The good-natured 80s comedy celebrating beer & friendship has managed to survive the test of time.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the [series/movie/etc] being covered here wouldn’t exist.
When SCTV, the funniest sketch comedy show of all time, moved to the CBC network in its third season, the producers were given an edict to include two minutes of identifiably Canadian content in each episode. Believing this to be a particularly stupid order—the show was written, produced and performed by a mostly Canadian cast and crew—two of the show’s writer-performers, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, decided to ridicule the request via a string of largely improvised sketches in which they would play characters that would overtly embody the most obvious Canadian stereotype. They would always be wearing toques, talking about back bacon and beer and interject “Eh?” into practically every sentence.
In a bizarre turn of events, these throwaway characters—brothers Bob (Moranis) and Doug (Thomas) McKenzie became the breakout favorites of the perennially low-rated SCTV, a position that was further solidified when their comedy album The Great White North became a million-selling, Grammy-nominated hit. Having already conquered the television and recording industries, it was perhaps inevitable that Moranis and Thomas, who had left SCTV in 1982 (reportedly in part due to resentment that had developed between them and their fellow cast members in the wake of their fluke stardom), would elect to parlay the characters further via a feature film. Of course, what might be amusing in the context of a short TV skit might not necessarily hold up for 90 minutes (as anyone who saw such SNL misfires as The Ladies Man or A Night at the Roxbury can attest) but not only did the subsequent film, Strange Brew, prove to be a fairly inspired and funny expansion of a one-joke premise upon its release in 1983, it managed to largely retain its goofball charm 40 years later.
As the film opens, the brothers are premiering their new film, a super-cheap piece of sci-fi schlock entitled Mutants of 2051 AD that the audience deems to be a ripoff before the occasion devolves into a riot. After using the beer money given to them by their dad (voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc) to give a refund to a family, the broke brothers hit upon a brilliant idea: putting a live mouse into a bottle of their beloved Elsinore beer and taking it to the store in order to get some free beer as compensation. When the store owner tells them to take it up with the brewery, they head off to the vast Elsinore compound—located conveniently next to the Royal Canadian Institute for the Mentally Insane—and end up rescuing Pam (Lynne Griffin), the daughter of recently deceased owner John Elsinore from a faulty gate.
As it turns out, the guy in charge of making the beer, Brewmeister Smith (Max von Sydow—yes, Max von Sydow) has been working on a plan to take over the world by adding a drug to the beer that, when quaffed, will transform its drinkers into docile consumers whose minds can be controlled via certain audio tones. Having discovered this plot, Smith and Pam’s idiotic Uncle Claude (Paul Dooley) murdered Elsinore. Unable to convince Pam to sign away her controlling interest in the brewery, they plot to dispose of her as well before they can unleash their dangerous brew at Oktoberfest, using the new interlopers, who have been given jobs by Pam and who have inadvertently come into possession of a floppy disk containing proof of Elsinore’s murder as the fall guys. This leads to their arrest and commitment to the Institute for the Mentally Insane, under the “care” of Smith himself, until they are set free and bumble their way into saving the day, with the help of their extremely thirsty wonder dog Hosehead.
Co-directed by Moranis and Thomas (who also co-wrote the script with Steve De Jarnatt, who would go on to create the cult favorite Miracle Mile), Strange Brew is a supremely silly movie but, unlike those aforementioned SNL films, it proves to be a surprisingly smart one as well. The narrative may seem ramshackle but it is based on solid underpinnings—in case some of the names and plot developments mentioned above did not trigger anything in your mind, the basic story is essentially a loose riff on no less a property than William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with the McKenzie brothers serving as the cheerfully addled equivalents to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. The film also benefits from the decision to cast the usually serious-minded von Sydow as the evil Brewmeister—although his part is just as ridiculous as the rest, he correctly approaches the role with as much seriousness as he can muster throughout and he makes the part even funnier than it probably would have been if it had been filled with a more overtly comedic actor.
As filmmakers, Moranis and Thomas aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but they manage to give the proceedings the kind of loose, improvisatory feel that made the original SCTV skits so winning. Their on-camera byplay is also a thing of joy to watch as well: even though they were meant to represent Canadian culture at its clunkiest, they prove to be a winning team. My guess is that neither Moranis nor Thomas would rate these particular characters especially high among those they have created and played over the years but they prove to be so endearing that it is no wonder that these are the ones that captured the fancy of the public the most.
When Strange Brew came out at the tail end of the summer of 1983, it was a modest box-office success and quickly developed a cult following. There’s no shortage of knockabout comedies starring goofy guys doing silly things but unlike a lot of those films, this one relies more on cleverness and wit over sheer outrageousness. Even the jokes that rely on gross-out humor (most notably when Bob is forced to drink an entire vat of beer that swells him to Mr. Creosote dimensions before he saves the day by recycling it to put out a fire) are handled with a sense of tact and decorum that is a rarity these days. While Strange Brew may not quite be a classic—at least in the sense that SCTV was a classic—it is still a real beauty, eh?