Standing up for the little guy, righting wrongs, trying to force our opinions on an unsuspecting public, that’s what we do here at Over/Under. This week we look to champion a kid’s movie, a movie that I contend is not just one of those dumb camp films, but an underpraised king of modern comedy; 1995’s Disney production Heavy Weights.
Of course, you know how it works here. In order for one movie to be propped up a peg, another has to take a fall. For those purposes we’ll take a look at 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a beloved adaptation of a beloved Ken Kesey novel that happens to have a few major flaws that often get overlooked.
What do they have in common?
Both of these movies are about a population of people who are being held captive and asked to give up their rights and freedoms “for their own good.” In Cuckoo’s Nest it’s a group of patients locked down in a mental health facility. In Heavy Weights we get some portly kids sent off to a torturous weight loss camp. In both films the group of characters that serve as our protagonists are viewed as outside the norm of what society finds acceptable, and they’re being locked away and rehabilitated in order to better conform to our ideas of what people should be like.
This brings up an interesting question. Just because someone is different, does that make them broken or sick? And if they are sick, where did they cross the line? At what point do you go from having some issues, to needing to turn over your decision-making to others? And what happens after you turn over your freedom to oppressive regimes that stifle your development and cruelly take advantage of your lack of power? How far can we be pushed before we’re forced to fight back?
Why is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest overrated?
The big problem with this movie is that the protagonist and antagonist are too black and white for such a highly regarded drama. The movie gives us a loose cannon named McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) who acts so manic while imprisoned that he gets sent to a psych ward lorded over by the shrewd and miserable Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Most of the people on the psych ward are drooling man-children or brain dead vegetables, but McMurphy is cool and charismatic. Clearly, this guy isn’t crazy at all. Instead of being a real life look at somebody with mental illness, McMurphy is just a counter culture agent of change. The script has to jump through hoops trying to explain to us why he would be put in the psych ward, why he would be kept there when it’s clear to everyone he’s not really insane, and why his presence would be tolerated once he starts interfering with the rehabilitation of the other patients.
The other side of the coin is Nurse Ratched, a shrew so contemptible that she is perfectly willing to endanger those in her care’s well-being in order to assert her dominance during a series of juvenile plays for power. Ratched is a villain plain and simple. We get no glimpse into her personal life, no indication of her motivations, and she seems to be present just to represent a rigid establishment for our leather jacketed hero to rebel against. When she goes as far as to sexually shame a very fragile man who has crippling mommy issues, any and all pretense of her being redeemable or a three dimensional character go out the window. All of this would be fine if Cuckoo’s Nest were a simple allegory pitting good against evil, but it comes to us in the guise of a complex, real world character drama.
Even if you could look at it as just a simple story of good vs. evil, when you look at McMurphy’s actions with a critical eye he becomes too hard to root for. While some of what he’s doing eventually becomes an honest effort to help out the patients, his breaking them out of the hospital to go fishing and bringing girls and booze into the hospital to throw parties originate as selfish acts. Plus, they end up having hugely negative effects on people who are far too disturbed for such breaks in routine. Not to mention that McMurphy having a loyal army of hookers is just seedy and gross, but we’re supposed to treat him as an anti-hero. Cuckoo’s Nest gives you a villain that’s completely evil and a hero that you’re not comfortable rooting for. Tough break.
Why is Heavy Weights underpraised?
First off, the movie starts off with an awesome cameo from Tim Blake Nelson playing a summer camp bus driver. That should be enough of a reason right there, but I’ll go on. Like in Cuckoo’s Nest, we get a very simple oppressed vs. the oppressors setup. What Heavy Weights does right is that instead of shying away from that simplicity, it completely embraces it and gives us heroes that we can root for and despicable villains that we’re comfortable booing. The kids that go to this camp have a problem. Yeah, they’re compulsive eaters. They pack away candy bars like squirrels. They smuggle deli meats into camp like prisoners do cigarettes into jail. At one point a character says to another, “New kid, come over here, get these salamis off my back.” They need help. But the main character, Nicholas (David Goldman), he’s the new guy, but he isn’t a destructive force trying to shove food into everyone’s faces like McMurphy is in Cuckoo’s Nest. He’s just the guy who’s going to stand up, rightfully, and lead the inmates against the corrupt guards.
And those corrupt camp counselors, they’re not just evil; they’re hilariously evil.
gets a bad rap from a lot of people. I often hear that his comedies are horrible and he plays the same angry character in every film. There is some validity to that, sure, but anybody who tries to pass off that rule as an absolute hasn’t seen his work in Heavy Weights. They haven’t seen the villain that he crafted in fitness guru Tony Perkis. Perkis is every bit as cruel and without empathy for his charges as Nurse Ratched, but in his case we can see that his behavior is stemming from a lifetime of crippling insecurity. Like some sort of fitness-based version of Batman, Perkis is driven beyond normal human motivation by compulsion. He is driven by deep pain, and he can’t understand that other people don’t share his same wounds, so he expects more from them than they can realistically give. Nurse Ratched just seems like she’s a bitch because the counter culture movement was about to spring up when the Cuckoo’s Nest story was originally published, so it needed a bitchy authority figure. Oh, and also there’s Perkis’ sidekick Lars: calm, collected, German. Lars has a severely deviated septum and when he sleeps he makes a disturbing sound. Don’t be alarmed. He is fine.
The point of all this is, Cuckoo’s Nest pairs a complex protagonist with a cartoon villain, and the result is confusing. Heavy Weights is just a great big cartoon that gives you someone to cheer for, someone to root against, and once you get to the big climax where the fat kids stand up and prove their worth, you get the cathartic experience of standing up and cheering alongside them. Cuckoo’s Nest builds up a big power struggle between McMurphy and Ratched and then never delivers a satisfying conclusion. McMurphy’s destiny gets taken out of his hands, and we’re never sure if Nurse Ratched’s experiences in the film change her or not. After sitting through the story for over two hours, that’s kind of a hard pill to swallow. In Heavy Weights Tony Perkis said, “Did you ever hear the story of Icarus, who continually rolled the ball up the hill? But when he got too close, the ball melted in the heat of the Sun. You’re all like Icarus.” I feel like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is like Icarus as well.
Evening the Odds
It might seem odd to put a comedy aimed towards kids on the same level as a film as serious as Cuckoo’s Nest, but I think that they’re both equally worthwhile. There are some great performances in Cuckoo’s Nest, and despite its flaws I think it contains a lot of great ideas, but Heavy Weights plays in the same sandbox while being more light and fun. There’s even a scene in Heavy Weights where Goldberg the Goalie does a riff on McMurphy’s lobotomy gag. When he gets taken away, all of the kids tell tall tales about him like the patients do McMurphy, and then when he comes back he pretends like he’s been tortured into submission and made into a drooling idiot. The screenwriters of Heavy Weights seemed to be aware that they were doing similar work as the creative team on Cuckoo’s Nest. And who was one of those writers on Heavy Weights? Judd Apatow. And it shows. Why isn’t Heavy Weights remembered as one of the best Apatow comedies? It certainly deserves at least those accolades.