This summer, I took a class entitled “Grief and Loss” for my Social Work master’s program. It was about as uplifting as you’re thinking it is. I pushed and stumbled my way through it, and got celebratorily drunk when it ended, but I can honestly say it made me see the world in a new way.
Let me explain.
Tommy Boy, the stupid, slapstick-esque comedy with Chris Farley and David Spade that was made in 1995, is not a good movie. If I hadn’t seen it until I was twenty-six years old, I don’t think I would have watched it past the first ten minutes. It’s full of jokes about fat people, misogyny, and thoroughly unsophisticated humor. I don’t watch it because of its quality, but because of the qualities I’ve imbued it with over the years and because of the relationship it has with my brothers specifically. My brothers and I use lines from it to relate to each other: when one of us stubs our toe or something, we’ll shout “Aww, son of a…that’s gonna leave a mark.” When we’re sitting around the Thanksgiving table, arguing about what pieces of the bird we’re each going to eat, my brother will say, “Tommy hungry. Tommy want wingy.” And when we’re sitting around watching football or hockey together around the holidays, we’ll finish off every car commercial with a resounding chorus of “I make car parts for the American working man because that’s what I am, and that’s who I care about.”
A couple of weeks ago, I woke up at 4 a.m. feeling almost physically homesick for my brothers. Moving 500 miles from your family is a kind of loss, the kind with what social workers call “complicated grief,” where it is hard or impossible to “relinquish the object,” or, in layman terms, “get over it.” I thought the best way to handle this insomnia-inducing grief was to spend the spare time before work watching Tommy Boy. Only after the fact did I realize that this was the first time I’d ever done so without someone else in my family present.
Tommy Calahan Jr., played by Chris Farley, takes seven years to graduate college and then comes to work for his father’s (Big Tom Calahan) car parts manufacturing company, Calahan Auto. Big Tom takes out a loan from the bank in order to start up the new brake-pad division of the plant. Then in the middle of his own wedding, while doing a dance with his only son, Big Tom Calahan has a heart attack and dies.
Tommy Boy is alone, incredibly depressed, and the huge loan from the bank is about to close down the family business unless someone can sell half a million brake pads to pay it back. So Tommy and a “nerd” he knew in high school, Richard (David Spade), go on the road to do the sales trip that Big Tom had been planning to go on.
The comedy of the movie comes from the fact that Tommy Boy is not very smart and is a terrible salesman. However, at the end of a montage of attempted and failed sales, Tommy is talking to one of the auto parts distributors he’s trying to sell to, and he says, “Forget it, I quit, I can’t do this anymore, man. My head’s about to explode. My whole life sucks! I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I’m going. My dad just died…I’m out here getting my ass kicked, and every time I drive down the road I wanna jerk the wheel into a goddamn bridge abutment!”
When I came to this part of the movie, I got the urge to pause it and process what he’d just said. All of a sudden, this superficial comedy that had played such a silly role in my childhood was something so much more than that. As I started watching again, I watched with new eyes as Tommy Boy performed what social workers recognize as the tasks of mourning. He accepted the reality of the loss shortly before this scene, when he realized that his road trip was proving to be harder and less productive than he had thought it would be, and his dad wasn’t there to make it all better. He worked through the pain of grief in both internal and external ways, by getting into a fistfight with Richard, and by sailing in his dad’s boat. He adjusted to the dad-less environment as he stopped trying to use the sales pitches he had watched his dad do and started using his own. And by the end of the movie, he had learned that even though he wasn’t as smart or as good a salesman as his dad, he had the same values and even some of the abilities, and he was capable of carrying on the family business in a way Big Tom would have approved of.
The humor is still stupid. The fat jokes are still too much. The stereotypes and anti-feminist shticks are still infuriating. But this movie is somehow more redeemable to me now. It is honestly a comedy about mourning. Death and bereavement are an inescapable part of life. There should be a wider range of material devoted to them.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.