A Second Glance: ‘The Wrong Guy’ (1997)

Ryan Covey

Popular Culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing.  It’s impossible to see everything and as a result some things fall through the cracks.  Maybe a book or movie or game was critically panned, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t make a lasting connection at the time.  Whatever the case these bits of pop cultural refuse were forgotten and are well overdue for A Second Glance.

It’s may be hard to believe now but Canadian comedian Dave Foley was once poised to be the next big thing.  The breakout star of the sketch comedy group The Kids in the Hall, Foley went onto the successful sitcom News Radio and the lead in Disney/Pixar’s A Bugs Life but shortly after that his career took a nose-dive and he’s been relegated to the bit-part/cameo ghetto ever since.  1997’s The Wrong Guy is practically the moment when the scales tipped form “next big thing” to “hey, it’s that guy from that show.”

Launched as a vehicle both for Foley’s viability as a screenwriter and a leading man (it was also meant to be his directorial debut but scheduling conflicts with News Radio left the job to mostly-TV director David Steinberg) The Wrong Guy never had a chance, not getting a theatrical release in the US and having some truly dismal TV and DVD sales.  This is a shame because The Wrong Guy is an absurdist comic joy and a movie that really deserves to be celebrated with ubiquitous comedy greats like Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Caddyshack, and Coming to America.

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Foley plays Nelson Hibbert: a dweebish, obnoxious, idiotic loser who sees himself in line for the promotion to president of his company.  He’s qualified, he’s married to his boss’ daughter, and his boss has even confided to him that he’s next in line for the promotion.  The only problem is that a fellow coworker married the boss’ favorite daughter and his boss just outright lied to him.  Nelson makes an idiot of himself, taking his boss to task in front of the entire board room and promising to kill him.  Shortly afterward he storms into his boss’ office in a huff, ready to lay into him a second time and finds the man dead with a knife in his neck.

What follows is one of the most incompetent attempts to avoid being suspicious ever committed to film.  After shrieking like a girl and stupidly removing the knife, Nelson attempts to put it back only to smear blood all over himself in the process.  He’s seen in the hallway by dozens of bystanders, only thinking to hide the weapon on his person and act nonchalantly in the middle of a large group of people who are already looking at him and striding out covered in blood.

Now Nelson is on the run trying to evade police attention, the only problem is that nobody’s chasing him.  His boss was under constant surveillance and the cameras got a very clear shot of the killer’s (Colm Feore) face but Nelson doesn’t know that and the detective assigned to his case, Detective Arlen (David Anthony Higgins of Malcolm in the Middle, who co-wrote the movie), is probably the laziest policeman ever.  Arlen spends as much time and money not solving the case as possible, using police funds to fly a helicopter to go see his sister in Cincinnati, eat at expensive restaurants, and to take an all-expenses paid trip to New York City and go to Broadway shows.  Meanwhile the killer thinks that Nelson is some kind of secret agent or master detective because Nelson keeps leading the police onto his trail by happenstance in his own incompetent attempt to escape the law.

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The Wrong Guy has a killer premise: It’s The Fugitive if he was an idiot and nobody was actually chasing him.  Now this may sound like a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy along the lines of Airplane or The Naked Gun but The Wrong Guy never crosses the line over into a straight-up spoof (those looking for a ZAZ-style spoof of The Fugitive can check out the Leslie Nielsen film Wrongfully Accused.The Wrong Guy is more thematically similar to Steve Martin’s The Jerk.

Instead of going for broad pastiches of various specific man-on-the-run movies, The Wrong Guy spoofs the tropes and conventions of these movies.  Nelson’s inability to come up with fake names, be inconspicuous, jump onto moving trains, survive in the wilderness, or serve as a handyman for the sweet small-town love interest with a single father who has fallen on hard times are the source of the comedy.  That’s not to say that there aren’t jokes revolving around characters other than Nelson and Detective Arlen, but they’re more scattered and subtle like a midnight DJ following a generic Jazz song with “That was… jazz.  Some sort of Jazz ensemble.”, the over-the-top ways in which Feore’s cliche assassin does anyhing, or love interest Lynn (Jennifer’s Tilly) being the daughter of a poor small-town banker whose bank is in danger of being bought out and replaced by wealthy farmers.

The sense of humor is inane but witty and it imbues the film with a charm that’s seldom seen in comedies anymore.  That this movie wasn’t the springboard for a long and prosperous career for Dave Foley is disappointing, that it was a complete flop dumped onto home video by studios is a genuine crime.  The Wrong Guy deserves to be seen and celebrated which is a bit difficult seeing as it’s mostly out of print.  If you don’t want to buy a used DVD (and they can be found for cheap fairly easily) the only new version is part of a three-pack with the mafia movie spoof Mafia! and the Joe Pesci/Danny Glover buddy comedy Gone Fishin’ and since the movie appears to be with Lionsgate Home Entertainment the chances of a better release any time soon are pretty slim.  Still The Wrong Guy is worth seeking out used DVDs or enduring the ownership of two other mediocre comedies to obtain.  Give it a shot, you’ll thank me later.

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