It is better to take a swing than not swing at all. The Motern movies, from Charles Roxburgh and Matt Farley — and starring frequent collaborators — deliver a certain thing. Their carved out genre of grammarsploitation (wordy fun uncannily performed to hilarious results) has delivered a few notable successes in a row. Boston Johnny is another grammarsploitation movie but it is also different from the Motern movies that came before it, toying with the template. As mentioned, it’s a swing. Sadly, it is also somewhat of a miss. A film that goes for something — and arguably achieves that something — but leaves you wondering if that thing really was something you wanted. It is a deviation from a trusted template that reminds you why that template works.
Saying this, Heard She Got Married (2021), was also something different. That existed in the Motern mode but played with a different genre and a different tone. However, the old adage that drama is easier than comedy has been shown to be true. Going a touch serious, and playing with the established language of the thriller, and the more conventional drama, is perhaps a safer — and more traditional — route than pushing your comedy in a different direction. Boston Johnny is yet another starring vehicle for the always brilliant Matt Farley, as was Heard She Got Married. In that film, the traditional Farley role (verbose and eminently likeable) was used to ground a clever subversion. But, in doing so, it still played to what works. Here, Farley plays a role. Often, he is playing skewed versions of himself — or pulling on aspects of his persona to flesh out character — that isn’t the case here. The eponymous Boston Johnny, who goes by that (and that alone) the entire film, is not Matt Farley.
Boston Johnny is a local announcer; he records adverts for regional products and is (somewhat) celebrated for doing so. He is also clearly inspired by the SNL characters of the ’90s, this film being part homage to the spinoffs from that (of which Wayne’s World (1992) is a sort of Citizen Kane (1941) — to use an easy, if overused comparison) and, at least in execution if not intent, Adam Sandler comedies. You see, Boston Johnny has a comedically exaggerated way of speaking and is a capital C character. He is written to be annoying, that’s part of the gag. He is narcissistic, deluded, not really good at what he does (that’s also part of the gag) and the movie is comedy by way of endurance test. Farley is going to keep doing that performance and you are going to watch it. To a great extent, you have to respect it. It is interesting playing against type, as the natural qualities of Farley as a performer run counter to this character. Their sole connection is in being musicians, and in these musical moments, it feels like classic Motern again. You see, Farley can’t quite keep up the voice while singing and the Boston Johnny songbook of parody adjacent music is certainly familiar Farley territory. These moments may not help character consistency but they are the best bits of the movie, partly as a reprieve.
Here’s the thing, and it comes down to how innately subjective comedy is: I found this film incredibly annoying. Here’s the other thing: it clearly wants to be; it is aiming for this. And I respect that. A wider critique is that this approach just doesn’t quite fit in the style of film they make, and beyond the Farley performance, the film doesn’t really diverge. Boston Johnny feels out of place in the movie, but not in a way that makes for comedy. He feels like an outsider in a mode of filmmaking that doesn’t accommodate him. The rest of the movie, you see, is classic Motern stuff. Looping locations, ideas, and phrases percolate throughout. It crafts out its own specific regionalisms that belong to the film and has fun doing so. One thing I will note is that there is a throwaway gag about Toronto’s own Will Sloan that is hilarious. It is a funny succession of words but also a rewarding in-joke to Motern fans (who will know who Will Sloan is). This then becomes a less successful running gag and eventually a recurring character, to diminishing returns. But this is in keeping with things not working as well as they often do.
The very typical Motern arc has characters interact with Boston Johnny like they would a normal Farley character, and it resolves in a similar way. But the characterisation doesn’t quite work. The film is ultimately too kind to its character and needs to mould itself around this new element. Metal Detector Maniac (2021) is an example of what could have been. It is a more typical Motern film but the way it keeps pushing, and the lengths it goes to, are delightful and feel different. That film surprises you with the dark places it goes and by how relatively uncompromising it is. Boston Johnny isn’t as willing to go there, feeling a touch toothless as it plays to the rhythm of Motern more than it does the main character. He is interestingly amoral as a figure but the film just doesn’t harness this, or find enough ways to express it.
For a lot of the Motern hardcore, this will still work excellently. The elements that distance me will hit just right for some and there is still a lot of heritage DNA here. The bits where it is typical Motern are very very good. The little world built in the film is another endearing one but, for me at least, the parts that work make the parts that don’t stand out more, and ultimately more of an issue. But it is trying something. It is not just the same again, and we have a lot of that. Far better to swing and miss than not swing at all, and you can’t hit (to quote Boston Johnny’s catchphrase) allatiiiiiiime.