Sidney Lumet’s 1975 tale of a bank robbery gone bad, Dog Day Afternoon, is not only considered to be a high point in the careers of both its director as well as its star, Al Pacino, it’s also considered to be one of the key films that was a part of the New Hollywood movement, which started in the late ’60s and continued through to the blockbusters of the 80s. New Hollywood was all about a generation of filmmakers making films that were artsier, grittier, and more experimental than most commercial fare, all from within the confines of the studio system. But while Dog Day Afternoon and its tale of cross-dressing and violent crimes certainly looks at home under that classification, is it really good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as stuff like Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, or Mean Streets?
The early ’90s saw one of the biggest boom periods in the history of sketch comedy mainstay Saturday Night Live. Cast members like Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Adam Sandler, and Chris Farley led the show to probably its most critically successful period since the original cast, and pretty much everyone on the show went on to become a star in film. Out of all of these talented comedians, however, none became quite as successful as Sandler. After starring in Billy Madison in 1995, he was off to the races, earning big paychecks, pulling in big box office dollars, and gobbling up media attention. Some of his early films from this period are considered to be defining comedies of the ’90s. But a movie he starred in just before this, Airheads, was hilarious, included a role for another SNL mainstay in Farley, and also included mainstream acting names like Brendan Fraser and Steve Buscemi. Why, then, does this film not get recognition alongside other comedies from ’90s SNL vets like Wayne’s World, Happy Gilmore, or Tommy Boy?
What do they have in common?
The similarities between these two movies should be instantly clear to anyone who’s seen them both. Though one is a tense drama and the other a ridiculous comedy, and one is about a bank robbery and the other about a takeover of a radio station, both Dog Day Afternoon and Airheads are stories about a couple of in-over-their-heads hostage-takers making stupid decisions and getting more than they bargained for. And they’re both movies about a public who is frustrated with the status quo, people who are more likely to side with the outlaws than the peacekeepers. There’s a rebel spirit brewing at the heart of these films, an indication that the little man is sick of getting in line, and that tensions are about to boil over. Also, they both work as eerie previews of exactly where our culture was heading in regards to fame obsession, reality TV, and trash news.
Why is Dog Day Afternoon overrated?
The biggest reason Dog Day Afternoon doesn’t hit as hard as its reputation says it does is because it’s such a light touch when it comes to building tension and turning the screws on the audience. Here we have a situation that’s a kettle about to boil over: a couple of desperate and dumb animals have been cornered by the authorities, a heat wave has everyone at the end of their endurance, and a crowd has formed that’s looking for any excuse to riot. This should be edge of your seat stuff, but everything is played really casually instead. Pacino’s character feels more like a dumb dog than a hungry wolf. His hostages see him as no threat whatsoever, going as far as to lecture him about what he’s doing wrong; and we even get the sort of nonsense where Carol King’s character’s husband calls her on the phone and asks her who’s going to cook him dinner if she’s been taken hostage. Why play a couple of guys with guns taking a roomful of women hostage for laughs if you’re not making a comedy?
What little tension the hostage situation is able to maintain gets derailed in the second act when Dog Day Afternoon goes off on tangents as well. This is a long movie that can’t decide whether it’s a crime caper or a character piece about Pacino’s Sonny, so right in the middle of negotiations with the police we take a break to learn about Sonny’s secret romance with a cross dresser, we sit through a long phone conversation with said cross dresser, we sit through a long phone conversation with his wife, we listen to him transcribe letters to both, and then we have about three more phone conversations between Sonny and the police where they’re essentially negotiating the same issues over and over again…it gets to the point where the film’s momentum is derailed completely. The hostages are forced to sit in this locked down bank, sweating, and we’re forced to sit there right alongside them. That could be seen as an effective bit of filmmaking – of putting you in the characters’ shoes and making you feel what they feel – but it also just gets pretty dang boring.
Why is Airheads underpraised?
Comparatively, Airheads has a much stronger idea of what kind of movie it is, and it’s able to focus more intently on the story that it’s telling. Here is a movie that takes the more ludicrous conceits of Dog Day Afternoon and accentuates them to the point of comedy. When a couple of metalheads break into their local rock station to get their demo tape played on the air, there aren’t any expectations of drama or tension, so you’ve got more room to have fun with things. Yet, there still aren’t any lulls in the action here. The story builds, the situation gets increasingly more out of control, and the jokes keeps coming. The only useless phone conversations you have to sit through are the completely nutty ones where Michael Richards and Marshall Bell talk about their women troubles and skid-marked underwear, and they’re so ludicrously funny that they don’t slow the film down in the slightest.
Which brings us to the cast of this film. A movie where Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and (early ’90s) Adam Sandler play a trio of metalheads sounds funny enough on its own. You’ve got Buscemi and Sandler bickering like meathead children, Fraser trying to pull off ridiculously long hair and failing miserably, and Buscemi being weirdly sexual and thrusting his crotch at the camera – that’s good stuff. But then there’s the supporting cast, which features so many awesome actors that you tend to forget some of them are there. Airheads is a movie that’s full of Michael Richards physical comedy. It’s got Chris Farley playing bumbling and desperate. Michael McKean is sleazy and ponytailed as a yuppy station manager. Ernie Hudson is playing the police chief, for the love of Mike! Who else is here? Judd Nelson and Harold Ramis acting like douchebags, David Arquette actually utilizing how annoying he is for comedy for once… this movie features way more famous people than its place in history would have you believe. So why did the kid in his twenties who just asked me what I’m writing about tell me that he’s never heard of it? It’s time more people pull this one out and give it a revisit.
Evening the odds.
Yeah, yeah, Sidney Lumet was a master of his craft and pretty much every movie he made has at least a couple strong elements working for it. I’m not saying Dog Day Afternoon is bad. And it’s true that few things are as embarrassing as watching Joe Mantegna trying to play some sort of cool, rock veteran. I’m not saying that Airheads stands next to the greatest comedies of all time, I’m just saying that Dog Day Afternoon gets mentioned next to other ’70s classics that outclass it, and Airheads gets unfairly overshadowed by other 9’0s comedies that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with. Let us not forget the simple joys of thinking about swimming pools and stabbing people’s heads off with your dick.