In between mainstream hits and cult favorites, there's a narrow category of movies that didn't get a lot of love when they first screened but gradually became a part of the pop cultural canon for a respectably wide audience. Amy Heckerling's 1984 comedy Johnny Dangerously is such a movie. While it can't really be called a flop in the proper sense, it didn't exactly set the world on fire when it first hit theaters. Only though continued exposure on cable TV and reliable availability on home video did Johnny Dangerously get the viewership it deserved.
The first thing I want to address is the big misnomer so frequently attached to Johnny Dangerously. A lot of reviewers like to take a shortcut and call it a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930's. Just because the movie takes place in that time period and makes the occasional nod to some screwball tropes does not necessarily make it a full-on throwback. Johnny Dangerously is most certainly a film of its time, more innovative than referential or reverential. Those references that exist in the movie are endearing rather than distracting. The makeup, for one, has the caked foundation and prominent eye liner of the silent era. At times, star Michael Keaton is reminiscent of another Keaton actor, namely Buster.
Johnny Dangerously comes from the rapid-fire school of comedy, throwing so many jokes at the audience that if one falls flat it doesn't really matter because another is just around the corner. It's a delirious mix of slapstick, witty banter and cartoonish sight gags, all tied together with a keen aesthetic. It should also be noted that this is one of the first movies to ever receive the new PG-13 rating. Whether this contributed to its box office failure is up for speculation.
Combined with Tim Burton's Beetlejuice from four years later, Johnny Dangerously marks the high point of Michael Keaton's comic talent. Looking back, it's always been a huge waste to drop Keaton into the jeans-wearing everyman roles that have made up the majority of his career. He really shines in weird, outlandish characters, specializing in making villainous figures imminently likable. He has excellent chemistry here with Marilu Henner in her pre-workout tape days and uses the major height difference between him and foil Joe Piscopo to great comic effect.
So why did Johnny Dangerously under-perform when it originally screened? It just so happens that 1984 was a ridiculously good year for movies. Don't get me wrong, Johnny Dangerously is an excellent little comedy, but let's take a look at some its competition that year: Sixteen Candles; Nightmare On Elm Street; Terminator; The Natural; Footloose; Gremlins; Ghostbusters; Beverly Hills Cop. 1985 was only slightly more forgiving, but Johnny Dangerously came out in December '84, so it didn't really stick around in theaters long enough to reap the benefits of a leaner season.
Fun, deceptively smart and unwaveringly enthusiastic, Johnny Dangerously has managed to overcome its stumbling debut to stay in the public consciousness long enough to earn its place of honor among the great comedies of its time. Where first-run cinema culture can be brutal, home video and television can redeem.