Tommy Boy, Mama's Boy

Obese kids need a lot of things. We’ve got these little fatties who are scared of the monkey bars on the playground and the pool at the summer birthday parties. Some act out and some fold in on themselves, but all variations of fat kid need aid. Nutrition, diet, and exercise are exhausted as talking points to help our little tubsters in the classroom and in gym class. These are important points for fixing the problem, but less attention is paid to possible measures to help while these children have the problem. More measures need to be taken to provide positive reinforcement to those in the process of losing the weight and those who haven’t been successful in doing so. Among these ignored necessities is heroes. Obese children are lacking in heroes to look up to.


This is all said as a former fat kid. I was a fat kid and I remember the sparse landscape for successful people and stories to relate to. In real life and in entertainment, I couldn’t sympathize with those who were lauded as heroes. The fat characters gained attention through being the funny one.Seldom was the overweight individual on a hero’s journey. Chris Farley was my biggest hero as a kid. Doing impressions of Farley was a good ice breaker in forming friendships. He was the first person to play the role of 'the fat guy' while carrying subtext and emotion. This paved the way for him to play the titular role and the hero in Tommy Boy.  It’s the story of a fat bumbling idiot getting his shit together and saving the day while being endearing the whole way.

Tommy Boy is remembered more for its humor than its heroics. The journey and growth is the backdrop for shenanigans, goofs, and a model car being lit on fire. The backstory is established just enough to provide a track for these scenarios. Tommy’s family business is in turmoil after the his father, the figurehead of the company, suddenly passes. As an unlikely and seemingly unfit predecessor, Tommy restores the company while coming to terms with the loss of his father. Tommy embarks on a cross country journey to save jobs, a city, and all the while learning how to grow up. His ability to mature is tied to him being able to save the company. At the start of the film, both are equally implausible. The movie presents little as to why Tommy appears to have a stunted development.

One of the lightly covered details of the story is that Tommy’s mother died years earlier. The entire film is devoted to how Tommy reacts to the loss of his father, but his mother’s passing is paid no attention.

The only mention of the mother is during the scene depicting the last private conversation that Tommy and his father share. “Ever since your mom died’ is the only mention of her in the movie. This is the only mention of what had to have been a catastrophic moment in both their lives. The death of a parent can’t be boiled down to one sentence. We’re left to watch the rest of this film without any backstory on the relationship Tommy had with his mother. The death of one parent warrants a whole movie, while the other is limited to one line of dialogue. Although this life event gets a few seconds of screen time and it's not directly addressed, I feel the death of Tommy’s mother plays a huge part in this film.

Tommy’s mother does not get shown at all in the movie, but she does have the opening line. She tells him that he is going to be late for school. I assume she was the one who around when he was younger. It’s a not a stretch to assume that he was raised primarily by his mother. His father seemed to be an individual who worked a lot. He was the face of the company and a man who maintained many business and personal relationships. This was pre-internet, so a lot of traveling had to be done to maintain these connections. As Tommy travels to try and sell products, many of the potential buyers allude to longstanding relationships with his father. These business trips and long hours at the office and factory left Tommy only with a mother at home. Big Tom provided a lush lifestyle for his wife and son that he loved, but that came as a result of sacrifice. This family dynamic was typical for the time period, and it does not necessarily paint Big Tom as a bad father. It’s almost certain though that, under this arrangement, Tommy was more inclined towards his mother and had a stronger relationship with her.

But when did she die? We have her at the beginning of the movie where Tommy is circa 12 years old and when Tommy graduates college at around 25 years old she has since passed. Somewhere in this 10-15 year gap we have the passing of his mother.

There are no clear indications or clues in the movie that reference a time or cause of death. With the limited context provided, I’m guessing that the death of his mother happened sometime around the start of college. The time of death being in that period would explain a lot of Tommy’s circumstances.

The first obstacle Farley’s character faces in the movie is passing a class in order to graduate Marquette University. He’s been in college seven years and his graduation hinges on being able to earn a D letter grade in History 201. Tommy spent seven years in college to get one bachelor’s degree. This class was not taken in an effort to fills a humanities or social science credit. It had to be this class specifically. There were surely other options in the humanities that would’ve been easier passed. Some sort of history of sports, Handshakes 101, or Drugs and Music Class. Marquette is a large school who I assume, even a few decades ago, had a lengthy range of course topics. I took a class in college called Religion and Animals. We watched Black Beauty, Planets of the Apes, and other students kept finding ways to bring up their cats that just died. Tommy Boy could’ve gotten a D in R&A, and I’m sure his school had an equivalent.

