Comedy movies were my first love. The first video I ever rented was the magnificent Carl Reiner/Steve Martin collaboration The Man With Two Brains. The second was the magnificent Carl Reiner/Steve Martin collaboration The Jerk. Maybe it’s because comedies speak to the youthful with much less condescension than other genres. Or maybe it’s because silliness doesn’t perceive age.
I find comedies the most difficult films to write reviews for. As a critic, I try to combine an assessment of a film’s ambitions with its context in the genre under an umbrella of my own personal reaction to the piece. But comedy is so darn subjective, I often find myself over-qualifying any endorsement or rejection.
So I feel a bit more freedom here in my blog, which comes from a determinedly more personal place than my reviews, to recommend some comedies I think don’t quite have the audience they deserve.
Writer/director David O Russell is a persistently interesting figure in contemporary cinema. His biggest success to date came with this year’s Oscar-nominated true-life drama The Fighter, but prior to that he was probably best known for coming to blows with his actors – George Clooney on the set of 1999′s action dramedy Three Kings and Lily Tomlin during the making of 2004′s existential comedy I Heart Huckabees.
I like both of those films, but the David O Russell work I keep going back to is 1996′s Flirting With Disaster. Ben Stiller, before he blew up (and went ultra broad) with There’s Something About Mary, plays a neurotic young man who sets out to find his own birth parents as his own wife (Patricia Arquette) is about to give birth to their first child. Tea Leoni (umm, Ghost Town?) plays the inept social worker tasked with finding his folks, who keeps lining up the wrong people.
It’s a unconventional road trip movie filled with increasingly odd behaviour that somehow always rings true, buoyed by hilarious little performances from a phenomenal supporting cast – Alan Alda; George Segal; Josh Brolin; Lily Tomlin; Mary Tyler Moore; David Patrick Kelly (Sully from Commando!) and the great Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), who makes a huge impression in a small role here as an FBI agent inadvertently tripping-out on acid.
But it’s the young Ben Stiller I enjoy most here, showcasing the kind of subtler comedic performance we rarely see from him these days, a notable exception being the recent Greenberg.
In America, the legendary board game Cluedo is called Clue. There has been much hand-wringing over upcoming cinematic adaptations of board games like Battleship; Candyland and Monopoly, but 1985′s Clue went there several decades ago, to surprising (creative) success. Our family had a copy of this film on VHS taped off TV from the good ol’ days when there were no ads on Sundays, and I must’ve watched it fifty times. It is awesome. And very very funny.
In a plot featuring contributions from the great John Landis, the familiar Cluedo characters (Miss Scarlet; Colonel Mustard; Professor Plum et al) are invited at an old manor in the middle of nowhere on a dark and stormy night where a murder quickly occurs – the victim, a “Mr. Boddy” (geddit?), who is played by Lee Ving, lead singer of LA punk pioneers Fear. Accusations fly in all directions, and surprisingly detailed back-stories emerge.
It works just as well as whodunnit as a comedy, but sets itself apart with a notable distinction – there were three endings. In cinemas, a different ending played at each showing – can you imagine such a thing occurring nowadays? On video/DVD, all three endings play out sequentially. Some years ago I interviewed co-star Michael McKean (aka David St. Hubbins from Spinal Tap), who informed me of a discarded fourth ending in which everybody dies. Nutty.
The film came and the tail-end of the modern golden age of whodunnits, typified by films like Sleuth (1972); The Last of Sheila (1973); Deathtrap (1982) and a host of Agatha Christie adaptations. It’s tone is heavily informed by these movies, which it skewers with aplomb.
The stellar cast is made up of some of the greatest Hollywood comedic actors of all time (Madeline Kahn; Christopher Lloyd; the aforementioned McKean, among others), who all do amazing work, but the absolute stand-out is Tim Curry as Wadsworth the Butler, the sole major character not taken from the game. Although he’s enjoyed a long and fruitful career, Curry’s never quite achieved the success he’s deserved in my eyes, and he brings an incredibly focused manic comic energy to his central role here that simply must be experienced.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is an acknowledged comedy classic among cinephiles casual and hardcore alike, but I’m constantly surprised by how many people I met who haven’t seen it, and have no interest in doing so due to the legal indiscretions of Paul Reubens, the comedian who created and performs as Pee-Wee. This is highly unfortunate.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is my all-time favourite movie comedy, and very much holds up to scrutiny from a modern day perspective. Its sense of earnest/ironic humour was ahead of its time, and the laughs come thick and fast. It’s such a sunny and bright film, if you’re not won over by its charms, you’re probably dead.
Reubens’ arrest was blown all out of proportion and for many, unfortunately still defines Pee-Wee (see also: Woody Allen). Don’t let this stop you from enjoying one of the greatest comedies ever made. With Pee-Wee having made a triumphant return to Broadway last year in an updated version of his stage show, and rumours of a new Judd Apatow-produced Pee-Wee pic abounding, there’s no better time to get on the Pee-Wee train. Or bike, rather.
I mentioned above my youthful affection for the legendarily fruitful collaborations between director Carl Reiner and Steve Martin, which are again all acknowledged classics. But their second film together is truly an odd duck, and remains criminally under-seen.
For Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), Reiner; Martin and George Gipe (who also worked on The Man With Two Brains) wrote a story about a Private Detective named Rigby Reardon (Martin) and his client Juliet Forrest (’80s siren Rachel Ward).
It was shot in black and white, then edited around a variety of scenes cut from classic film noir movies, featuring all the icons of the genre – Humphrey Bogart; Ingrid Bergman; Bette Davis and innumerable other Hollywood legends.
The resulting film is both absolutely ridiculous and a masterpiece of editing and genre reverence. The opening line of the trailer is pure gold:
Just don’t say “cleaning woman”.
Reiner would later return to similar territory with 1993′s Fatal Instinct, a spoof of modern noir-ish thrillers like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction that marks the only post-Zucker brothers Zucker-style spoof that isn’t terrible, and is very much worth checking out. This particular type of spoof would later go straight into the toilet with the Scary Movie franchise, and all its associated spin-offs, official or otherwise
I don’t think any celebrity death depressed me more than that of Saturday Night Live stalwart and Simpsons voiceover legend (he’s Troy McClure!) Phil Hartman. A constant supporting presence in film and TV shows up until his tragic murder in 1998, Hartman never graduated to leading man status, despite wholly deserving to.
The closest he got is the minor 1995 comedy Houseguest, which shouldn’t be as funny as it is. Comedian Sinbad plays a ne’er do well who poses as an old friend of Hartman’s suburban schlub, and proceeds to shake up his family’s domestic life in true mid-90s style. It’s not a great film, but worth watching for it’s surfeit of Hartman ham. Hartman also co-wrote Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and was a staple on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Pop culture hasn’t been the same without him.
Honorable mentions I’d like to cite at this point include ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic’s The Vidiot From UHF (1989, aka UHF); Will Ferrell’s first movie leading role A Night At The Roxbury (1998, multiple viewings help with this one) and cult classic Wet Hot American Summer (2001), which features a host of ‘before-they-were-big’ performances from actors like Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks and a particularly inspired Paul Rudd.
Are there any comedies you think don’t get enough love? Sound off below!