Ever since he was a small boy being coached by his father, Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) had been destined to be a professional bowling champion, but his dreams were about to come crashing down when he won his first tournament back in 1979. The man he beat was Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), and losing against a newcomer became the source of a grudge for him, so much so that he fooled Roy into joining in with a scam against some unfriendly players. This resulted in McCracken fleeing while Roy was left to face the music: and lose his bowling hand...
As with many comedies directed by the Farrelly Brothers, Kingpin was essentially a road movie, taking its characters on a literal journey as well as moving them through some life changes. At the time it was released, it was criticised for its crude humour and reliance on putting not only the people on the screen but those in the audience as well through some disgusting sequences, and it's true this features some of the most rancid gags of the team's ouevre, but there's a curious sympathy with the three main travellers even as they go through the most awful ridicule.
Roy sees the light at the end of the tunnel when, seventeen booze-fuelled years after his "accident", he happens to meet Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid) in a bowling alley and be impressed with the skill he is displaying. Unfortunately Ishmael is Amish, and has no interest in gambling or going to Reno to win any championship, so as Roy hits rock bottom he is forced to pose as Amish to infiltrate Ishmael's community and persuade him to go along. As it happens, that community is desperately in need of funds, so Ish sees a chance to become a hero to his townsfolk who up until then have mocked him.
Predictably, Roy corrupts his new friend, as if he had a checklist of vices to introduce him to, starting with smoking and coffee and eventually alcohol, drugs, fast driving in cars and clothes with buttons. There are three people in this party, and the third they pick up when they save her from her rich and abusive boyfriend. She is Claudia (Vanessa Angel, the only one of the four principals not to don comedy hair), and she is as much a money-grabber as Roy is. They may not get on, but they act as rowing parents to Ish, so that by and by they see eye to eye and what is meant to be a touching relationship between the three of them develops.
That's if you don't mind your nose being rubbed in the ugly sordidness of their lives, and the Farrellys, working from a script by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan, could be mistaken on this evidence for wanting to make the most depressing comedy they possibly could. There's even a sequence where Roy goes back to his old hometown to discover it's hopelessly run down and abandoned, as if he is not allowed any happy memories anymore, an optimistic childhood included. This all leads up to a grand tournament with the long time coming showdown between Roy and McCracken (Murray in probably his sleaziest role), which is more than an opportunity to pack in ever more rubber hand gags, it is a chance for Roy to regain his self respect too. Not that the filmmakers let him off that easily. Is Kingpin meanspirited and cruel? Or are we supposed to feel sorry for these characters? It could well be both, and the laughs are measured out accordingly; not hilarious, then, but it grows on you if you let it.