History class being such a difficulty could be an indicator into the heart of Tommy’s issue. The movie presents Tommy as a complete dullard, but maybe the focus on this one class is representative of his biggest problem being looking into the past. Maybe history class being a constant restrospective is what made Tommy check out of the course material. The college lifestyle makes it easy to drown out the past. History class and the idea of graduation were signs that Tommy was gonna have to learn to accept the loss of his mother. College provided a comfortable purgatory between his sad past and an unclear future.  It’s possible that the extra years it took Tommy to graduate weren’t a result of ineptitude, but rather a deliberate move by someone who was more intelligent than presented.

Throughout the movie, the perceived idiocy of Tommy is slowly peeled away to reveal that he is actually competent and at times savvy. Tommy barely graduates from Marquette University, but this means at one point he had to get into the school. This is no small feat. Marquette is a reputable private school that would require some prowess for admission. There’s an argument to be made that his father’s reputation or money could have gained him entry, but I’m not seeing it. Hard to believe money could get a school to lower their standards to that level. The way Tommy is portrayed during the final exam portrays a person who would struggle getting out of high school. Those kinds of grades wouldn’t have been enough to sway the  admissions committee no matter what kind of building or statue his father would’ve donated.

As Tommy is saving the company, he shows flashes of intelligence competence that appear to have been there all along. The first one that grabbed my attention is when the board members are having a meeting following the death of his father. They are in a bind and don’t have the resources to procure a necessary loan. Almost immediately, Tommy offers up his share in the company as collateral. How are we supposed to believe that a grown man who does not know who John Hancock is could be versed in business dealings involving banks and loans.The solution is not offered up as a regurgitation of a terminology he does not understand. The suggestion is offered up with Tommy knowing the gravity of that sacrifice. Now Tommy’s job appointment and private office seem like less of a handout. Granted his father wanted to give son a job in the family company, but he also had faith in his ability. It makes sense that Big Tom had taken measures to teach the ropes of the business to his only son. Although not always apparent, Tommy had the tools in is arsenal to be a businessman.

Tommy uses his knowledge from his father and his relationship with his mother to kick start his success as a salesmen. Who is the first person he makes a sale to? The highway restaurant waitress. He knows how to tap into the mind of a middle aged waitress. Similar to the age his mother probably was when she passed. Tommy’s ability is a salesmen is shown through his ability to be able to persuade an older female in a caretaker position.He talks in a baby voice to get his way, which could be a learned behavior from his connection to his mother. The cause for his regression becomes  the starting point for moving through his most recent tragedy.

The death of his father was the last piece in the deterioration of the family dynamic that Tommy had always dreamed about. The film consistently emphasizes how much the Callahan auto parts company is a family. A family that extends to the whole Sandusky community. The main plot point of the movie is how Tommy wants to save this family. He acts out in such a drastic manner because his back has been pushed against a wall. His literal family is tragically gone and the only family he has left is at risk of being lost as well. Look to how Tommy reacts to the information that he is gaining family members through marriage. Immediately welcoming of the idea, and claiming “I always wanted a brother”. This was the kind of group he’d always wanted to operate within. The loss of his mother ended his chance at a traditional family dynamic, and he was welcome to the idea of a second chance. The action of the film begins with this second chance is quickly ripped away.

Tommy grows into the potential he’s always had once he begins to accept the only family he has left is the company and his hometown. The last time he lost part of his family Tommy distanced himself from the family that remained and became an imbecile. Through that time, he learned that reacting to loss in this manner didn’t make things better. While accepting this, another significant loss took place. The film is a comedy about showing strength amidst a tragedy. Facing grief head on is sometimes only possible if you’ve felt the pitfalls of the alternative. The movie appears to be a reaction to his father passing, but it’s equal parts a reaction to the passing of his mother. Without that previous struggle, we never get the heroic journey of a clumsy salesman travelling cross country and wearing small jackets on the way to redemption. 


Conor DelehantyComment