Last weekend, midway through his triumphant lead performance in A Confederacy of Dunces, actor Brandon Whitehead accidentally dropped a hot dog on the floor. Whitehead was playing Ignatius J. Reilly—a fat, sanctimonious, and flatulent eccentric whose mind is stuck in a medieval monastery but whose body is stuck in 1960s New Orleans. Reilly is a glutton (and probably thinks the germ theory is some kind of modern perversion): He would certainly eat a hot dog off the floor. Whitehead bent for the dog and held it up to the audience with the briefest glimmer of disgust in his eyes, quickly replaced by a glimmer of glee. He shoved the whole thing in his mouth and devoured it. The crowd went wild.
Hollywood legend has it that the film adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces is cursed. John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley have been chosen to play Reilly, but they all died before they could execute the role. Another film version derailed after the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission was murdered. After seeing Whitehead in this adaptation, I am convinced God only threw those disasters at Hollywood because He was waiting for Whitehead to play the part.
Reilly is a highly literary loser—his temper tantrums come with citations. He loves Aquinas, Boethius, eating, and not much else. When his mother drunkenly plows into a building, Reilly takes a series of jobs (office clerk, hot-dog vendor) to pay the damages. He's forced into the tawdry world by circumstance, but all he wants is to sit in his study, bloviating. (Maybe he should've taken a job as a theater critic.)
Whitehead is the maestro of Reilly's outrage, waving his finger in the air while loudly condemning canned food as "a perversion," a bouquet as "an abortion," and most of the other characters as "Mongoloids." Whitehead also nails Reilly's quiet condescension. When a policeman asks Reilly whether he has a job, Whitehead sniffs: "I dust a bit. In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip."
The deep comedy of Ignatius J. Reilly comes from the gaping chasm between his inner life and his context. The 12-person supporting cast gives that context vivid life: Ellen McLain as Reilly's tipsy mother, David Goldstein as a blundering cop, Bill Johns as both a hapless Latino office manager and a sardonic gay party-boy (Johns's transformation is so complete, you won't recognize him), and especially Charles Norris as Burma Jones, a put-upon bar janitor. (When his boss tells him to take off his sunglasses while he sweeps, he shoots back: "The glasses stayin' on. For twenty dollar a week, you ain' running a plantation in here.") Jones is the sole black voice in Dunces, and his voice is also the most sensible and humane—not unlike Jim's in Huckleberry Finn.
(Dunces is close kin to Huckleberry Finn. Both are Southern picaresque novels that mock highfalutin book smarts with lower-class gut smarts. Both have white protagonists but make their sole black characters their moral centers. Both are symphonic in their range of characters and accents and humor. And both end with deus ex machina cop-outs that are easy to forgive because the rest of the material is so marvelous.)
"Comedy has got to be just as honest as drama," Whitehead said in an interview with The Stranger five years ago. "I'm very scientific and I love the details of a character. It's not so much what shirt he has on, but what button he forgot to button. It's not that he has a watch on, but how tight the band is. It's the little things that make or break it." Whitehead is still working at that level of meticulous detail. The result is a roaring, hilarious masterpiece of a performance.
No production is flawless. At three hours, Dunces feels just a hair too long, and the accents slip and slide around. But as a whole, it's one of the best comedies of the year. Mary Machala, who adapted and directed Dunces, should be proud.