Given that he went into retirement from acting back over a decade ago now, for personal reasons, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Rick Moranis’ back catalogue of movies isn’t as bountiful as many of his contemporaries. Yet, Moranis certainly knew how to make a comedy mark (although, as we’ll discover, there’s more to the man than that). And while the 10 films we’re going to talk about here are of mixed quality, the common feature is that Moranis delivers a performance that tends to stand out.
I should note from the outset, incidentally, that we’re not going anywhere near the risible movie of The Flintstones here. But that’s just common sense for all concerned.
Instead, as a fully-paid up fan of Mr Moranis, these are the ten films that reflect his body of work the best in my eyes…
10. Brother Bear
Very much Disney as it was entering into a barren period in the 1990s, Moranis nonetheless chips in with voicing duties on Brother Bear, and does a solid job. He lends his tones to the character of Rutt, which he would do again in the straight to DVD sequel, and he gets a good double act going with long-time collaborator Dave Thomas, the pair of them voicing moose brothers.
But, truth be told, this is functional, rather than spectacular, Disney, and while it’s a nice film to have on your CV, it was only ever going to live at this end of the list. So we’d best move on.
9. Streets Of Fire
Rick Moranis paired with director Walter Hill on a duo of consecutive movies. He had a small role in the fun Brewster’s Millions, which came out in 1985. But before that, he turned up in 1984’s Streets Of Fire, a film we cited here for its underappreciated music.
Moranis here is Billy Fish, the manager of singer Ellen Aim, and the film is certainly far darker than pretty much everything else in his back catalogue. If you’re looking for what you could define a traditional Rick Moranis piece, this is absolutely not it.
His role here isn’t a particularly demonstrative one, although it’s a part of narrative importance. But while it’s Michael Pare, Diane Lane and Willem Dafoe who tend to be the most recognised whenever the film is (unfairly) rarely discussed, Moranis is worthy of a look, too.
8. My Blue HeavenMy Blue Heaven is not a good film. That’s not a great start for something I’ve put eighth in a list. But heck, it’s an interesting movie, for a few reasons, and it’s very much worth a watch.
The headline problem, and I won’t be the first to have noticed this, is that the double act between Steve Martin and Rick Moranis doesn’t work very well. I’m a massive fan of both of them, and this should have been a dream comedy pairing. But it never gels.
The material, though, never lets them. With Martin playing the former mobster, and Moranis as the man overseeing him in the witness protection story, what you’re actually getting here is a film inspired by the story of Henry Hill. The same Henry Hill whose story Martin Scorsese filmed so triumphantly with Goodfellas.
In a weird way, My Blue Heaven is – genuinely – Goodfellas 2, and it’s when I learned this that I found watching the film a lot more interesting. Screenwriter Nora Ephron never gets the script right for me here, though. She’s married to Nicholas Pileggi, who penned the book Wiseguy that became the Goodfellas movie, but you can’t help but feel that she’s pushed herself a little too far out of her comfort zone here.
But there’s ambition to the project, nonetheless. Yet, while both leads are trying something a little different, and while Ephron is tackling an unusual story for a comedy, it never completely works. Still worth a spin, though.
7. The Adventures Of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew
Little known fact: Rick Moranis’ feature film debut was actually in a film that he himself directed. Said feature is this one, where he and Dave Thomas reprised their roles as Bob and Doug McKenzie from their TV work. Thomas and Moranis wrote and directed the film, and while my recollection of it isn’t as sharp as some of the titles we’ve talked about here, there’s a lot to commend it for. Not least because they persuaded Max von Sydow to take part.
It’s the double act between Moranis and Thomas that makes this one sing, though, as the pair face the realisation that they’ve run out of cash for beer, and thus try and get a job at a brewery. Logical, really. The plot is fairly straightforward from there, that they discover all is not well at said brewery. But it’s a platform for comedy, and an effective one at that.
It’s not a perfect film, and in many ways it’s quite a raw one, relying on easy jokes just a little too often. But the core double act works, and I’m told there’s a cracking drinking game to play while watching it, too. Always a bonus…
I’ve elevated Spaceballs a little further up the list than ordinarily I would have done had I not specifically been taking the Moranis factor into account. But you try resisting one of his very best on-screen comedy creations further down the line. I’m talking, of course, about the scene-stealing work of Lord Dark Helmet, Moranis’ homage to Darth Vader.
Visually, he looks ridiculous here, which is all part of the fun. But it’s the lines that he manages to chuck out from underneath it that really ice this particular cake. “I bet she gives great helmet,” he asides to a nurse at one point, or what about when he urges that light speed is not enough and, in fact, they need “ludicrous speed”?
The joy is that Lord Dark Helmet is perhaps the only villainous role that Moranis has really tackled in his career, and you can see the gusto a mile off. I have problems with the film as a whole, which I like but very much in a warts-and-all way. Moranis, and John Candy too, practically have me crying with laughter as soon as they appear, though…
5. Ghostbusters II
A much underrated sequel, and one that slightly expands the role of Louis Tully that Moranis portrayed in the original. Here, we first meet him defending the Ghostbusters in court, and it’s a lovely comedic reintroduction to a character that Moranis seamlessly steps back into the shoes of.
He’s still battling to get noticed in the ensemble crush here, but that’s never been a problem in his career. And Ghostbusters II is also the film where Moranis gets to pull on the proton pack and attempt to go and save the day for the first time.
