This one is deliciously high concept--What if famed explorers Louis and Clark were plagued with a band of ridiculous, incompetent, bumbling ignoramus rivals?
Leslie Edwards (Matthew Perry) is the organizer of the alternate expedition, and seems the brightest of the bunch. At least until you realize that he thinks good choices for his team include Bartholomew Hunt (Chris Farley) as their wilderness-hardened guide with experience and Guy Fontenot (Eugene Levy) as the team's translator. Hunt is basically Farley playing himself, which is both hilariously funny and profoundly tragic at the same time, and Fontenot makes it clear that he doesn't know much about other languages. At first we give Edwards kudos for deselecting him, but when Fontenot lets it be known that he'll only join the expedition if his hot Indian woman (she's not a spouse or girlfriend to him, but property), Shaquinna (Lisa Barbuscia), can also come along, Edwards figures that they probably won't need a translator's services that badly anyway, so brings him on the journey.
Levy is great at playing an attractive dunderhead. But we already knew that. That's what he's been doing since his early days on "Second City TV" (SCTV) (1976). What's more surprising is that Perry can so effectively come across as a sophisticated halfwit. Perry's performance is so dryly funny that during his scenes it can be easy to mistake Almost Heroes for a much more serious endeavor than the Mel Brooks-styled farce that it is. Farley has no such subtle complexities in his performance, but he's none the worse for that. He just acts natural, aside from feigning idiocy, as an extremely self-indulgent, substance-abusing boor. That may not sound funny, but in the context of the film, it is--Farley was as good at this stuff as was his idol, John Belushi. It's only made tragic by the knowledge that similar behavior off-camera led to his premature death shortly after making this film. The rest of the cast tends to be just as funny, if a bit underused. For that matter, though, even Levy is a bit underused.
What brought my score for Almost Heroes down slightly was the fact that it may be a bit too episodic. The episodes are all like very good to excellent skits on "Saturday Night Live" (1975) or SCTV, but they didn't necessarily flow together as a film. Taken separately, many of the skits are worthy of a 10--the IMDb message boards are full of threads with viewers citing their favorite moments. Reading through those after watching the film, just thinking about many of them again made me laugh out loud. But as a whole, Almost Heroes seems a bit underdeveloped from what it might have been. This may not be Christopher Guest's best work as a director, but it's worth watching and definitely deserves a DVD release.