Here are five comedies that came out this summer, and my thoughts on each of them.
Status: In theaters (opened 7/25/08)
Directed By: Adam McKay
Written By: Will Ferrell & Adam McKay
Cinematographer: Oliver Wood
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins
In one of the most tragic career turns in recent memory, John C. Reilly has somehow found himself focusing on comedic acting as of late, which would be okay in and of itself if it weren’t for the fact that he’s also somehow found himself becoming part of the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay mediocrity team as the means to this end. First he played sidekick to Ferrell’s titular character in the quasi-funny Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which segued into a starring role in the equally sub-par Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Here he shares twin top billing with Will Ferrell—who, while nowhere near as talented as Reilly, does have some acting ability of his own, as we saw on a rare occassion in Stranger Than Fiction—and the two of them drag seasoned veterans Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins into the whole mess along with them. The latter two are the respective single parents to their 40ish sons, both of whom still live at home, and who become siblings when their parents marry during another of what is now becoming a cliched opening credits sequence, which dispatches with what should be the entire first act in the beginning 5 minutes of the movie.
The would-be plot involves all 4 moving in together—since, you know, that’s obviously the logical thing to do—and the new step brothers eventually becoming friends and trying to start a business together. This transition is a painful one, though, both for the characters and for the audience. They fight at first, in a series of what are essentially disjointed vignettes that are very hit-or-miss in terms of comedic impact. There’s one involving a genital gag that goes far enough to be shockingly funny, but then quickly—ahem—pulls it back in and turns into a brutally violent (and brutally unfunny) fight sequence that seems to go on forever. This theme basically gets repeated throughout the film: brief moments of genuinely funny humor, followed by lengthy periods of jokes being pounded into the ground long past the point where their humor has worn off.
Like all of Ferrell’s big comedies, there is the formulaic skeleton of a plot. It is not very interesting, nor is it particularly funny. The humor here comes in brief punctuations, sporadic and uneven and inconsistent. There is a phenomenon that has been occurring with these films, where the target audience’s primary goal in seeing the movie seems to be to memorize quips from it, to be repeated out of context in conversation with their buddies later, so that they can all laugh in the shared memory of having seen the same movie. Thinking about this too much is sure to cause headaches and confusion, as it could not be any more circular, or so I had thought; it seems that Ferrell and McKay have increasingly written their scripts with this audience behavior in mind, and with each attempt have tended more and more towards blatantly writing lines that exist solely to become oft-repeated favorites. Here, we have “Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer!”, referring to an event that is spoken of as if we should know what it is, where the film’s excuse for resolution occurs. There are other such lines sprinkled throughout the movie, transparent attempts to coin new catchphrases among the frat-boy crowd (Reilly’s description of his public hair as his “ball fro” is a standout example of this).
It’s such a discord to see John C. Reilly, an actor who is as talented at manipulating his facial muscles in uniquely comedic ways as I can think of, delivering dialogue like this. He’s funnier when he just looks funny than he is when he’s asked to spout one-liners. He does as admirable a job of it as could be expected, though his faux dumbass voice grows tiresome at times. Ferrell, of course, is Ferrell; we always know what we’re getting from him in one of these movies, and for better or for worse at least he doesn’t disappoint in that regard. There’s only so long that grown men behaving like prepubescent teens can hold your attention, though, and Step Brothers demonstrates that 90-ish minutes is well beyond that point.
Status: In theaters (opened 8/6/08)
Directed By: David Gordon Green
Written By: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg
Cinematographer: Tim Orr
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Rosie Perez, Gary Cole
The problem with stoner comedies is that their aim is not to be funny, but to be funny while high. This in turn implies that they’re written while high, and the stoned humor that results is only really funny to others who are high. From the previews of Pineapple Express, you might not be able to guess that it’s this type of movie, since you are shown a lot of action involving car chases and shoot-outs and what appear to be blood-spattered windshields. Its first half is that type of movie, though, and the second half is the one shown in the previews. If “stoner comedy” and “buddy action movie” sound like incompatible genres to be mixed together to you, you’re not alone. I can only imagine how many stoned audience members experienced the buzz kill of the month when, halfway through the film, the stoner humor is all but completely abandoned and they suddenly find themselves in a wannabe high-octane action flick.
