Meet Wally Sparks
Release Date: January 31, 1997
Director: Peter Baldwin
Writers: Harry Basil (Story), Rodney Dangerfield (Screenplay)
Starring: Rodney Dangerfield, Debi Mazar, David Ogden Stiers, Burt Reynolds, Mark L. Taylor
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
Rodney Dangerfield was one of the greatest stand up comedians the world had ever seen. He was known for his zinging one liners and monologues preaching about he gets “no respect”. His career was heightened in 1980 when he stole the spotlight in the 1980 golf comedy Caddyshack which lead to starring roles in the films “Easy Money” and the critically acclaimed Back To School. Unfortunately the 90s weren’t so good to Dangerfield. He had two films that flopped and was being overshadowed by the young fresh talent that appeared on Saturday Night Live and In Living Color. One of his last starring roles was 1997’s Meet Wally Sparks.
In the film, Dangerfield plays the titular character who is the host of a sleazy daytime talk show that rivals Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jesse Raphael to name a few (all have cameos in the movies). His show has become so raunchy and X-Rated that he is losing sponsors and being threatened with cancellation. In addition, his show has been publicly criticized by Floyd Preston, the conservative Governor of Georgia (David Ogden Stiers) as corrupting the moral fabric of the country. Wally is given an ultimatum by his boss Larry Spencer (Burt Reynolds) to clean up his show or else he will pull the plug. Wally receives an invitation to attend Governor Preston’s fundraiser reception at the Governor’s Mansion (unbeknownst to the Governor, the invitation was sent by his rebellious pre teen son) and his producer Sandy Gallo (Debi Mazar) comes up with an idea to persuade the Governor to appear on his show, which would instantly boost ratings and could change the format of the show.
Wally and Sandy attend the reception in search of the governor. During the party, Wally heads to the governor’s stable and gives his prized horse some alcohol. The horse breaks free from the stable and runs amok inside the Governor’s Mansion. Wally is able to tame the horse and prevent it from hurting the Governor. The presses label him a hero in the papers the next morning. Believing to have been paralyzed from the injury, Wally is staying at the Governor’s Mansion to recuperate, much to the chagrin of Governor Preston. The mansion gets trashed due to Wally’s production company setting up shop inside the mansion and Wally continues to get into shenanigans involving Mrs. Preston. In addition, Wally’s adult son Dean begins a relationship with Governor Preston’s southern bell daughter Priscilla. If that wasn’t enough for Governor Preston to deal with, he is being blackmailed by an outside entity to drop out of the Senate race otherwise, photos showing Governor Preston and an unidentified woman in steamy erotic photos would be released to the public. Wally goes on a mission to find out who is blackmailing the Governor and in return earn his trust to come onto his show and address his supporters.
This movie is based on the tabloid daytime talk shows that dominated television airwaves and a statement on the First Amendment. Throughout the 90s, you couldn’t turn on a television channel without seeing some kind of over the top show. You had the FCC and other government entities looking to block any kind of media in effort to “protect the children”. Wally Sparks represents freedom of speech and freedom of expression while Governor Preston represents the government looking to shut down entertainment that is considered obscene or vulgar. The war continues even to this day with the rise of social media.
Obviously Dangerfield is the shining star of the film. There are plenty of yucks to go around. The jokes are a lot cruder than any of his previous outings, but given the subject matter of the film, it fits in with the narrative. There’s a lot more physical comedy from Dangerfield in this film than any previous film that I can recall. Most of it comes during the reception scene. One thing that is special about Dangerfield is he is able to play lovable characters. His characters start out as self center egotists, but during the course of his movies they start to feel a heart for others. This film follows the same formula. Wally’s objective in the beginning is to have a showdown with Governor Preston on his show in an effort to save him from the unemployment line. However, during the course of the movie as he is spending time getting to know the Preston family, he is grateful for their hospitality and when Governor Preston is in a pickle with a blackmail threat, Wally feels that he needs to repay the debt shown by helping Preston out with his situation.
The other shining performance comes from David Ogden Stiers, who sadly passed away a few days ago. He portrays Floyd Preston, the Governor of Georgia and a leader of the moral majority. He finds Wally Sparks and his show repulsive and is on a crusade to get him thrown off the air. To make matters worse, Preston is powerless to kick Sparks out of the mansion when he is hurt from the incident at the mansion involving a horse. His adviser warns him that kicking him out will diminish his reputation as a moral compassionate human being. In addition, Sparks’ presence in the mansion starts to attract younger voters who are fans of the show in supporting Preston’s campaign for Senator. Preston certainly comes at a cross road and becomes consumed with his battle over Sparks that he starts to alienate himself from his family and causing them to rebel against him. Stiers is a big man and he fits the role of a governor well. He has quite a few laughable moments involving situations that he falls upon.
As for the rest of the cast, the performances were pretty shallow, especially Burt Reynolds. For all the talk regarding loss of sponsors and fines from the FCC, Reynolds doesn’t sound the least bit concerned. He is really out of place in the movie. Anyone could’ve portrayed the role of Larry Spencer better than he did. Luckily, he’s only in a few scenes that you could skip over if you wanted to.
One of the notable things about this movie is the number of cameos. As I mentioned in the beginning of the review, there are cameos featuring Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jesse Raphael. In addition, other talk show personalities that have a cameo include Roseanne, Morton Downey Jr. and Tim Allen (playing his “Home Improvement” character). It’s funny to see them all berate Wally Sparks and call him a has been and the fact that he is still alive. Other cameos include Bob Saget and Stuttering John Melendez playing news reporters, Gilbert Gottfried and Julia Sweeny playing a married couple on Wally’s show and Tony Danza playing his character from Taxi.
With the laughs that this movie has, it is not without its flaws. I didn’t like the pacing of the movie. The movie starts out with Dangerfield going full force at a hundred miles an hour, but then it slows down during the middle of the film and it comes to a screeching halt. It goes from being funny to dramatic. It gets mushy with Wally’s son and Preston’s daughter developing a relationship against the will of the Governor. Another flaw is the ridiculous cartoonish scenes involving Spencer’s top assistant who detests Wally and is spying on him to see if he is actually injured or if he is faking it. He is falling out of trees and getting dragged behind a car. It’s reminiscent of a Wild E. Coyote cartoon. It really had no place in the movie. Lastly, the climax of the movie was so mindless and childish. Again it’s pretty cartoonish with the final confrontation between Wally and the people who are blackmailing the Governor.
If you’re a fan of Rodney Dangerfield, this movie is right up your alley. Those who are not fans are advised to turn away. While Meet Wally Sparks is not one of Rodney Dangerfield’s most memorable films, it will be remembered for Rodney doing what Rodney does best, which is making us laugh.
TRIVIA (Per IMDB)
- Students in Daingerfield, Texas’ schools got an early release day, because the town gave Rodney Dangerfield a parade, and a street renamed in his honor, when he came to town.
- One of two Rodney Dangerfield films that feature a vocal performance by Michael Bolton, the other being Back to School (1986). Bolton’s song “Everybody’s Crazy” is playing on the record player during the frat dorm party.
- Tony Danza reprises his role as Tony from the hit TV show “Taxi” in this film.
- Gilbert Gottfried who has a small part in the film said on his podcast that he has never seen the finished release.