Widely regarded as one of the worst films of all time, Tom Green’s 2001 comedy Freddy Got Fingered is far from it. From every technical standpoint, the film is competently made and tightly structured. What seems to grate with people is the very specifically absurd sense of humour which, admittedly, is not for everyone. It is understandable why some people would hate this film but regarding it as one of the worst comedies ever made is not giving due regard to the context in which it was made.
Having achieved international fame through his brand of offbeat humour on MTV (when that was a relevant cultural institution), he was offered the opportunity to write, direct and star in a feature film that would presumably cash in on his fan-base. The daring film that resulted was met with critical panning as well as several Razzie Awards (the anti-Oscars highlighting the year’s worst films). To Tom Green’s credit, he had the thick skin to accept in person unlike any previous recipient. Yet within the film is Green’s own meta-commentary on a creative if offbeat mind being met with rejection.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”18″]That’s why you probably remember Dude, Where’s My Car? being enjoyable but don’t remember its repugnant transphobia.[/perfectpullquote]
The film is among a string of high-profile “gross-out” comedies released at the turn of the century; American Pie, Road Trip and other such films. Combining humour relating to bodily functions or taboo subjects (often of a sexual nature) with farcical situations in which characters embarrass themselves, they were considered edgy entertainment. They tended to be popular at the box office and home rental market (R.I.P.). At the time they were harmless fun. That’s why you probably remember Dude, Where’s My Car? being enjoyable but don’t remember its repugnant transphobia.
Freddy Got Fingered attempts to satirise such films, taking gross-out humour to a deliberately overblown extreme, in order to highlight how immature it is for audiences to connect with these films. In pushing to such extremes however, the film came to be misunderstood by critics and audiences alike as a particularly egregious example of the genre’s flaws rather than a self-conscious examination of those flaws.
The film also offers what I call a neurodiverse gaze; the perspective of someone with ADHD, Asperger’s, dyslexia or any condition where the brain has different abilities from what is considered typical. If Tom Green himself doesn’t have ADHD, his character Gordon Brody or “Gord” certainly does. The world this character lives in will be seen through that neurodiverse perspective. If that means the humour seems alien to certain viewers, that is what will highlight mainstream society’s disconnect with those who see the world differently. Rigging a pulley system to eat sausage while playing the keyboard can seem like weird humour that’s trying too hard. To a neurodiverse viewer, it is easier to imagine some thought process that led to Gord combining suggestions for relaxation that were intended to be considered in isolation.
The very first scene shows the crude drawings of aspiring animator Gord’s creation “X-Ray Cat”. Without any context for the story, the audience sees the characters and humour created by someone whose mind clearly operates in a special way. The camera pulls back to reveal our main character, a 28-year-old man giggling on his bed like a teenager. This beautifully captures the jarring discord between his momentary glee and the poignant sadness of his arrested development.
The opening credits see Gord skateboarding through a shopping mall as security guards chase him and shoppers look aghast. The Sex Pistols’ ‘Problem’ plays, with its refrain “Problem? / Problem? / The Problem is You!” encapsulating punk rock’s challenge that mainstream society are the ones who behave inhumanely. The film makes astute use of well-known songs throughout since it had the budget to afford royalty payments. When Gord meets his parents in the car-park (played by Airplane II stars Julie Hagerty and Rip Torn), the premise of the film is established that Gord is moving to Los Angeles to fulfil his life-long dream of being a great animator. We see Gord’s father Jim be brusquely dismissive of his drawings, his form of self-expression. We see Gord’s straight-laced younger brother Freddy (American Pie’s Eddie Kaye Thomas) envious of the attention Gord is receiving.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”19″]The faux-sweetness of Gord heading off into the world on his own is anarchically undercut by him screaming “Get the fuck out of the way!!!” as he drives off.[/perfectpullquote]
This scene has moments of more conventional humour that may temporarily reassure the audience that while this film will be a bit zany, it won’t be completely off-the-wall. Savvy viewers will note how the score underpinning the moment where Gord vows to make his father proud has an intentionally saccharine score accompanying it. This film respects its audience enough to know viewers are familiar with narrative conventions of Hollywood cinema. By overplaying certain moments that have parallels in other films it raises awareness of how films are inherently manipulative. The faux-sweetness of Gord heading off into the world on his own is anarchically undercut by him screaming “Get the fuck out of the way!!!” as he drives off.
As he begins his journey, a general audience feels more sure-footed; as if the film will be relatively straightforward from this point. Green shatters this misguided confidence with which we approach other films, with a protracted, hysterical scream upon driving past a farm and seeing a horse’s burgeoning erection. With childlike excitement, he vaults over the fence, grabs the horse’s penis and repeatedly shouts, “Look at me, Daddy! I’m a farmer, Daddy! I’m a farmer!”
A provocative moment of humour that undoubtedly drove many to stop watching. Those who pressed on might have pondered the significance of such a scene coming out of nowhere. Gord has just driven off in his own convertible, heading down the west coast to California, where he has a job lined up as a stepping stone to fulfilling his ambitions in life. As Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’ plays, it is an image of a white man from the lower middle-classes, aspiring for adventure, hoping for a better life. It is as blunt an image of the American Dream as one can get. The American Dream, however, is founded on unquestioning acceptance of profoundly exploitative economic doctrines and unjust social hierarchies. Upon seeing an animal having its life essence harnessed for profit, Gord is confronted with the barbarity of patriarchal capitalism, which he proceeds to defiantly mock.
