Wagons Ho Hum

John Candy galloping on horseback is not a pretty picture. Of course, it's not intended to be. But it's not an especially amusing picture, either. The makers of the woefully unfunny Wagons East! hoped the incongruity of duding him up as an Old West cowboy would sell tickets. It won't. Not to a Western spoof so lame that it fobs off automotive shtick as anachronistic wit: "Honey, please, keep two hands on the reins, huh?"; "I'll have your mother turn this wagon around right now!"; "Are we there yet?" There's even a rest stop: squatting behind a stringy bush. And when that routine is beaten into the ground, penis jokes arise: Little Feather, a pouty young Indian warrior, dislikes his name, so his father instantaneously changes it to Big Snake That Makes Women Faint; with nowhere else to urinate, a boy uses a canteen that, of course, a sweaty lout later snatches and guzzles from greedily; a schoolmarm type asks a whore, "You don't actually blow, do you?"

With none of the brazen lunacy of Blazing Saddles, Wagons East! squanders a good idea -- fed-up frontierspeople deciding to go back East -- for variations on knees to the groin and flatulence in the wind. It also doesn't utilize the essential Candy appeal: making his considerable size a source of broad humor and, in choice moments, understated vulnerability. His personable puffiness is what gained him a following as Tom Hanks' lovable blowhard brother in Splash and as Steve Martin's blowsy traveling companion in Planes, Trains and Automobiles and allowed him to carry such movies as Uncle Buck and the overlooked Only the Lonely. In Wagons East!, as a wagon master who doesn't believe in maps, he has very little to do except try to look winningly inept and be the victim of an immediate, easy sight gag. This is rather sad, given that Candy died near the end of principal filming. That's the only thing that will make this movie memorable: that it was John Candy's last.

Matthew Carlson's insipid screenplay and Peter Markle's rimshot direction deaden the action right from the beginning. The population of the pioneer town of Prosperity, credits tell us, is 67. Cut to a bank robbery (in which the banker informs the assailants that three hold-ups in one month isn't a shrewd tactic). Shots are fired. Revised credits: Prosperity, Population 64.

The banker heads over to the saloon, where the bartender hands him a whiskey even though he ordered a gin and tonic. Now the banker is really sick of the West. Soon he's joined by the likes of a mail-order bride whose "husband" turns out to be a bunch of brothers who, since they couldn't afford a wife apiece, pitched in to get one for them all; a whore with a heart of gold; and Richard Lewis. I write "Richard Lewis" because the comedian brings his New York whine to his role as a neurotic surgeon. How he greets cowboys: "Yoo hoo." What he says at a shootout: "I'd love to, but I can't -- I'm anti-handgun." John C. McGinley plays a homosexual bookseller weary of uncultured cowpokes buying Jane Austen as toilet paper: enter every gay joke you can think of. None of the principal performers have anything to write home about.

With Candy leading them, the misfits wander into Sioux territory (bookseller's reaction to signpost: "It's very Santa Fe"), are hounded by a professional gunslinger whose expertise turns out to be of the Wile E. Coyote variety, and meet the cavalry, to whom the bookseller waves "oh goody." A greedy railroad baron, worried that the go-home-againers might start a trend that would hurt business, figures into the plot, but he -- like everybody else -- exists solely for "humor" of a sort that has one bad guy outwitted when he can't count to ten and another wringing his hands at his unrequited love for a steer. Any occasional whimsy is smothered by this avalanche of dreck.

Most of this summer's Westerns -- from Maverick to Wyatt Earp -- have left saddle sores. It's time to put them, Wagons East! and, sadly, John Candy to rest.

Wagons East!
Directed by Peter Markle. Starring John Candy, Richard Lewis, John C. McGinley and Ellen Greene.

Rated PG-13.
100 minutes.

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