caught on and not MacDonald. What exactly is the allure over one and not the other? I can see how Norm is much more stiff onscreen and playing likable characters audiences could connect with wasn’t his strong suit. Maybe his brand of comedy is too strange and off-putting for most people.

But I always thought he was much funnier and talented than Sandler ever was. I guess the majority of audiences prefer to watch a man-child talking baby talk rather than a smug guy making jokes about crack whores.

Despite a few more attempts to headline some more flicks Norm just never caught on with mainstream audiences. Since then he’s done quick come-and-go television shows, a lot of voice work and cameos in other comedies, but his movie career appeared to end with his first attempt. Not that I think he cared too much anyway.

Dirty Work would become one of those small forgotten relics to most moviegoers who might stumble onto it late at night on cable. And for those who get into the spirit of it its become a fun cult film.

It would have been much more fun had it been an R-rated cult film though.


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1 Response

  1. CKulik says:

    It's weird: I never saw Norm on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE; in fact the only movie roles I ever recall seeing him in were written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karazewski, who did THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, which I think is a masterpiece. If you remember, Norm basically reacted to everything Flynt was saying when he was describing infamous videotape of the Feds selling John Delorean 50 kilos of crack cocaine: "See, here's my favorite part: they can't get the suitcase closed…there's a lot of cocaine in this motherfucker." Norm just says, "Amazing!" Then they directed a film with Norm as the star called SCREWED which they promoted on the Larry Flynt commentary but I never saw it. Granted, never really watched SNL so I can't say I'm very familiar with Norm, but I despise Bob Saget, explaining why I never saw DIRTY WORK even if it has its moments of humor. Good review!

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