[NOTE: My photo source fell apart and removed or randomly posted new and not always apropos photos. Looking for a new source. Sorry if it's confusing.]
No, it’s not a typo. I’m making a point, or rather a stab at trying to define why today’s film comedies in the US constantly leave me disgruntled and dissatisfied when I leave the theater. I want to analyze it, and look back over films that I have enjoyed and find out when and why I stopped enjoying them overall. There have been exceptions, of course, but let me tell you, they are few and far between.
The box office itself is in the midst of an upswing of sorts, so perhaps I am in the minority, or perhaps just too old. The financial pundits keep insisting on telling me that I, of the over thirty set, don’t count where prime box office numbers are concerned. I’d like to think that we just haven’t found enough comedies out there to draw us in. Comedies these days tend to be in an ever-burgeoning genre that I am forced to call Cinema of Bodily Fluids.
Don’t get me wrong, I know sex can be humorous as well as exciting. I get the premise that negative behavior can be giggle-producing, but what I’m asking is why it has to be the only type of film comedy that we produce? Subtlety and wit can have their place, too, even though it is increasingly hard to find writers and directors who seem to be able to manipulate it with just the right comedic touch.
Basically, the most satisfying comedies for me, follow a traditional pattern, call it Formula One. The plots introduce you to a character or characters that you hopefully like, or at least understand and relate to, to the extent that you can see their potential. Then they are given a quest or obstacles to overcome. How they do it or fail to do it will show us who they are and who they are going to become. All the humor happens by mistake or misunderstanding, and not through intentional perpetration by the characters on each other. When the plot’s twists unravel neatly and our heroes come through their travails successfully, so do we; and so we leave our seats with that final sigh of satisfaction that lasts.
In Formula Two, the more prevalent these days, the pattern is similar, but is coming from a different place altogether. You still recognize the characters, but all the humor is based on a sense of shared inadequacy, the lowest common denominator. You know they’ll steal it/step on it/swear at it because you would, yourself. How can they/we resist the lure of bad behavior? How can we not laugh at the inevitability of that banana peel? But even though we laugh, we know the joke’s on us, too. Then the humor fades as fast as a smile.
Okay, to test it, let’s take one of the best of Old Hollywood’s comedy pairs, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and try to put them in a contemporary Formula Two-style film like The Hangover or Something About Mary. Can you see it? Neither can I. Could you instead, twist their classic films to make them follow the rules of Formula Two? What do you come up with? Bringing Up Boogers? His Ho Friday? No, even Cary Grant couldn’t make that one play, and I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want him to try.
Kate: “Dexter, this is definitely NOT yar.”
Cary: “Red, I think we need another script.”
Giving it a trial, I went to a few films recently to see how they used these two formulas. I tried to squash my natural aversion to physical comedy, and see what everyone was finding so fascinating. But I thought it was okay to go easy on myself and start with a low-physical level, calmer film, first. Right before the Oscars, I went to see Up in the Air with George Clooney. Now, George is never hard to look at, and he’s adept with comedies. The film was well made, it was subtle, it was, indeed funny…but it’s really a Formula Two, wrapped up in an attractive package. George is a corporate hatchet man who flies almost 365 days a year going from corporation to corporation whittling down the human deadwood in the cleanest way possible. He prides himself by being able to do this professionally and without emotional involvement, with the corresponding low level of angst all around. He is rudely awakened when his boss tells him his chosen way of life is about to be downsized, too, and he will be slotted into a little cubicle with a computer for his “hatchet” and no more free-winging lifestyle for him. I found Clooney’s character’s choices and lifestyle alienating in the extreme. I couldn’t identify with him, and then bad behavior became the basis of all the humor. He tried to change his pattern halfway through, but when he met another like himself he went back to hide in the skies again, safe in his untouchability.
Two weeks back I went to see Hot Tub Time Machine because of favorable reviews and from my fondness for John Cusack. Cusack has always delivered portraits of sweet, interesting oddballs from the days of Say Anything, to Bullets Over Broadway, Grosse Point Blank, and Pushing Tin through to the extreme oddness of Being John Malkovich. He makes you identify with him in his “everyman-ness”. Natural Formula One potential, right? I’m not so sure. The premise of three down on their luck buddies (plus one practically under age nephew, to the left in the picture above) going back to the ‘80s to fix their sorry lives was funny the first time I saw it, back in the ‘80s…Back to the Future did it better and without underage drinking and full frontal nudity. Imagine that.
To give them their due, John and the boys give some sweet performances here and there amidst that alluvial plain of alcohol, excrement and hot tub water they are wading through in HTTM, but as they changed their lives without changing the behavior that caused their problems, there was no character progression, and I didn’t really like them in the end. Formula Two elements killing the Formula One bits. And Thomas Lennon’s uncredited cameo appearance near the beginning of HTTM in the dog grooming shop didn’t help, as it just made me compare this film unfavorably to last year’s much funnier 17 Again, a Formula One disguised by Lennon and Zac Efron’s inspired slapstick camouflage to masquerade as a Two.
Steve Carell and Tina Fey’s first joint venture, Date Night, managed to deliver another very creditable stab at a Formula One. I hadn’t expected it from Mr. 40 Yr. Old Virgin, but I shouldn’t be so pessimistic, it seems. Steve and Tina work brilliantly together combining their shared background in improv comedy to great effect, playing an ordinary middle-class suburban couple just trying to get a fun night away from the kids in the big city. But their quest goes comically awry when just a few random spontaneous choices send them careening into imminent danger and instant hilarity. Yep, Formula One again, excluding one scene of goofy pole dancing, et al that even I laughed at because it was…so wrong. Funny…not Some Like it Hot classic, but definitely a sure fire Date Night, if you’ll pardon my making the obvious pun.The last movie I’d recommend is an Indian offering which is probably out of the local Indian cinemas by now, but as it is a good example of what I’m talking about, it stays in. Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge? is a broad comedy starring Ajay Devgan and Konkona Sen Sharma as a happily married couple with an impossibly angelic little boy, who make the mistake of inviting Paresh Rawal, an unexpected guest, to make their home in Mumbai, his own, for an undetermined period. This one-joke premise holds on desperately throughout the first half, and as is typical of a piece this frenetic, I was beginning to lose interest. But in the always romantic style of the true Bollywood screenwriter, the second half softens into a gentle, but hilarious lesson on what the Eternal Guest can teach this middle class couple who have unintentionally lost their roots and sense of family through living in the impersonal big city. That this film succeeds is mostly due to the skill of veteran actor Rawal, who brings us home with smiles and tears as all good Hindi melodramas should. Formula One with subtitles.
So, wrapping up, I do have hope for the future of comedy, but I think we should vote with our feet and hold out for a bit more of a balance between One and Two. We can and should ask for more from our screenwriters. Happy viewing.