Rando! Moving Violations (1985)

When a hack comedy wants to express as bluntly and quickly as possible that a protagonist is overcome with giddy optimism and excitement, it does so by having them strut to the iconic, anthemic strains of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”

Everybody's less talented siblings in a less funny Police Academy!

Everybody's less talented siblings in a less funny Police Academy!

The 1985 traffic school comedy Moving Violations introduces its protagonist driving cheerfully down the street happily singing along to “I Feel Good” and occasionally augmenting his off-key crooning with regular toots on a harmonica hanging around his neck. It’s “I Feel Good” to be sure, but it sure isn't being sung by James Brown.

The egregiously awful cover of James Brown’s quintessential feel-good anthem doubles as a dispiriting preview of what’s to come. Like the sad mutant version of "I Feel Good" that opens the film, Moving Violations is filled with things that are extremely like something popular, well-liked and good, but are actually terrible. 

This begins with the movie’s star, John Murray. If Murray seems disconcertingly familiar, that’s because he is the youngest brother of Bill Murray. Bill isn’t the only talent in the family. His older brother Brian-Doyle Murray would have a permanent place in comedy history if his life’s work began and end with co-writing Caddyshack. But Brian-Doyle has gone on to become one of the funniest and most consistent comedy character actors of the past 40 years, thanks to his performances in movies like Vacation, Caddyshack, Wayne’s World and his co-starring role on the second season of Get A Life. 

The least talented Murray in his radiant prime.

The least talented Murray in his radiant prime.

Bill’s brother Joel, meanwhile, has distinguished himself on Mad Men and as the protagonist of Bobcat Goldthwait cult classic God Bless America. So there are at least three talented Murray siblings, which is pretty damn good by any standard. 

This leaves John, whose shtick can be described as 4/5ths Bill Murray to 1/5ths also Bill Murray. John doesn’t just look exactly like Bill with less apparent male-pattern baldness, he also talks exactly like him, with the exact same cadence. It goes beyond that, however. Moving Violations has a lesser Murray sibling play a Bill Murray archetype; smart-ass and sly, sarcastic and conspiratorial, always seemingly enjoying a guilty inside joke at the world and corrupt authority’s expense. 

John Murray acts so much like Bill Murray in Moving Violations that it inspires cognitive dissonance. Is it Bill Murray or is it not Bill Murray? If it’s not Bill Murray then why does he resemble Bill Murray in every sense other than talent, charisma and funniness? 

John isn’t the only lesser sibling in the cast. Do you love the great character actor Stacy Keach? How about Michelle Pfeiffer? What about ethereal 1980s beauty turned novelist Meg Tillly? Great, then there’s an okay chance you’ll be able to tolerate their less talented siblings James Keach, Deedee Pfeiffer and Jennifer Tilly, all of whom can be found in Moving Violations. 

The film itself is also a poor imitation of something extraordinarily popular. Just as John Murray could at least claim that his resemblance to his superstar brother Bill is genetic and biological as well as a case of blatant imitation, Moving Violations screenwriter Pat Proft and Neal Israel (who also directed) could argue that Moving Violations feels suspiciously like 1984’s Police Academy because they also wrote that sadly influential blockbuster. 

Moving Violations, which has the distinction of being the funniest traffic school comedy and the greatest John Murray vehicle ever because it is the only example of either, casts John Murray as Dana, a wacky nutball who runs afoul of a sinister traffic cop played by James Keach and his equally glowering traffic cop lover, and is sentenced to a week of traffic school alongside the kind of broad, wacky types that populated Police Academy knockoffs. And also Police Academy and its sequels. 

These include a weirdly popular 1980s comedy staple, the dude who’s way too into horror movies, to the point where he may or may not also be a serial killer. There’s also the yuppie, the black guy, a rocket scientist played by Jennifer Tilly who doubles as the female love interest and a nearly blind old woman who hangs out with Clare Peller, of “Where’s The Beef” fame and serves as the vehicle for a series of Mr. Magoo-style blindness sight gags (no pun intended). Incidentally, Moving Violations screenwriter Pat Proft worked on the script for Mr. Magoo during his “helping Leslie Nielsen badly rip off the Zucker Brothers” phase of his career. 

