[This is a submission to the White Elephant Blogathon called by Silly Hats Only.]
On the stage, John Leguizamo was something of a dynamo caricaturist. His one-man plays, like Freak and Sexaholix, were an explosive series of tirades centered around Leguizamo’s mixed ethnicity, effectively turning his insecurity into schtick by sheer force of will alone. On stage, Leguizamo looked like a caged cartoon animal pacing back and forth while tirelessly spitting over-caffeinated rants at his audience. No target was spared, especially not when it came to his parents. He was not Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy, but he was loud and vigorous in his lampooning and the audiences and critics ate it up.
The producers of Paul Miller’s 1997 clunker, The Pest, and perhaps Miller himself, who had previously directed 15 episodes of In Living Color and 10 episodes of something called House of Buggin’, no doubt saw this angry young man and thought that all they needed to do was put a camera in front of him, wind him up and set him loose to get fans of “ethnic humor” to roll up. He acted like a living looney tune on film so why not on try doing the same thing for film?
I don’t know, why not? In theory, it should work perfectly. Co-written by Leguizamo and Freak scribe David Bar Katz, The Pest is clearly trying to recapture the same kind of anarchic lightning-in-a-bottle energy Leguizamo so effortlessly captured on stage. And yet it stinks. The Pest assumes that there’s nothing Leguizamo couldn’t accomplish if he just took aim at every minority group and let his motormouth run while he did some horribly tacky impersonations and made a few flat fart jokes and a few about barfing, too. Most of Leguizamo’s dialogue seems improvised, which again in theory is not a bad idea. Unfortunately, Leguizamo would have had to run his mouth off a lot faster than even he normally could to make such thin material work.
Leguizamo plays Pestario “Pest” Vargas, a would-be con artist in debt to the Scottish mob for $50,000. His problems look to be solved when Gustav Shank (Jeffrey Jones), a snobby and naturally humorless German psychotic decides to offer Vargas the money. The catch is that Vargas has to let Shank hunt him and survive for 24 hours. A whole day gives Vargas enough time to name-drop a lot of stereotypes: he makes Charlie Chan-worthy faces at Fat Wong Foo’s Chinese eatery, dresses up as a Hasidic rabbi and crashes a Bar Mitzvah, makes fun of more Asians by dressing up like a Japanese salaryman singing karaoke and then lightly pokes fun at some black people by riding around with his friend Chubby (Aries Spears) in a jeep with a one-story tall speaker hidden under its elevated chassis. This would be funny if Leguizamo tried to crack some jokes instead of just braying a lot of really tired imitations in the vain hopes of earning a few chuckles from his constant mugging for the camera. He’s charming in his own goofy way, but nowhere near that charming.
It pains me to admit just how obnoxious The Pest is because it has all the ingredients of the kind of guilty pleasure I love. The Pest is a dog, one with fleas and an unfortunate haircut, but it’s full of zany pep and tries so hard to please you in various different ways that eventually it’s impossible not to give in and at least admire its chutzpah. It is such a ’90s film: everything about it screams incompetence from the opening credit sequence, where Leguizamo raps a retrofitted version of “Rapper’s Paradise” that allows him to better sell his act (he does Jerry Lewis, Desi Arnaz and Three Stooges impressions and even a few fart jokes all in the shower!). The film’s producers were clearly just throwing money at the screen in the hopes that ethnic humor would keep making them a mint. Results were clearly not what they wanted and the film tanked, grossing a grand total of $3.6 million domestically.
The Pest stunk up the place and launched nobody’s career. It was one of two horrible major failures Leguizamo suffered that year, including the live-action comic book adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s unsinkable franchise Spawn, wherein Leguizamo donned a midget fat suit and played a disfigured clown demon from Hell (trust me, it’s not as awesome as it sounds).
Like Leguizamo, the film’s cast of ethnic character actors would go on to greater or lesser success depending entirely on their own ability to not just be “that ethnic comic guy.” Spears would go on to be the token black comedian on MadTV while Freddy Rodríguez, who plays Ninja, Leguizamo’s other wingman, would go on to star in Six Feet Under and Planet Terror amongst other goodly things. Leguizamo would never quite reach the level of respect as an artist that he did on the stage even if he did turn out a couple of accomplished and fun bit parts since The Pest, including George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead and Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam before that. His role as Pest Vargas didn’t haunt his career, though it more than likely should have, and all was right with the world. Until a comic named Dave Chappelle reminded the world that ethnic humor could still be shockingly funny with Chapelle’s Show, spawning rancid imitators like Carlos Mencia. But that’s a story for another time.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, and the New York Press. He obsessively maintains a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.