Thursday, September 18, 2008

Funny Ha Ha

The following column is reprinted from the September issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

The Hollywood movie comedy can take on all sorts of forms and mutations, ranging from scalding satire to puffy pastiche, from comedy team vehicle to actor surrounded by funny, from overt genre parody to skit-inspired silliness. When a movie is funny, whether it be gut-busting, surreal, sly, or inspired, you know it, audiences know it, whether it be the Marx Brothers brand of anarchy in one of their finer romps, the trenchant snappiness of a Preston Sturges outing, the rat-a-tat outrageousness of a Dr. Strangelove, or the infantile stony chuckles drawn from a Cheech and Chong pairing. Film historian Gerald Mast once went as far as divvying up the sound movie comedy into three distinct traditions: Dialogue, Clown and Ironic. Of course, that was before the advent of the Rob Schneider tradition. (Hardy-har-har.) Below, a look at a few of this summer’s attempts at big screen humor.
Mike Meyers’ latest attempt to slip on the shoes of the great Peter Sellers, The Love Guru (released in June), had the distinction of bombing on all fronts. Murkily shot, haphazardly sewn together, it tosses penis jokes, midget jokes, and over-the-hill pop psychology jokes at the screen without an iota of charm or substance. Watching, I couldn’t help but think what would have happened had this had been a simplistic vehicle for a rollicking team like Hope and Crosby or Martin and Lewis, with a competent Hollywood directorial traffic man at the helm, and a team of old school gag writers, odds are it would have been a silly and pleasant romp. Instead it’s a deadly grind, tediously unfunny, and brimming with ham-handedness and mugger, piling on the insipid puns into the gleam in Meyers eyes resembles the look of someone dying to go to the bathroom. That’s not funny, just desperate.
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly managed to kick up some obvious comic chemistry in the broadly lowbrow Talladega Nights, so it only made sense to the money men that they should combine for a feature length go-at-it. Step Brothers lets the two loose as two middle-aged misfits, both still living at home with their respective single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) forced into co-mingling once Mom and Dad tie the knot. It’s pure raunch and roll, propelled by a shock and giggle comic assault plot, another contempo comedy film that seems to revel in perpetual adolescence, which by all evidence, is aimed directly at an audience that is either striving to do the same or thinking back fondly at their attempt to have done so.
Step Brothers commits wholly to stupid, and while much of the sequences are hit or miss, the hits do draw legit guffaws. The self-absorption at the heart of the characters (a Ferrell specialty) is acutely funny, the actions derived from it not quite so. The movie is openly caustic, and there lurks a sort of idiot’s rage behind much of comedic gusto. Of crude and rude can only go so far, and the movie never truly differentiates the step boys, sheering off any hope of a connective batch of extended hilarity by never generating any actual narrative conflict. In another words, it’s one of those comedies that comes as an elongated skit, although if your idea of hilarity is watching Will Ferrell rub his exposed testicles all over a drum kit, this one’s for you.
When you walked out of Superbad did you take a little time wondering what became of those characters as they grew up? Well comic wunderkind Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), must have, because Pineapple Express (written by Apatow and his Superbad writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) kinda sorta brings you to that place, all the while posing as a genre twisting mash up of Harold and Kumar and Lethal Weapon. Rogen himself plays Dale Denton a sad sack process server who just wants to get high with his bud and dealer Saul Silver (James Franco). Soon the two are running from drug baddies and bad coppers with wheels screeching and bullets flying. It’s a stoner road trip gone bad, and its comic tone slyly slips from laid back to deranged as the pot smoke thickens and some action gore sprouts into the picture.
Apatow, in a canny move, hired indie filmmaker David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, ’07, All the Real Girls, ’03), to filter down his broader comic sensibility (bromance and perpetual adolescence remain at its core), and for a while, he manages the weird combo of mayhem and ha-ha nicely. When the movie starts to leave behind its stoner charm and pushes into the action-jackson machinations it becomes less of a sweetly smart goof and more of standard (and predictable) actioneer. Pineapple Express has it highs (uh-huh) and it will be a welcome addition to the barstool game of naming the coolest stoner flicks, but it winds up as another example of the simple fact that eventually every zoom has a come down.
As you watch the previews and the like before Tropic Thunder rolls out, once you realize that they are part of the bigger joke that is, you’ll worry if the full length feature that follows can sustain the same high level of jocularity. No problem. Ben Stiller’s high-budget jape at Hollywood movies, mores and moronity is acutely amusing and its satiric bits actually jell into a whole. It’s a breezy, zany, satire with more than enough amusing ideas, farcical riffs, and hilarious performances to sustain it.
Stiller has long taken the self-depreciative airs of Woody Allen into the wooly realm of comic self-flagellation, plunging ever deeply into the arena of the uncomfortable. With his sights set directly on the heart of Hollywood artifice, the target is an easy, albeit hard-to-argue one. Pricking at the delusions of grandeur that are passed like hard candy from movie producer to filmmaker to audience to (especially) actors, Stiller has fashioned a smart aleck comedy that is ostensibly about bad taste but manages to veer into areas slightly less definable, and sometimes touching it with an inkling of the surreal.
Tropic Thunder tosses together Stiller as a fading action star, Jack Black as a comedian trying to stretch his chops, and Robert Downey Jr. as a method acting madman delusional enough to make a movie in virtual blackface as they come together on the movie set of a war movie being filmed in Southeast Asia. Add to the mix Steve Coogan as the Brit director, Nick Nolte as the actual war vet hired as an advisor, Brandon T. Jackson as a hip-hop star trying out the acting game, and, (as the cat is already out of the bag) surprise participant Tommy Boy Cruise as the ultimate kingpin producer. Cruise, channeling a studio head as coarse gargoyle, goes all out, braying, dancing, spewing profanities, treading the oh-so-thin-line between discomfort and inspired, all the while enhancing the total self-referential party train that the movie is coasting on. Tropic Thunder is kick ass funny, not just funny ha ha.

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