There's a difference between a stupid movie and a movie populated by stupid characters, and director Christopher Guest shows that distinction with "Almost Heroes." Guest ("Waiting for Guffman," "The Big Picture") has constructed a broad parody of frontier-western films and historical documentaries while still staying true to their peculiar conventions.
During the opening credits -- a collection of vintage maps and landscape paintings over composer Jeffery C.J. Vanston's dead-on musical themes (regal and majestic one minute, achingly sentimental the next) -- "Almost Heroes" could almost be an earnest PBS miniseries. Then Leslie Edwards (Matthew Perry) and Bartholomew Hunt (Chris Farley) enter the scene.
Edwards, an ultrafussy dandy "who knows how to buy the finest books," wants to become famous by mapping out the great "undiscovered" Northwest Territory for President Thomas Jefferson. The only problem is that soon-to-be famous American explorers Lewis and Clark have a two-week head start on him. So he recruits the slovenly, crass, heavy-drinking Hunt as his guide. After their sad sack crew -- including none-too-competent French translator, Guy Fontenot (Eugene Levy), and his distractingly beautiful Indian companion, Shaquinna (Lisa Barbuscia) -- is assembled, their journey commences.
It's a clear case of the dumb leading the dumber, but while this period comedy (originally titled "Edwards and Hunt: The First American Roadtrip") isn't exactly fresh, director Guest molds it into a lively diversion.
While a bug-eyed and effete Matthew Perry is blandly annoying (he's also awkwardly positioned as the straight man), the late Chris Farley seems blissfully happy in his buckskin. Here, he found a character and a time period perfectly suited to his comedy of excess (the joyful expression he displays while chug-a-lugging whiskey manages to be both infectious and poignant).
If "Almost Heroes" often seems like a gag-driven, big-screen version of "F Troop," that's because its writers (Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe and Boyd Hale) are all veterans of television sitcoms.
As Edwards and Hunt race haplessly their more capable rivals Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean, Manifest Destiny has never looked quite so pointless.