Today marks the 35th anniversary of Strange Brew, and in honor of this great milestone, it's time to discuss this incredibly important, fiercly intellectual film.
First, a little backstory: Strange Brew’s roots can be traced to the third season of Canadian sketch comedy SCTV, a series that catapulted the careers of John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and of course, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. Bob and Doug McKenzie (Moranis and Thomas respectively), two dim-witted, beer-guzzling brothers and TV hosts, were created to spite the network. The CBC required the series to program at least two minutes of strictly Canadian content, and the two comedians came up with the most stereotypical Canucks they could think of. The McKenzie Brother’s drunken bantering and child-like humor soon became a fan favorite (which according to The Second City Unscripted caused tension with troupe members Joe Flaherty and John Candy). An album—The Great White North—was recorded, and their popularity skyrocketed across the border. Soon the duo was nominated for a Grammy and gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.
Capitalizing on their newfound popularity, Moranis and Thomas set out to make a feature film. Loosely based off of Hamlet—yes, Hamlet—Strange Brew follows Bob and Doug as they try to score free beer by placing a mouse in a bottle. This leads them to Elsinore Brewery, a creepy matte-painted castle that happens to be next to the Royal Canadian Institute for the Mentally Insane. After saving Pam, the young heiress of the brewery, from a faulty gate, the boys are invited to work at the factory. They arrived at a pivotal time—the owner of the factory, Pam’s dad, was recently murdered by his brother Claude (Paul Dooley) and Brewmeister Smith (“a desperately out-of-place Max von Sydow,” according to a New York Times review.) In a bid to take over the world, Smith is in the process of testing mind-altering beer on patients at the institute.
To spare you spoilers and a highly convoluted plot that would take many paragraphs to write, shenanigans ensue with the best scene arguably being Rick Moranis drinking thousands of gallons of beer, becoming 5,000 pounds and putting out a fire with his pee.
It’s no secret that Strange Brew is a bad movie—the story is thin, the jokes are trite, the secondary performances lackluster and the effects elementary. The New York Times, in its 1983 review, said it’s “a movie barely there.” But these truths are exactly what makes the film so endearing. Moranis and McKenzie, who co-wrote and directed the film, had no delusions of grandeur. Where most contemporary comedies believe they are clever and offering audiences quality humor, Strange Brew flings shit at the wall and doesn’t care if you take it or leave.
If you’ve seen the McKenzie Brothers on SCTV you know that much of the banter is improvised, creating a loose an informal setting much like the one in our own homes. They carried this breeziness into the film and it’s impossible not to be charmed. As “barely there” as the film is, it’s easy to believe the cast and crew had a blast making it. One can imagine that Moranis and Thomas did everything they could not to crack up during takes. This innocence works its way into your heart, and though you may be left wondering “What the hell did I just watch?!” your heart grows warm and fuzzy and suddenly you find yourself desperately in love with Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas' boozy, dim-witted brothers.