15 Years Later, Is ‘Freddy Got Fingered’ a Secret Masterpiece?
The film world celebrated several notable cinematic milestones this past year. 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of Oliver Stone’s JFK, the 30th anniversary of James Cameron’s Aliens, and the 40th anniversary of Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s Network. Here at ScreenCrush, we looked back at 10 years of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and the entire Harry Potter franchise.
But there was at least one anniversary that went almost completely unnoticed. On April 20, 2001— the release date had to be intentional — Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered was unleashed upon the world. Google searching around, I could find almost no evidence that this date was celebrated. The Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco held a 15th anniversary screening, but otherwise there were no lengthy tributes, no oral histories, no calls for critical reappraisal. To put it in perspective: There are almost as many negative reviews for Freddy Got Fingered on Rotten Tomatoes (83) as signatures on the Change.org petition to convince Fox to release the director’s cut (85).
Oh, those negative reviews. They’re arguably better remembered that the movie itself. There were a few vocal outliers — A.O. Scott of The New York Times said Green had “demented but unmistakable integrity” as “an artist” of gross-out humor — but they were loudly shouted down by a chorus of some of the angriest reviews a Hollywood comedy has ever received. Roger Ebert gave Freddy zero stars while delivering one of his most infamous put-downs (“This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.”) Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman labeled the film a disaster, called Tom Green a “loser,” made fun of his goatee and chin, and slapped Freddy with an “F.” In my professional opinion, that’s pretty bad.
If I wrote a review in 2001, it seems to have vanished from the internet. I definitely saw it, and I definitely wasn’t a fan. But considerable praise from the film’s small but passionate legion of supporters (which includes my good friend and critic R. Emmet Sweeney) made me curious about revisiting it, which is how I found myself at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn last night watching a 35mm print of Freddy Got Fingered as part of the theater’s weekly “Weird Wednesday” programming.
The title of this series has never been more accurate.
15 years later, Freddy Got Fingered was largely as I remembered it — messy, bizarre, off-putting — but I found myself laughing more, and being more intrigued by Tom Green’s choices (he directed and co-wrote the movie in addition to starring in it) even when I didn’t laugh. You’re supposed to mature with age, but I like this movie better as a 36-year-old than I did as a 20-year-old. Maybe I’ve immatured with age.
It certainly takes an extreme level of immaturity — or at least an appreciation of immaturity taken to its furthest extreme — to appreciate Green’s humor. The Canadian comedian became famous in the late 1990s after his show became a hit on MTV. The Tom Green Show mixed sketches, stunts, music, and hosted segments, tapping into a growing cultural interest in reality television, pranks, and DIY video. With appearances in hit movies like Road Trip and a brief marriage to Drew Barrymore, Green became an unlikely celebrity, and he parlayed his clout and name recognition into the deal for Freddy Got Fingered.
The Tom Green Show wasn’t known for weaving complex narratives; it was mostly about surreal humor and Green pranking his parents. All of those elements are reflected in Freddy Got Fingered, which follows Green’s Gord Brody as he tries to hit it big in Hollywood as an animator. Gord’s dreams of cartoon success are partly fueled by his love of drawing, but it’s mostly a way to show up his cruel, angry father Jim (Rip Torn), who has never once been proud of or satisfied with his son. And so while Gord works on creations like “X-Ray Cat” (a cat with x-ray vision that only works on wood) and “Zebras in America” (his dysfunctional family, if they were zebras) he also engages in an increasingly heated feud with his dad that involves, among other things, relocating his entire house to Pakistan and accusing him of child molestation (hence the movie’s title).
As you can probably tell by now, Freddy Got Fingered is a strange movie. But if you give $14 million to the guy who made “The Bum Bum Song,” you probably shouldn’t expect to get Groundhog Day in return.
At times, Freddy Got Fingered even surpasses Green’s quirky Canadian cable-access TV show in terms of pure WTF-ness. When someone suggests that Gord try something, he always takes their advice in the most literal way possible. So when his girlfriend Betty (Marisa Coughlan) says he might find inspiration for his drawings if he eats and plays music while he works, he does this:
(If I embedded the scene where Gord gets “inside the animal,” I would probably get fired.)
