I remember liking Who’s Harry Crumb? when I was younger. Most of the adult humor went over my head, and I simply enjoyed the cartoonish jokes that seemed to be tailor-made for my sense of humor at the time. However, when I revisited it as an adult and tried to relive those happy memories, I was sorely disappointed. Who’s Harry Crumb? does not hold up as a good ‘80s comedy, even though it stars one of my favorite comedians from that era, John Candy. This movie squanders so much potential. Let’s see if we can spot where this film went so wrong.
Failure to Commit
Who’s Harry Crumb? is sort of like Fletch. A bumbling private investigator has to solve a mystery before it’s too late. The trouble is that Fletch has an ingenious plot, and Fletch himself has to be clever to uncover what’s really going on between a businessman who wants to be murdered and a corrupt police chief. There’s nothing to the mystery in Who’s Harry Crumb? A young woman gets kidnapped by an unknown assailant in the opening scene, and the movie promptly spoils who did it right after. The audience is way ahead of Harry Crumb, who is completely clueless until the very end when he accidentally cracks the case and rescues the girl.
The main problem is that the movie fails to commit to any of its ideas. For example, like Fletch, Crumb uses disguises from time to time. But while Fletch used them to avoid detection, Crumb does it for really no reason other than to use funny accents and dress in silly outfits. The people he goes to visit wouldn’t know him if he just went as himself, so it’s pointless to hide his identity. He could have come up with plausible excuses to get access to sensitive areas instead of resorting to gaudy costumes.
The most interesting storyline involves the father of the kidnapped girl. He also has a younger daughter named Nikki, who is the best character in the movie. She feels like the unloved ugly duckling of her family because her father clearly loves her older sister more than her. This is an interesting avenue to explore that could have yielded a lot of dramatic scenes as she and her father learned to bond and work together. But, alas, this movie squanders that opportunity in favor of mostly unfunny jokes.
Another potentially great story thread is Crumb feeling like a failure for not living up to his family’s legacy. He comes from a long line of distinguished investigators, but the first time we see him he’s working in a forgotten subsidiary of the firm his family created. An evil man named Eliot Draisen is in charge of the firm, and he’s also the kidnapper. The movie could have been about Crumb trying to prove himself worthy of his father’s company, a la Tommy Boy. But no, he becomes the head of the company by dumb luck and not by any display of superior cunning.
The strange thing is, he does show a few signs of astonishing intelligence. He’s able to tell when a single $100 bill is missing from a stack of what should be 100. But that skill never comes into play later in the film, so it’s a pointless detail. And there are many other things like that in the film. Sometimes Crumb has a perfect memory and other times he’s incredibly forgetful. There’s no rhyme or reason to his character, so it’s difficult to tell what he’s capable of.
Others Did It Better
Who’s Harry Crumb? debuted in 1989, and it comes across as a pale imitation of better films from that decade. There are three scenes that really stuck out to me as being lackluster copies of funnier scenes from previous comedies.
1. Destroying People’s Prized Possessions
Crumb visits the father of the kidnapped girl, and his finger gets attacked by a fish in the father’s fish tank. He smashes it in a book and finally throws it across the room where it lands on a small picture of a giant fish. The trouble is that the fish was never set up as particularly important to the father, nor is it ever mentioned again. Plus, the father is a good guy, so there’s no reason for us to want to see him suffer any type of loss. The joke just doesn’t work.
Compare this to the scene in The Naked Gun when Frank Drebin gets bitten by the villain’s prized fish and accidentally stabs it with an irreplaceable pen that can only be damaged by water. Now that’s funny not only because the execution is spot-on, but also because the villain deserves to be punished.
Who’s Harry Crumb? also recreates the scene where Drebin breaks into the villain’s apartment and inadvertently destroys every priceless artifact in his collection. Crumb mistakenly launches a bike into Eliot Draisen’s priceless collection of dinosaur bones and shatters his fossilized pterodactyl egg. It’s set up beforehand how much Draisen doesn’t want those things destroyed, but the scene is nowhere near as funny as the one in The Naked Gun. Besides, if Draisen has all those priceless artifacts, why does he need a $10 million kidnapping scheme?
2. Driving a Car with No Brakes
When Crumb and Nikki find themselves in a car with no brakes, they awkwardly try to get out of it alive. Nothing terribly funny happens during their misadventure. In the end, the solution to their problem is just to crash into a tree. Not very surprising or unique.
Compare that to the no-brakes scene in Strange Brew. The McKenzie brothers find that their van has no brakes, and they wind up flying into Lake Ontario. That leads to one of the funniest moments in the movie when we discover that they survived being underwater for a long period of time by breathing the air contained in empty beer bottles.
3. The Metal Detector
As Crumb is trying to stop the bad guys from getting away at the end of the film, he gets held up by a metal detector at the airport. This scene goes on way too long, and the conclusion is the most obvious joke possible.
This is a far cry from the quick gag at the start of Airplane! where a man gets stopped by a metal detector and is forced to take off metallic parts of his body. It only takes a few seconds for the joke to land, and it’s quite unexpected.
Jokes Don’t Build
Who’s Harry Crumb? rarely takes the time to revisit jokes and build on them. For example, soon after Crumb gets an office at corporate headquarters, he tests out a paper shredder and gets his tie caught in it. It completely obliterates his tie right before a big meeting with Draisen. It’s not really made a big deal of, but wouldn’t it have been funny if at the end of the film, when Crumb’s in charge, we once again saw him leave his office with his tie cut off because he never learned how to use the shredder properly? And it would be even funnier if no one talked about it, and he simply walked into an important meeting looking like that. Maybe his employees would follow his lead and cut their ties like that when they go out to investigate cases. Just one big misunderstanding.
The movie feels like a series of loosely connected gags that never escalate or add up to anything. A good comedy manages to raise the stakes or do something surprising and satisfying at the end. Think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters or the bathroom-beatdown scene and airplane-stairs chase in Liar Liar. Who’s Harry Crumb? has a climax that feels like a bunch of random scenes smashing together in a big awkward mess. Crumb takes down all of the bad guys in one fell swoop by pure happenstance. No escalation, just serendipity.
I want to love Who’s Harry Crumb? because of my fond memories, but I can’t recommend it at all. I like the actors in it, and there are a lot of good ideas it brings up that could have made for solid entertainment. But the fact that it squanders its potential on a boring plot filled with uninspired jokes means that Harry Crumb is one name you can safely forget.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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