1993 Film Favorites, Part 2: Commitment in So I Married an Axe Murderer
The second in our series on influential movies of 1993 is the box office flop So I Married an Axe Murderer (SIMAAM). In terms of release date, the film turned thirty, but unlike Jurassic Park or Mrs. Doubtfire (also set in San Francisco), it took years to become part of the public consciousness.
Although this murder mystery mysteriously faltered in theaters, it became a cult classic, captured the pulse of our culture at the time, and provided a surprising perspective on commitment.
If you don’t like being poisoned (by strawberry health shakes or otherwise), beware: this article is a haggis of spoilers.
Pregnant Man Gives Birth (to a Classic)
SIMAAM follows Charlie Mackenzie (Mike Myers), a San Franciscan beat poet afraid of commitment, in his search for love. Charlie’s best friend Tony (Anthony LaPaglia) encourages him to stop being picky and accept a woman for who she is. Charlie immediately meets Harriet (Nancy Travis), a butcher whom he falls for. As the two date, Harriet displays some questionable behavior. Charlie ignores it under the assumption that he’s just being paranoid, and he even brings her to meet his mom (Brenda Fricker) and dad (also played by Myers).
Like a trolley plunging down the center of a hilly San Francisco street, the plot straddles the line between dark (sometimes silly) humor and an interesting, dramatic story. But when Robbie Fox wrote the original film treatment—“The Man Who Cried Wife”—a lot more than the Bay area setting was different.
Fox wrote it as a Woody Allen type project about a Jewish guy in New York who marries an actual axe murderer. Columbia Pictures bought the script in 1988 and approached Allen to star and direct. After he fell through, Myers was eventually approached, chiefly because of his newfound popularity from Wayne’s World the previous year. But Myers and his writing partner Neil Mullarkey (and Carrie Fisher!) took the story and tone in a direction that would suit Myers’ comedic style.
I believe these changes are components of what makes the movie distinctly ’90s and, whether you like Myers’ humor or not, what makes the film so pivotal coming out of 1993. Myers’ involvement didn’t guarantee success (much like the recent, not-so-great spinoff The Pentaverate), though choices in storytelling (by director Thomas Schlamme), and timing (by married editing team the Halseys) lent support.
(Some Are Now) “Deed” and Title: Property of Wit
The script’s structure and film’s editing are near flawless. We’re introduced to key characters and plot quickly: Tony, an undercover cop dressed as an undercover cop, confronts Charlie about his inability to commit romantically prior to Charlie performing a poem. Charlie meets Harriet while buying haggis for his parents who are singing the Bay City Rollers “Saturday Night” in thick Scottish accents. Although worried about Charlie’s relationships (highlighting his inability to commit), Mom ponders if being single is safer, because she’s heard of a murdering “Mrs. X.” Mom goes on to list specific characteristics of the deceased husbands, which provide structure for clues we’re fed for the rest of the story.
The film takes the classic sleuth setup and infuses Myers’ quirky humor. The joke mix of hilarious lowbrow (mocking a kid’s head size, the butcher shop montage), witty (“Scottish cuisine is based on a dare”), reinforcing the plot (Russian ballet in the park), and accents (Dad’s toast including those “deed” and “piperrr down!”) also serve as pressure release for tense situations. Yet we’re along for the roller coaster as Charlie becomes suspicious of Harriet being Mrs. X., then has reasonable doubt, then becomes suspicious again, and then has reasonable doubt again, repeatedly.
Interspersed with the main narrative are subplots, like interactions with Harriet’s weird sister Rose, Tony’s wish for a more domineering captain (magnificently played by the uncredited Alan Arkin), the Mackenzies’ thirtieth anniversary, and cameos by Charles Grodin, Michael Richards, Luenell, Mike Hagerty, Steven Wright, Debi Mazr, and Phil Hartman. The script is not just tightly written and effortlessly quotable, but the name is fundamental to understanding the importance of the film.
Initially the title So I Married an Axe Murderer was off-putting to potential audiences—they didn’t understand what it meant and were confused about the film’s premise. Likewise, many critics didn’t understand the title and were demeaning to the lead actor simply for being Mike Myers (although some later reevaluated their poor reviews). And some have suggested it was too ahead of its time. All these factors made for poor box office results.
Slowly, the wittiness of both the title and story began to spread by word of mouth. Re-releases in theaters, VHS rentals, and heavy rotation on Comedy Central in the late ’90s and early aughts made it into a virtual planetoid, garnering cult-level status. But I believe recognizing the use of the word “so” in the title is instrumental in understanding why the film was a flagship for 1993.
The use of “so” tapped into modern vernacular and was a wink at the film’s comprehension of the culture at that time. Like the show Friends (premiering one year later) where each episode begins: “The One With / Where…” The colloquialism employed is self-aware as a common phrase when people describe any TV episode.
By being self-aware,¹ SIMAAM showed its coolness, criticality, and confidence while not trying too hard or appearing cocky and pretentious. The film’s hipness, such as its time capsule soundtrack (playing the La’s “There She Goes” a staggering four times) is just one example of its nonchalant staked claim on pop culture. But beneath the self-assured veneer, the film cared deeply about relational health, and therefore provides valuable commentary on commitment.