Though it's not established in dialogue, you can tell that Peller is still looking for the beef. 

Though it's not established in dialogue, you can tell that Peller is still looking for the beef. 

The filmmakers accidentally cast some actors who do not have more famous or talented siblings. Fred Willard, for example, once again illustrates his unique gift for creating comedy in a vast desert of terrible ideas in his role as a gentleman whose professorial, scholarly air leads a traffic school fellow pupil played by Wendie Jo Sperber to think that he’s a medical doctor when in fact he's actually a car mechanic with a predilection for using language that seemingly applies to both cars and human beings. These include phrases like “rear end”, which he uses constantly to refer to the back side of a car but that Sperber imagines refers to her butt. Honestly, it doesn’t make any more sense in context but Willard and Sperber, old pros both, throw themselves into the running gag with such unblinking, deadpan devotion that the joke becomes semi-funny in spite of itself, although, to be fair, I was probably chuckling to myself at the movie’s expense, more than I was laughing with it. 

Not Fred Willard's finest work, to be honest

Not Fred Willard's finest work, to be honest

There’s also some cockamamie subplot involving the evil traffic cops conspiring to sell their pupil’s cars that rivals the diamond-smuggling subplots found in comedies of the 1980s and 1990s for sheer pointlessness. Israel and Pat Proft are veteran screenwriters with credits both auspicious (The Naked Gun, Real Genius, Police Academy, which was garbage, but at least was popular, influential garbage) and deeply embarrassing, like Star Wars Holiday Special and National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Reunion. 

Proft and Israel are old-school gag-men, and Moving Violations, to both its credit and its detriment, is full of old-fashioned gags that could just as easily be in a Bowery Brothers comedy or Jerry Lewis movie. If Proft and Israel are shameless—which they are—then they at least have the decency to steal extensively from themselves. 

After all, Proft and Israel wrote 1984’s Police Academy, then made this half-assed knock-off in 1985, and Israel followed it up the next year by directing another knockoff in Combat Academy. And after Proft co-wrote The Naked Gun and Hot Shots! he followed them up with those films’ official sequels but also Mr. Magoo, the Leslie Nielsen-starring Fugitive parody Wrongfully Accused and Scary Movie 3 (and Scary Movie 4 and Scary Movie 5). 

I'm just going to out and say it: there's some serious kink-shaming going on here. 

I'm just going to out and say it: there's some serious kink-shaming going on here. 

Moving Violations is so shameless in its thievery that in the film’s third act John delivers what I have come to think of as the “Bill Murray Ironic Motivational Speech” after the spiels Bill gives in Meatballs and Stripes. In the best Bill Murray hyper-meta tradition, these speeches are at once genuinely rousing and memorable while also brilliantly subverting the conventions of the plucky underdog movie.

In these sarcastically stirring addresses to his fellow fuck-ups, Bill Murray’s character essentially says, “We’re a bunch of losers and this bullshit doesn’t matter, so let’s have a go at it anyway.” But there’s no additional element of irony or sarcasm when John Murray tells his fellow students they need to stick it to the man. It’s John’s performance in a nutshell: it’s exactly like Bill Murray’s classic performances in films from this era only it’s no damn good at all. 

Don't let the Sally Jesse glasses and unflattering perm fool you: that's Academy Award-nominated thespian Jennifer Tilly as the romantic lead

Don't let the Sally Jesse glasses and unflattering perm fool you: that's Academy Award-nominated thespian Jennifer Tilly as the romantic lead

I’m happy I watched Moving Violations all the same, however. It may be egregiously bad, but it’s bad in a way I have come to savor, and there’s something oddly satisfying about satiating your curiosity about some super random bit of pop culture detritus, even if it’s about something as silly and minor as wondering how bad a Police Academy knockoff about a wacky traffic school starring Bill Murray’s least talented brother could possibly be. 

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Rando!Nathan Rabin