Men at Work

Men At Work. Epic Productions 1990.

Before watching the movie:

The main attraction to this movie for me was the novelty of Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez acting together, which I guess happened more often than I thought, and that it’s a comedy about garbage men in over their heads. However, they don’t play brothers here as I thought.

I don’t recall knowing before looking up a summary of this movie just now that the plot concerned the two main characters finding a dead body in a barrel. I totally overlooked the feet sticking out of the can in the poster, which I blame on bad contrast and small thumbnails.

After watching the movie:

City councilman Jack Berger can’t keep silent about the toxic chemical dumping he’s been allowing Max Potterdam III to do anymore, and tells Potterdam this on a hidden cassette recorder. Unfortunately, when he goes to the police, not only does he find his campaign manager Susan accidentally switched tapes on him. Carl Taylor and James St. James are slacker garbagemen whose big dream is to open a surf shop. Their boss hates them for good reason and wants a solid excuse to fire them, the local beat cops hate them for no apparent reason and want a solid excuse to arrest them, and two other garbagemen hate them but are too ineffective to get their revenge pranks to work. Carl is in the habit of peeping in the apartments across the street with binoculars or through the sniper scope of his pellet gun, and observes Jack in Susan’s apartment screaming at her. When Susan steps out for the right tape, Carl, misreading the situation as domestic abuse, dispenses vigilante justice by shooting Jack in the butt. Unseen by Carl, Potterdam’s goons come in right after, strangle Jack, and take the body away along with the wrong tape, leaving Susan to come back to an empty apartment. The next morning, while on their route with bad-tempered probationary observer Louis riding along, they find a dead guy in a chemical barrel. But not just any guy, the guy Carl shot last night. Who is also a city councilman. With the police already out to get them, Carl and James can’t report it, so Louis proposes they find a place to stash the body until they can quietly get rid of it later. Carl’s investigation of Susan somehow turns into a romantic night drive, and Louis insists on bringing James and the pizza guy following them, unaware that the beat cops are following James, the rival garbagemen are following Carl, and Potterdam’s thugs are following Susan.

While the plot in all its convolutions (which took up twice the column inches I generally aim for) is incredibly funny, this movie seems light on individual gags, at least ones that actually made me laugh. It’s obviously a very dark comedy, yet in a very unserious way. Louis is 100% the funniest part of the movie, as much a complication as an ally. He lost a bit of his hold on reality in Vietnam (or perhaps he lost touch with civility and became more realist), and does not hesitate to escalate a situation if he doesn’t care for the person he finds himself in conflict with. Carl and James are just a pair of dumb slackers who fell into a situation much bigger than themselves and so are pretty interchangeable, but Keith David as Louis is a delight to watch in every scene.

Estevez not only stars in the movie but also wrote and directed it. He seems pretty proud of himself for making an anti-pollution movie, but the toxic dumping is pretty backgrounded for most of the movie. The bad guy could have any secret he doesn’t want to get out and nothing would change. In the end we get an anti-pollution moral, but delivered with all the subtlety of a Captain Planet episode. Do I find the propaganda side of third-wave environmentalism embarrassing because I grew up with it, saw its failures up close, and grew past it? Maybe. But there are much more grown up ways to advocate against corporations destroying the commons for the quarterly gains report than what amounts to a “that’s what you get for hurting the environment, meanie!” message.

The tone is not quite what I expected, but the movie overall is pretty fun. It wasn’t nearly the novelty I expected to see Sheen and Estevez together, but they don’t detract from their roles. Charlie would definitely go on to play better slacker types, and I’m not all that familiar with Emilio’s filmography. This is really just one insane movie, an impressive juggling act. It could’ve been punched up a bit, but it’s already a fun ride.

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