Men at Work is patient zero for the plague of Charlie Sheen movies that infected the 1990s. One tends to forget that Sheen had steady work in that decade, turning out cocky fare like The Chase and Terminal Velocity. And while Men at Work isn’t the first film to use the actor in his then-typical role of a wiseass hot-shot lothario, the casual laziness that would infect his ’90s output has its origins in writer-director Emilio Estevez’s crime comedy. As Carl Taylor, Sheen can’t be bothered to do anything but exist on screen as he wades through his brother’s mercilessly overstuffed plot.
Estevez’s second feature is a major step down from his 1986 debut, Wisdom. For that film, Estevez was flanked by a massively talented crew: It was edited by Michael Kahn, scored by Danny Elfman, and produced by legendary Oscar-winning director Robert Wise, whom Estevez sought out for advice and guidance. Despite all that firepower, Wisdom is shocking in its ineptitude, a crime thriller saddled with far too many useless details and tangents. The more problematic Men at Work suffers from the same screenplay overcompensations, to the point where one wishes Estevez sought out Wise’s contemporary, Billy Wilder, for advice instead. Wilder would have burned the script for Men at Work.
Everything in this film is extraneous, as if the script were a term paper padded out to meet the required number of pages. Its content is a litany of ’80s-movie characteristics, making it the perfect last gasp of a decade slipping into oblivion. There are elements of slob humor, cutesy romance, psychotic mayhem, brutal murder, and teenage-sex-comedy slapstick. Potential tonal problems are avoided because everything is pitched in the exact same tone regardless of subject matter. Estevez and company then wrap it all up with a sleazy bow made of equal parts environmental message and cringe-worthy scenes of gay panic.
If there’s any amusement to be had watching Men at Work, it stems from imagining that Estevez is executing some sly form of revenge on his more popular younger brother: Though Sheen gets the girl and the bigger role, he also gets slugged in the face by a psychotic war veteran, Louis (Keith David), and sealed in a toxic waste barrel. Sheen is also portrayed as a pervert who peeps into the windows of his neighbors, including campaign manager Susan (Leslie Hope), the film’s love interest and unwitting cause of a politician’s murder.
That politician, corrupt mayor Jack Berger (Darrell Lawson), is having an attack of environmental conscience as Men at Work opens. No longer willing to be complicit in a chemical dumping scheme, Berger records an incriminating conversation between him and the film’s villain, the awesomely named Maxwell Potterdam III (John Getz). Berger’s cassette is then accidentally switched by Susan, who replaces it with some godawful synth-pop provided by the Police’s Stewart Copeland. While trying to retrieve the correct tape from Susan’s apartment, Berger is strangled by Potterdam’s goons.
Meanwhile, in a completely different universe, Carl (Sheen) and James (Estevez) are two garbage men who acquire Louis as a chaperone when their latest workplace prank gets out of hand. After Louis beats up his charges, the garbage men find Berger’s body in the trash. Because he saw an earlier violent altercation between Susan and Berger, Carl thinks she murdered him. Rather than call the police, the trio treats the body as a Weekend at Bernie’s-style prop while Carl’s investigation of Susan turns Men at Work into an incredulous romantic comedy. While Carl woos Susan, James is stuck with Louis and the hogtied pizza delivery man (Dean Cameron) Louis kidnaps in a fit of military paranoia.
Though evil polluter Potterdam is supposed to be the film’s true object of scorn, Men at Work is far more vicious to two bumbling police officers whose constant antagonism of Carl and James makes them ripe for comeuppance. These guys are merely annoying, and unlike Potterdam, they haven’t tried to murder our heroes. Yet the film devotes several scenes to the officers’ embarrassment at being publicly shackled, half-naked and in a compromising doggy-style position, on a merry-go-round. The look of disgust on Susan’s face when she discovers them is a repugnant reminder of how homophobia was constantly used as a comedic device by Hollywood. The film ends not with Potterdam being shuffled off to jail, but with these still-shackled cops getting pissed on by a dog.
As a hideous musical collaboration between Ziggy Marley and Diane Warren played over the closing credits, I wondered what I originally found amusing about Men at Work back in 1990 when I first saw it. Then I remembered I was high on flu medication. Seen today in the cold, harsh light of sobriety, Men at Work reveals itself to be a far uglier creature than my memory portrayed. Sometimes one’s cinematic past should not be revisited.
Odie Henderson can be found hiding from Martin Sheen at RogerEbert.com. Don’t tell President Bartlet where he is.