So I Married Commitment: Relational Covenants
It’s apparent on subsequent viewings that both Charlie and Harriet are afraid of commitment, but for very different reasons. And while the movie is overt on Charlie’s convictions, his parents (as dysfunctional as they are), set a good example of commitment and fidelity. Tired of the roller coaster and inspired by his parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary (a celebration much like the one I’m having for the film’s thirtieth anniversary), Charlie proposes.
His newfound boldness isn’t immediately rewarded: Harriet declines. Eventually the couple marries, with some disconcerting events in both the wedding and the reception. And yet both man and whoa-man overcome their fears, saying “I do.”
For the Christian, culture or family pressure or tax breaks shouldn’t determine a person’s marital status—the will of God, often given through the Bible, should. It’s fairly popular in the current American culture for couples to live together, whether they have marriage plans or not. Even Harriet begs Charlie to try living together before they get married (granted, she does this to avoid jinxing him into abandoning her).
It is comparatively unpopular to point out how God commands us to get married before having sex. And I get it, I grew up in the purity culture prevalent in 1993. But God designed sex to be within the confines of marriage for our own health (Matthew 19:6; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 7:2-6; Hebrews 13:4) and secular research agrees (here, here, and here). It’s interesting that SIMAAM would be such a strong proponent of marriage, although it’s clearly important to the plot.
But equally noteworthy is how the film is comfortable with characters like Tony and Rose being unmarried. Tony seems to enjoy his awkward double date with Susan but doesn’t bring her to Charlie’s wedding. We’re never told if Tony marries. And that may be Tony’s best life.
Our culture caters to relationships, sex, and lust. But that’s not a surprise (after all, sex sells). What is sad and disconcerting is how the American church prioritizes marriage with little consideration of Christians who are single. Almost more pathetic is that many in leadership, and therefore lay people also, aren’t even aware there’s a gap.
I wonder if more single Christians wouldn’t feel unnecessarily guilty and ostracized if we started explaining that Jesus (Matthew 19:11-12) and the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7:7) said it was better to remain unmarried! And imagine how singles outside the church would react if their relational needs and questions were addressed inside the church.
But, as seen in the rapport between Tony and his captain, commitment is necessary for relationships outside of marriage too. This might be my favorite dynamic in the whole movie. Alan Arkin’s captain is naturally pragmatic and even-tempered. But when Tony’s fulfillment comes from impassioned repertoire, Arkin moves out of his comfort zone and selflessly commits to his subordinate’s betterment. The result is, of course, hilarious, but the lesson is serious.
Marriage is naturally the vehicle SIMAAM uses (the Bible utilizes it frequently as well) to impress the importance of commitment. We may be single, dating, married, divorced, or in some other category, but in the end, God wants us to commit in our relationships.
We are to commit by keeping our word even if something better comes along, not allowing boredom, tiredness, or a good excuse to cause us to break our vows. In short, don’t commit to anything unless you intend to follow through. Simple in theory, challenging in practice. And that challenge is on the surface of the film’s climax as Harriet and Charlie leave for their honeymoon.
Overcoming a Serious Killer: Fear of Commitment
The couple drives to Poet’s Corner, a secluded mountain hotel. Harriet is increasingly flustered until Charlie gets a call that leaves him more anxious than Harriet. Tony has done some hardcore sleuthing and determines Harriet is indeed Mrs. X. As Tony races against a storm to Charlie’s aid, the groom races to save his own life.
The twist of Rose being the killer is yet another reason the film’s storytelling is so good. Each clue seemingly pointing toward Harriet through the movie, ultimately fits with Rose’s capabilities and motivations. And, although slightly unbelievable, Tony’s interrogating Harriet while Rose’s axe and Charlie’s screams are muffled outside, always makes me chuckle. In the end, everyone is safe and the story concludes where it began: in the coffee house.
As is common with feel-good endings, having weathered the storms of life (and death), the characters are consequently matured and better for it. That relational dependence, fostered through commitment, is both at the heart of this story and foundational in our stories. Hopefully we don’t have to overcome a serial killer in order to take commitment seriously.
The unique roots of SIMAAM’s storytelling humor and mystery could only have happened in 1993—everything from Myers’ success in Wayne’s World which helped get him the job and re-writing privileges, to those exact factors seemingly backfiring (unfavorable critiques and target audience confusion). But the plot’s strengths rely heavily on commitment, an idea countercultural even at that time. So I Married An Axe Murderer is still impactful today, and will be in another thirty years. Because deep in our souls, we Harriets and Tonys and Charlies want promises made to us to be kept, and we truly desire to make and keep our commitments.
1. The film being self-aware carries over sporadically to the camera, and therefore to the audience. The opening POV shot involves the audience: we (as the camera) “hold” a cup to be washed and filled, and then we deliver the coffee to Mike Myers. This technique is used again near the end when we (as Harriet) follow Charlie to the restroom (a waiter even courteously nods to the camera). The final instance is when the couple is put in the newlywed chair in the hotel’s weird honeymoon tradition. In each instance the camera effect is both inviting and disconcerting.
Well written! I enjoyed your deep dive into one of my favorite movies. Loved the walk down memory lane and the way you tied in the commitment piece with your Christian world view.
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