I love the fact that he’s the man hailed as the hero by the collected crowd at the end of the film, too. If you’re all alone in the neighbourhood, he might not be the first Ghostbuster you’d think of calling to the scene. But it’s a lovely story choice to have him emerging as the man who appeared to have saved the day.
It’s looking very unlikely that Moranis will be persuaded out of retirement for Ghostbusters III at the time of writing, and personally, I don’t blame him for giving it a miss. It’s hard to think, even if he was tempted to come back to acting, how Tully’s character could end on a note higher than when we see him here.
4. Honey, I Shrunk The Kids
I’m happy to have this argument with anyone: Honey, I Shrunk The Kids is one of the best family films that the 1980s threw up. It’s inventive, has characters you actually don’t want to lose halfway through the movie, and employs effects and scale work in a way that solely helps the story.
And it’s very much Moranis at the heart of it. Arguably, the only film he made that was heavily sold successfully with his name alone above the title (with the exception of the two sequels, which I’ll come to momentarily), he’s in full-on geek mode here, as Wayne Szalinski, the nerdy scientist who comes up with a contraption that ultimately shrinks his children down. This is then the platform for a really enjoyable adventure, with director Joe Johnston very much at the top of his game here.
So is Moranis, though, working not just opposite children (a difficult job for an actor in itself), but also convincingly dealing with working against the differing scales of the characters of the film, in more than one sense. He’s the glue that holds a very strong film together.
The two sequels, sadly, never managed to capture the same magic, and instead followed obvious concept choices, yet never bothered to get the script right. Moranis battled gamely on, but he was on a losing battle in both cases.
3. Little Shop Of Horrors
You could rightly take us to task for not talking enough about the sublime 80s musical Little Shop Of Horrors on this scite. Given my personal professed love of the work of musical magicians Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, you can heap the shame in my direction.
Specifically for Rick Moranis, though, what Little Shop Of Horrors once more demonstrates (and we’re coming to further examples), is just how well he can slot into a broad ensemble and still make an impact. In the film version of the musical (which is more different than people may appreciate from the stage original), Moranis gets the plum role of Seymour Krelborn, and it’s his job to hold the story together. Not only is he expected to sing, but as the florist with the collection of plants you don’t get from Interflora, you see much of what’s going on through his eyes.
Moranis is up to the task, etching on screen one of his best performances, in a film that rightly gets re-spun time and time again. It’s a tremendous, and generous, comedy performance. You can smell, even though it’s not been announced, plans for a remake of Little Shop Of Horrors somewhere in the corridors of Hollywood (and don’t quote me. I’ve no insider information there), but it’s going to be a brave actor who tries to commit another take on Seymour to screen. Because Mr Moranis? He nailed it. Again.
What differentiates comedians in film, and comedy actors, is a role such as Parenthood. Because, for a comedy actor to really be able to work on screen across a breadth of roles, they have to have the acting chops to go with it. Adam Sandler, therefore, does, while someone like Martin Lawrence doesn’t.
Rick Moranis does. And the restraint in playing the role of Nathan in Ron Howard’s exceptional ensemble piece, Parenthood, leads to a scene-stealing performance. He’s the embodiment of the modern parent in the film, bringing up his infant child to be a maths genius, and insisting to his wife that they leave sufficient time “between sibs”. But where all his underplayed work in the early part of the film comes to life is in the exceptional sequence where he serenades his wife, to try and woo her back, with a dose of The Carpenters. In the wrong hands? It could have been a disaster. Moranis pitches it perfectly, and it’s arguably his character, as a result, who makes the greatest progression throughout the film.
Moranis, not for the first time, is brilliant here (and always very likeable), but I’d argue it’s rarely been harder to be so for him than in Parenthood. Because, simply, the rest of the cast fill so many of the other roles in the film, one or two of which on paper you might feel are better suited for Moranis. Yet, Nathan, I’d argue, is one of his finest cinematic creations, and possibly his best acting performance on screen.
It’s perhaps inevitable that one of the finest comedies of the past 30 years tops the list here. What’s impressive about Ghostbusters from Moranis’ point of view, though, is the impact that he makes with quite a small role in the ensemble. We’ve already talked about Moranis in Ghostbusters II, where his role was broadened out, but here he has the job of having to punch above his weight to get noticed amongst a crowd of comedy talent.
He does. As Louis Tully, Moranis is on top form here, in a role that was originally intended for John Candy. Moranis takes it in a different direction than Candy would have done, though, taking a very nerdy approach to the character of Tully and ensuring that he’d be remembered long after the credits rolled. It’s the facial expressions that Moranis manages to generate that always impress me here, and he’s an excellent foil for Sigourney Weaver’s Dana. I’ve always felt that Weaver has a natural talent for comedy that she’s not employed enough, and I’d have been happy to see a Dana and Louis spin-off movie, myself.
However, for the purposes of here and now, Ghostbusters isn’t just the best film that Moranis has made, it boasts one of his very best performances, too. Truthfully, I might have put Parenthood top of the list if we were solely going on the Moranis factor, and not taking the quality of the films into account too. But for the winning mix of both criteria, Ghostbusters wins out…
And One Last Thing…
If you’re wondering what Rick Moranis has been up to since he left the screen, might we suggest you check out his excellent album, Agoraphobic Cowboy? It’s extremely good, and well worth a listen.
Agree? Disagree? Head to the comments below…
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