The Canadian film industry has a long and storied history, with an extensive catalog of fine dramas, documentaries, and artistic projects that required artistic courage and conviction to pursue. But none of that matters because the absolute pinnacle of Canadian Film is Strange Brew, and everyone knows it, eh? Featuring Bob and Doug McKenzie, two of SCTV’s most endearing (or enduring) Canadian stereotypes, this movie exemplifies how well sketch comedy can translate from television to the movies.
The story centers on Bob and Doug McKenzie, two Canadian slackers who do little other than bumble about Ontario, drink every possible brand of Canadian beer on the market and run their public access TV show, Great White North. On their show, they comment on whatever they deem important enough to discuss in between cracking open cold ones and offering up quotable catchphrases in the thickest Canadian accents anyone has ever heard. Somehow, these two idiots manage to parlay that into making their own post-apocalypse movie, but after the unhappy audience riots on opening day, the two slink back to their house, where their perpetually thirsty father demands they go on a beer run for him. Bickering along the way as only brothers can do, the pair try to score some free cases from a local distributor, and are told to take it up with the manufacturer, Elsinore Brewery. As they do, they somehow find themselves with jobs on the bottling line, where they discover a sinister plot that involves the company’s evil Brewmeister, the lovely young heiress who owns the brewery, and an ex-pro ice hockey player recovering from a nervous breakdown. Pretty soon, things escalate into something involving mind-controlled hockey players, the Royal Canadian Institute for the Mentally Insane, ghosts speaking through the hereafter from old arcade games and possibly the most important Oktoberfest in the history of the world.
This is absurd comedy at its finest, and a perfect introduction to the weird world of the McKenzie Brothers for those who never had the pleasure of seeing them on SCTV, Canada’s answer to Saturday Night Live. There, viewers were treated to the ramblings to two working-class numbskulls griping about everyday minutiae over the course of a couple of beers, and as funny as it was, turning it into a feature-length story would prove easier said than done. Thankfully, co-creators Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas (who play Bob and Doug, respectively) manage to tap into what makes these characters work so well and parlay it into a feature-length sketch that never overstays its welcome, never runs dry, and never tries to be anything more than it ought to be. That isn’t easy, as any number of sketch comedy movies since have sadly proven.
Moranis and Thomas acknowledge that there really is no point in trying to build a caper big enough to involve the McKenzie brothers on their own for 90 minutes of sheer ridiculousness, so they crib Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the bones of their story. It’s no stretch for credibility, it’s just a story we all know already, and whatever gravitas it lends is rendered even more funny against the goofball Rosencrantz and Guilderstern that Bob and Doug turn out to be. Elsinore Brewery and a plot involving a murdered father all make a weird kind of sense through the McKenzie lens because we practically get Moranis and Thomas speaking to us through the fourth wall about it: We know there’s no story here, so let’s just watch Bob and Doug try to figure their way through somebody else’s story instead. Honestly, it’s the kind of admission of depth that you wish more sketch comedies-turned movie franchises would pick up. Movies of this sort don’t need to be deep or especially plot-driven. They just need to be funny, and since their humor is episodic, those short bursts of laughs have to be set in a format that allows for the strengths of the concept without admitting its weaknesses.
The other thing that makes this movie work is its willingness to go completely off the radar in terms of realism. There come certain points in Strange Brew where the plot goes places where the McKenzies really can’t follow, being the beer-sodden doofuses that they are. So, the movie doesn’t even bother trying. When it has to, it turns the show into a live-action cartoon, with the Brewmeister possessing the ability to crush a man’s skull with his bare hands, Hosehead the dog sprouting a Superman cape and flying through the air to prevent an Oktoberfest catastrophe, and Bob drinking the entire contents of a beer vat to keep from drowning in it, blowing up like a float at the Macy’s Day parade as a result. Not only that, but in the next scene, he returns to normal size by peeing on a massive fire, putting it out before the fire department can. It seems strange to cite such a bizarre scene as the movie’s moment of truth, but it sure is. And not just because it’s the point where the movie comes so close to going off the rails, either.
The movie goes about its absurd business without blinking, which proves that in storytelling, show business and in many other aspects of life, success often depends on a complete unwillingness to break character for even a moment. If we got a hint that Moranis and Thomas thought themselves that what they were doing was stupid—but how else are we gonna fill this movie?—it would not have worked. But it’s like these guys stayed in character while writing the movie, too, and as a result we get something only marginally less ridiculous than the post-apocalypse schlockfest that we see in Strange Brew’s opening minutes, only instead of dooming the movie, it makes its quirky engine purr like a kitten. Movies often fail for taking themselves too seriously, but Strange Brew realizes that sometimes, it pays to not take anything seriously at all.