John Candy has one truly funny moment in "Wagons East!," the Western comedy that had nearly finished shooting when he died suddenly early this year. As the reluctant wagonmaster James Harlow, he turns back to the barful of eager-for-exodus townsfolk who're counting on him and proclaims, "We leave at dawn." The cloud of a second thought passes over his face, then a shrug: ". . . Noonish," he wavers.
That perfect kicker was improvised by Candy on the set, so clearly the great comic had some of his best instincts intact to the end. But these instincts obviously rarely extended to picking projects, and "Wagons East!" is a typically rickety vehicle, just dumb enough that it actually submerges Candy's sweet, perky persona in what's basically a sullen, grizzled straight-man role. He'd made worse, but fans hoping against hope for a worthy career kicker might want to get their horses turned around now.
The script takes off from an all-too-promisingly rich premise: The pioneers of a Western town--fed up with bank robberies, a lack of culture and dust in general--become the first Americans to turn tail and head back east en masse. "This country was founded by quitters," co-star Richard Lewis explains to his kids. "English quitters, French quitters. . . ." A tribe of initially warlike Native Americans even opts to help with the settlers' reverse wagon drive. "I just like seeing them go in that direction," the chief explains to his confused son, in subtitles.
Quickly, though, the picture slips out of satire into listless, sub-Brooksian spoofery and scatology--it's "Snoozing Saddles," all the way down to a shameless re-creation of its obvious antecedent's campfire-fart scene. There are anachro-Western types aplenty: a gold-hearted hooker (Ellen Greene, sounding as if she might any moment break into "Suddenly Seymour"); an effete, terribly tasteful gay settler (John C. McGinley, saying "super!" a lot and wearing lavender); a Wile E. Coyote-like villain sent by the railroad barons to stop the settlers' return (Ed Lauter), and so on.
Director Peter Markle is a little too busy balancing this scattershot ensemble to devote quality time to leads Lewis and Candy, who both seem unnaturally tamed. The movie could have used more of Lewis' neurotic shtick ("I'm anti-handgun," he explains, challenged to a duel) to get across just how much these bi-continental wanna-bes really belong back Manhattan way. And Candy's countenance is curiously buried beneath a frontiersman's bushy beard and long, floppy bangs; without much to do but look haggard and withdrawn, he seems vaguely ghostly before his time.
After some of the summer's bigger-budget comedy busts, "Wagons East!" feels fairly painless, at least, though Matthew Carlson's script ought to have screamed "small screen" to the green-lighters who let this convoy pass. As for last chances for fearless Candy fans, there's always the (long-delayed) "Canadian Bacon" still on the burner.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for language. Times guidelines: It contains mild language, comedy violence and sexual innuendo mostly surrounding an exaggerated gay character. 'Wagons East!'
John Candy: James Harlow
Richard Lewis: Phil Taylor
John C. McGinley: Julian
Ellen Greene: Belle
A TriStar Pictures presentation of a Carolco production. Director Peter Markle. Producers Gary Goodman, Barry Rosen, Robert Newmyer, Jeffrey Silver. Executive producer Lynwood Spinks. Screenplay Matthew Carlson. Cinematographer Frank Tidy. Editor Scott Conrad. Costumes Adolfo (Fito) Ramirez. Music Michael Small. Production design Vince J. Cresciman. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.