Fear of commitment is one of those topics that pops up a lot in the world of romantic comedies. Jerry Maguire (1996) shows Tom Cruise struggling to say “I love you” in a convincing fashion, and in When Harry Met Sally (1989) Billy Crystal makes terrible excuses to leave early in the morning after each date. Failure To Launch (2006) spelled it out more bluntly than perhaps we needed – in Hollywood, men are afraid of love. Love is a scary business. Even so, it rarely comes with a health warning.
So I Married An Axe Murderer is that rare film. It suggests that the lead character is right to be terrified of commitment. In fact, running away might just save his life. This is a tricky idea to get right, because the audience needs to believe that the hero can want to be involved in a relationship with somebody he suspects of being an axe murderer, but it works because of the lead performance by Mike Myers.
In 1992, Wayne’s World was released and pretty much everybody suddenly knew who Mike Myers was. It didn’t take long for Wayne’s World 2 to come along – it was released only a year later – and then Myers went on to become Austin Powers, and the voice of Shrek, and he manages to bring warmth to some extreme characters while always looking like he’s having loads of fun in the process. But in between Wayne’s World and Wayne’s World 2 he tried on the traditional rom-com role, and managed to portray an endearing and sympathetic character in a very different vein from his usual creations.
Maybe it’s the fact that he looks so comfortable in those overblown characters such as Austin Powers that makes me really like So I Married an Axe Murderer. He plays Charlie MacKenzie, a beat poet coffee-shop frequenter living in San Francisco and dumping any girlfriend who gets too close to him. He lives in a state of paranoia, inventing the strangest reasons to become single once more. But then he meets butcher Harriet Michaels (Nancy Travis), and tries to fight his initial response to push her away. He knows he has a problem. Should he blame all his misgivings on his paranoia, even as evidence begins to mount up? It’s a great idea that drives most of the film.
At this point I should say that So I Married An Axe Murderer didn’t do well at the box office, and if you went into it expecting a variation on Wayne’s World I can see how you would be disappointed. But I think it’s a shame that Myers hasn’t played more ordinary people onscreen. Charlie is very recognisable and sympathetic. He likes to entertain as a defence mechanism. For instance, at one moment he’s lying in bed with Harriet and they have an argument. Aware that he’s hurt her feelings, he says, “Human blanket! Human blanket!” and climbs on top of her. She pushes him away and turns over. It turns out it’s difficult to live with someone who has to crack jokes about everything. The humour flows from his character, and isn’t forced. He wisecracks to covers his nerves.
That’s not to say this is a deep film – only that it has an interesting point to make about where humour comes from, and it also makes you think about how hard it is to let down your guard with someone, and to stop being endlessly funny. When can you relax and simply be yourself? That’s where the second strand of the story comes into play. Charlie’s parents are a long-married Scottish couple who have decorated the house in Bay City Rollers pictures and tartan, and they show their love by delivering casual verbal abuse at each other. As Charlie’s dad (played by Myers as well, doing the kind of overblown performance he’s so good at) gets drunk and sings Rod Stewart songs, Charlie’s mum delivers sideways looks that sum it all up very astutely. You can see the unblinkered affection in her expression. It’s a really strong performance by Brenda Fricker that makes you care about this family.
This brings me to the fact that, however much I like the nervous courtship of Charlie and Harriet, it’s the supporting roles that make this film really entertaining. There are some brilliant actors playing very minor roles. Charles Grodin pops up, as does the stand-up comedian Steven Wright. Phil Hartman plays an Alcatraz tour guide. Amanda Plummer appears as Harriet’s sister, Rose, with a deadpan expression, and Alan Arkin is the Police Captain who wants to deliver job satisfaction to his staff. I don’t know why it’s so good to see an actor you know appear on screen for just a few moments – I wonder if it’s the Geekish pleasure of recognising them and getting to name them out loud to the room, empty or otherwise – but it really works here. And the script isn’t afraid to make the most of these small sections of humour, even if they’re at a tangent to the storyline.
As the film progresses it moves away from the romantic comedy aspect and into more serious waters, as Charlie faces his fear of commitment. And then it throws all that hard work out of the window and goes for a full-on gothic ending in a spooky hotel at night with an electrical storm raging outside. Yes, the power and the telephone lines go down, and the creepy music gets cranked up, and there’s a chase and the titular axe. I love the building of tension throughout this section, with the close-ups on the faces of Harriet and Charlie. They are both in the grip of terror, and are totally unable to communicate with each other about it. It’s a great change from the usual romantic comedy about fear of commitment. Charlie has to trust his instincts instead of overcome them. He really is in terrifying territory.
The film came in for criticism at the time of release over the fact that the main plot doesn’t juggle the elements of romance, comedy, and horror effectively, and it is a bit blunt in this regard, jerking from one section to the next without them ever really coming together as a whole. But I don’t think that makes it a bad film so much as a surprising one. You get taken along for the ride but never sit comfortably, and it’s short and sweet enough to get away with it. Personally I could do without the beat poetry aspect, but it’s one of those things you’ll either love or hate.
It’s well worth revisiting 1993 and So I Married an Axe Murderer. It has a great score, brilliant supporting actors, and some very funny moments. Plus it’s a reminder that Mike Myers can do more than bring grotesque characters to life, although the Scottish dad is up there with the best of his creations. He can be a romantic lead who isn’t always funny – and it’s that vulnerability, which we can identify with, that really appeals.
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