A few months after Green’s show went on hiatus, MTV premiered a series called Jackass, which featured a similar blend of low-fi pranks, stunts, and hidden camera gags. Jackass eventually eclipsed Green’s popularity, and when they made the leap to the big screen a year and a half after him, their Jackass: The Movie became a surprise smash. Before the series ran its course, Jackass produced two sequels and a spinoff, and generated almost $500 million worldwide. Freddy Got Fingered’s final box-office total stands at $14.2 million.
The contrast between the financial outcomes is as striking as the differences between the two movies. The Jackass guys didn’t mess with their formula; they simply brought it to movie theaters. They gave their audience exactly what they’d come to expect from the television series on a bigger budget and at greater length. Jackass: The Movie has no story or characters. Green, on the other hand, attempted to wed his brand of deranged humor to a traditional narrative, delivering something that befuddled both multiplex audiences and many fans of his television show — including me, when I saw it back in 2001.
In 2016, though, it seems pretty clear that the confusion was entirely (if self-destructively) by design. The other big difference between Green and the Jackass guys are their targets. Johnny Knoxville and his buddies play pranks on each other for the delight of the audience. With Freddy Got Fingered, Tom Green essentially pranked the audience — and the entire Hollywood system, really — for his own delight.
There are a few conventionally funny threads. (My favorite is the small child who lives across the street from Gord and Jim who is always getting horrifically injured as a result of their misdeeds.) Otherwise, everything is calculated to push viewers’ buttons. The story wanders around, aimlessly plowing through one dead end after another. (Gord’s allegedly fingered brother Freddy gets sent to a home for victims of sexual assault and stays there for the rest of the film; the subplot is never resolved). The shocking “humor,” like the scene where Gord delivers a woman’s baby by yanking it out of her womb, cutting the umbilical cord with his teeth, and then swinging it around his head like a lasso, is more repulsive than amusing. (Freddy’s cinematographer, Mark Irwin, shot David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Videodrome before he became the Farrelly brothers’ D.P.) Even the title seems like a dare from Green to the audience: Do you want to see this movie bad enough to walk up to a cashier and say, “Yes, I would like one ticket for Freddy Got Fingered, please?”
As a straight-forward Hollywood gross-out comedy, Freddy Got Fingered is a borderline disaster. As a mockery of the rules of Hollywood gross-out comedies where idiot man-children find love, happiness, and success, and as a work of audience provocation, it’s kind of a secret masterpiece. And it works, too. At last night’s screening, I was seated next to a woman who had clearly been dragged to the film by a boyfriend. She had no idea what she was in for and spent large portions of the movie turned away from the screen so she could stare daggers into her date while telling him, “This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” and, “This is absolutely horrible.” (And those were just the remarks she said loudly enough that I could hear them over the sound of Tom Green gutting a deer and wearing its skin like a superhero cape.)
And she’s not entirely wrong! Parts of this movie are objectively repulsive. And yet there is a kind of ideological purity here that’s admirable, even if that admiration comes a little begrudgingly. 15 years ago it was hard to believe this movie was financed and released by a major studio. In 2016’s culture of cinematic universes and endless sequels and reboots, that fact might be more shocking than any of Green’s outlandish gags. (The biggest laugh in the picture, in hindsight, might be the glorious 20th Century Fox logo appearing onscreen shortly before Tom Green grabs a horse’s penis and wiggles it around while cackling with glee.) Freddy Got Fingered is the cinematic equivalent of someone discovering an honest-to-goodness unicorn living in the real world — and then graphically vivisecting that unicorn on camera (or maybe just grabbing it by the penis). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a “mainstream comedy” this committed to pissing people off.
Even doomed to obscurity, Freddy Got Fingered continues to cause mayhem. While the world at large was ignoring its 15th anniversary, one North Carolina man was given an unwanted reminder of its existence. During a routine traffic stop last spring, a police officer discovered there was an outstanding warrant for the man’s arrest for, according to The New York Times, “failing to return a VHS movie rental of Freddy Got Fingered” back in 2002.
Thankfully, everything worked out. The video store was long out of business, and when the man appeared in court, the charges were dropped. When Tom Green heard about the case, he told the Times, he laughed. Of course he did. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume he’d hatched the whole thing up as a giant prank.