Easy Money at 40: Snobs 1, Slobs 0

On the set of Easy Money, the first movie in which Rodney Dangerfield truly starred, he told Roger Ebert, “I don’t want to be the star no more.” 

The attitude was not a surprise – he was warning Johnny Carson not to expect any more Rodney Dangerfield movies two nights before Caddyshack even opened – but it does reiterate why he only made three credited film appearances during the only decade of his career hot enough to record a Grammy-nominated rap single. As much as he hated the “comic’s nightmare” of endlessly performing to an audience of shushed grips, the movies are why he lives on in multiple shapes of collectible plastic today, and there’s only one cinematic moment that could’ve made a Hallmark ornament out of a man so ugly he once went over to a girl’s house because she said there was nobody home and there was nobody home: the rise of the slobs.

With 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House, the unruly trinity of John Landis, Harold Ramis, and Ivan Reitman combined forces on the foundational slobs-versus-snobs text and posited an alternative to punching up – dragging them down to your level and beating them senseless with experience. By 1984’s Ghostbusters, the formula had been so perverted that the slobs carried PhDs and the snob was federal oversight of nuclear waste disposal. But a year prior, halfway between Caddyshack and Back to School, Dangerfield made the strangest slob-versus-snob fable of them all without any of its chief practitioners.

In Easy Money, for once, the slobs lose.

Monty Capuletti may be a children’s photographer from Staten Island, but character and comic become inseparable with the first line, the Dangerfield joke distilled to its bleakest essence: “Hey, take it easy, will ya?” His youngest hogs the bathroom. His oldest is engaged to a gang banger. His wife likes the gang banger (“It’s a good boys gang!”). His mother-in-law still brings up her daughter’s older, better flames. His brother-in-law wouldn’t touch him to disown him.

To cope with the heaviness, Monty spends his precious down time with drinking buddies Nicky and Paddy. In a single night out, they lose big on horses, almost get thrown out of a strip club, lose even bigger on dice, find the only two all-night diners with closing times, and annihilate the happy couple’s wedding cake in the kind of drunk driving accident that’s too silly to register as a moment of clarity.

He is a man of unapologetic, even necessary vice, which is why his uppercrust mother-in-law would rather see him dead than related. She’s so evil that his rousing rendition of “Funiculi Funicula” is what convinces her to destroy him.

Her scheme is to leave him the family’s $10-million department store empire if, and only if, he can refrain from gambling, drinking, and smoking for an entire year. There’s also a cheating clause, but in one of the movie’s surprisingly tender mercies, it’s never in question that he loves his wife, even if he does make walleyes at the topless sunbather next door.

I’m constantly fighting self-abuse,” said Rodney in an interview between production and release, after he’d picked up cigarettes again since quitting for the sake of his big number. The script, Rodney’s first credited, neither mocks nor celebrates his habits. The only joke about Monty’s weed habit is where he hides it – a roach motel in the bathroom. When his brother-in-law commissions an entire clothing line to humiliate him, the resulting fashion show is garish, but not funny. Neither is the following scene, when Monty breaks down in front of his wife: “We’re not supposed to be rich. We don’t look rich. We don’t talk rich. We don’t smell rich.”

He doesn’t and, to the credit of the casting department, nobody else does on Monty’s side of town. A dartboard would never book Joe Pesci and Tom Noonan as a double act, and yet they feel like locals pulled off conjoined barstools. If the slob-vs-snob paradigm holds, Monty and his merry band should win on their terms.

Instead, Monty wins by the book, to the extinction of everything that brings him joy, and his reward comes with a pleasant surprise – his mother-in-law, who faked her death to teach him a lesson. The attached strings will stay that way so she can make him dance for the rest of her natural life. But hey, at least he gets to covertly enjoy the occasional trans fat in the basement of her palatial estate. So much for everybody getting laid.

Dangerfield promised he’d be shooting a remake of W.C. Fields’s My Little Chickadee within the year, but wouldn’t return to theaters until Back to School. He intended that character to be poor, too, but co-writer Ramis thought he was funnier in the Caddyshack tax bracket.

There is no off-the-rack Monty Capuletti costume. The film’s legacy is, at best, second-hand – Dangerfield asking Billy Joel for a title song inspired him to write the 7-time platinum album An Innocent Man, Catherine Scorsese makes her first cameo in a movie not made by her son. According to just about anyone, it’s not the best Rodney Dangerfield movie. But in ways he’d never explore again, Easy Money is the most Rodney Dangerfield movie. 

You can tell because it gets no respect. No respect at all.

“Easy Money” is streaming on Tubi and PlutoTV, and available elsewhere for digital rental or purchase.

Jeremy Herbert enjoys frozen beverages, loud shirts and drive-in theaters. When not writing about movies, he makes them for the price of a minor kitchen appliance. Jeremy lives in Cleveland, and if anyone could show him the way out, he'd really appreciate it.

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