Movies with identity crises such as these rarely succeed, and unfortunately Pineapple Express is no exception, marking the first sign that Seth Rogen’s reign as the King Midas of comedy might already be up (though I certainly hope that’s not the case, with his next film being a Kevin Smith picture). Here he’s re-teamed with Evan Goldberg, his Superbad writing partner, but the results are much less inspiring. On the most basic level, the two movies are similar: a pair of male friends who are having trouble growing up taking it upon themselves to make their desires become their reality. But whereas in the case of Superbad, it was high schoolers facing adulthood looming, with the desire being their first love, here we have twenty-somethings who should be adults but for the fact that they’d rather get high, and their desire being escape from a convoluted entanglement with their local drug lord/pseudo-mafia-esque bad guy (Gary Cole) and his dirty-cop partner (Rosie Perez)—two seasoned actors in full phoning-it-in mode. Combined with Seth Rogen seeming like he just did a wake-and-bake before heading to the set every day, and the terminally unfunny hillbilly pseudo-actor Danny McBride (who unfortunately seems to be gaining in popularity, if his exposure this summer is any indication), the acting is pretty uninspired all around. The one exception is James Franco, who’s really quite good as the perpetually stoned dealer, who he plays as an homage to Brad Pitt’s Floyd from True Romance. The fact that the best performance in the film comes from an impersonation of a throw-away comic-relief character from an early-90s Tony Scott film can absolutely be taken as an indication of the overall quality of the filmmaking at work here.
There’s a lot of unfunny awkwardness in this script too, starting with Rogen’s character’s somewhat disturbing relationship to a high school senior, which isn’t even played for its potential comedic value. Where it gets really odd, though, is in the third act, when suddenly everybody thinks they’re making a Beverley Hills Cop movie and it just becomes a big bloody shootout. It’s another instance where you can imagine that when they were high and writing it, things like shooting off a guy’s foot might have sounded funny, but on screen it’s just disturbing and weird, and especially out of place. And after all of this is finally done—the final shootout sequence is at least 20 minutes, and feels like about 45—we’re treated to the worst scene of all: the three main characters sitting at a diner recapping the events of the movie for us, for no apparent reason, and providing no additional insight or humor.
It becomes clear pretty early on in Tropic Thunder that Ben Stiller really wanted to make an action movie. Presumably out of recognition of his status as a big-budget comedy star—and perhaps at the insistence of the studio—he realized that in order to do so he’d have to frame it as a comedy. This is in pretty stark contrast to Pineapple Express, which comes billed as a buddy-stoner comedy but then tries (and fails) to switch gears halfway through and become a shooter; instead Stiller’s movie is presented from the get-go as an action movie-within-a-movie, with the outer movie clearly being a comedy. It’s also unsurprising to learn that the two are bound to intersect, and so when the final battle sequence breaks out it doesn’t feel as out of place.
That’s not to say that everything here fits together well, or that there aren’t discontinuities. When the cast of the movie-within-a-movie reaches the Vietnamese camp of heroin producers, for instance, no reason is given for why the tribe’s leader is a 12-year-old boy (other than the potential presumption that every movie with action in it uses certain classics as inspiration worthy of imitation). Said cast is an odd mix of good talent, and they manage to achieve something resembling synergy as an ensemble. We’re introduced to them all by a series of faux-trailers that precede the film, and the only bad part of this piece of information is that said faux-trailers are probably funnier than the film itself.
Regarding the ensemble cast, let me be sure to say this first: if there was any doubt at all prior to this movie that Robert Downey Jr. is the best actor working today, it has now been erased. He is an American actor playing an Australian playing an African-American, and is believable and impressive in that role beyond imagination. There are times in this movie when the Aussie drops his character a bit, and it is truly awesome how completely Downey pulls it off. The movie is worth seeing for this performance alone. Oh, and he’s hilarious, too.