Much like Charlie Chaplin’s climactic speech in The Great Dictator, this moment is as much about the audience as it is about the character; Green mocks the father figures who tell us to ‘get a job’. Is inducing a farm animal to ejaculate not an absurd image no matter who is doing it? For farmers, it is honest work but for Gord it is inappropriate. How fragile our society is when codified norms that demand conformity are so easily exposed. How barbaric our society is when the rat-race for employment blinds us to environmental destruction.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”19″]The film that’s too weird so everyone rejected it was about ideas that were too weird so everyone rejected them. Green knew what he was doing when he was making this film.[/perfectpullquote]
Sammy Davis Jr’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me”, another piece of music capturing a central theme of Gord’s journey, plays upon his arrival to Los Angeles where his hopes of becoming an animator are quickly dashed. He shows his “X-Ray Cat” concept to animation studio executive Dave Davidson (Anthony Michael Hall), who tells him that “the drawings are pretty good but it doesn’t make any sense, alright? It’s fucking stupid”. Dave Davidson pre-emptively represents critics of this film; a respected industry figure of cultural capital telling Tom Green’s eccentric persona that his humour is too nonsensical for anyone to relate to it. The film that’s too weird so everyone rejected it was about ideas that were too weird so everyone rejected them. Green knew what he was doing when he was making this film.
Dave Davidson tempers his harsh criticism with a reality-check that talent requires years of disciplined hard work before coming to fruition. He advises Gord to “get inside the animals” and think through his characters better. While driving home to Oregon dejected, Gord sees a dead deer on the highway and remembers the advice to “get inside the animals”. He proceeds to cut the animal open and writhe around blood-drenched in an attempt to reconnect with nature. Leonardo DiCaprio got an Oscar for slicing open an animal and getting inside it. Where’s Tom Green’s Oscar?
The rest of the film deals with Gord’s attempts to find the right inspiration he needs for his drawings while contending with his increasingly fraught personal relationships. One particularly controversial scene sees Gord delivers a woman’s baby against her will instead of calling for a doctor. He bites the umbilical cord and swings the seemingly stillborn baby around. While this happens, women in the ward sing a joyous childbirth song of the marginalised First Nations people. When the baby finally wakes up crying and is united with the relieved mother, the deliberately saccharine music returns, as it does many times, to underscore moments contrived to have emotional resonance. Gord is rightly thrown out of the hospital but he repeatedly insists that he “saved the day” and secures a date with a nurse named Betty (Marisa Coughlan).
On the one hand, Betty could be considered a strong female character as a paraplegic achieving her scientific ambitions by building a rocket-powered wheelchair. She is also rare for onscreen representations of disabled people for having sexual agency. That her kind personality does not jar with her fondness for fellatio, S & M play and caning her numb legs, is very sex-positive. That is until you consider how her fetishes are a source of humour, how her accomplishments are primarily a motivator for Gord’s arc and how she embodies the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Moreover, she also appeals to the virgin/whore complex; she is a nurse, so she cares for people, while also being disabled and needing caring; she is sweet, kind and has a wholesome grace to her, while also being a kinky nymphomaniac. So as love interests go, she is problematic.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#F42A2A” class=”” size=”19″]That same saccharine parody of emotional Hollywood score plays as Gord finally realises his self-acceptance.[/perfectpullquote]
I never said this was a great film. I just said it’s not one of the worst. How could it be when it builds to such a beautiful ending? Gord gets his cartoon “Zebras in America” commissioned for a personal payment of $1 million. This impresses his brutish father enough that he finally expresses pride and acceptance towards his son. That is, after Gord uses the money to drug and kidnap his father, bring him to the Pakistani desert and drench him in elephant semen. Gord tells his father that he may do things differently but he got that trait from him. That same saccharine parody of emotional Hollywood score plays as Gord finally realises his self-acceptance.
Just as they put aside their differences, they are kidnapped and held hostage by jihadists. This movie was made before 9/11 and quickly concludes with them being released and returning to America as heroes, with Tom Green’s face imposed in front of an American flag background, even though he is Canadian. It shows the misunderstood neurodiverse creative genius as celebrated under a broader, more inclusive conception of social solidarity. But what of the movie’s title? Why is it called Freddy Got Fingered?
During a heated session of family therapy, Gord claims that Jim molested his little brother Freddy by fingering him. Freddy denies this categorically yet the movie is open to the interpretation that he was in fact molested. Was it just a lie told in anger, to get his father in trouble? Or was Gord expressing a repressed truth? The father figure had done inexcusable things yet was still demanding obedience, in much the same way a nation can commit heinous historical injustices while presenting itself as a shared cause of nobility. The nation-state can only be noble when truth, justice and solidarity are recognised, even if this means taking responsibility for previous wrongdoing. In apologising for his general harshness towards his sons, Jim realises the family’s dreams of harmonious relations.
The film’s title Freddy Got Fingered is referring to traumas of the past, recognising the pain felt from them and yet showing a way forward be it on the personal, national or even global level. Recognising injustice and turning away from cruel behaviour towards acceptance of difference will lead to a happier world. Not least of all for the neurodiverse artist whose work found an audience in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. That is why Freddy Got Fingered, if not a great film, is certainly not one of the worst and for the right audience is funny, entertaining and even moving.