The rest of the cast feels underused, especially Jack Black, but they work well enough together and have enough individual moments to make this not be too much of an issue. There are smaller roles played by Matthew McConaughey, Nick Nolte, and—most notably—Tom Cruise that really provide comedic highlights and a nice counterpoint to the group of superstars who find themselves stuck in the jungle during their ill-fated film production. Unfortunately there’s also Danny McBride again, yeehawing his way into a few scenes too many, and the aforementioned kid who’s as annoying as he is confusing. There’s also Bill Hader in a too-brief yet too out-of-place role, another aspect this movie has in common with Pineapple Express, although it manages to make somewhat better use of him. (After Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express, I was beginning to think that Hader had become the first Holywood actor to successfully negotiate a telecommuting contract; it’s good to see him not sitting in a room talking into a low-quality camera again.)
The premise is contrived enough that it eventually feels a bit too drawn out, and it’s hard to stay with it all the way through to the end, especially when the balance shifts more towards action than comedy. The effort is somewhat admirable, though, even if it’s not consistently good. Stiller and his co-writer Theroux are wise to maintain the comedy all the way through, at least, even during and after they get their chance to do the big action sequences. Be sure to catch the multiple cameos, particularly the last one, which ends up being one of the best punchlines of the whole movie.
Reading Anna Faris’s 20Q in the September 2008 issue of Playboy might give you the impression that The House Bunny is a feminist film: it was conceived by Farris, written by two women, and uses the iconic Playboy imagery and reputation—often regarded as one of the original enabling forces for women’s rights and liberation in this country—as the basis for its plot. This impression could not be further from the truth, however. This film seems to exist to perpetuate female stereotypes much more than it does to debunk them, and it doesn’t even do so to much comedic effect.
Faris plays a stereotypical ditzy blonde with supposedly huge implants (although, somewhat reminiscent of the sex scene in Knocked Up, the references to them simply leave the audience scratching their heads). She leaves the Playboy Mansion and becomes the house mother for a sorority; how any of this happens doesn’t really matter, and it doesn’t really make much sense, but what is important is that she finds a collection of misfit girls living in this sorority and decides that she must “help” them. The girls are the most generic collection of outcasts you could imagine, as if the screenwriters didn’t even bother describing them, but rather simply relied on the director to emulate every other movie that uses this same basis for its ill-conceived story. One (Emma Stone, who we recognize as the love interest from Superbad), is one of those “bookish” stereotypes who would be pretty if only she’d replace her nerdy glasses with some makeup, let her hair down, and dress in a less frumpish fashion. Another (Kat Dennings, another Apatow alum who played the sex-curious daughter in The 40 Year Old Virgin), is more snarky and sarcastic, but she too just needs some makeup and maybe a new outfit in order to conform and emulate the ditzy stereotype that all women, according to this film, should aspire to.
These are capable actresses, and I’ve mentioned other films they’ve been in where they demonstrate this. Here, though, they are relegated to flipping between two personas: the socially inept nerd, and the sexually desirable beauty; the change between the two, The House Bunny teaches us, can be enacted simply by changing one’s clothes. The other girls in the sorority are not portrayed as well: their “nerd” characterizations are even more exaggerated to an embarrassing degree (there’s one who wears a full-body brace—since, you know, that’s so hilarious—and another who comes from Idaho and speaks with the worst example of overacted cliche that I can recall seeing in quite some time, and then there’s the “shy one” who hides in the closet and only whispers or text-messages the others… you get the point.) What they all have in common, though, is that all they need is a few minutes in front of a mirror and then they’ll instantly become giggling, mindless, boy-obsessed ditzes, just like Faris’s character.
Somewhere in here there’s supposed to be a story about the titular character learning something or other. There are a few chuckles along the way, and a love interest played by Colin Hanks (Tom’s awkward-looking son, presented here as a hunk worthy of a Bunny’s lust) that is a small attempt at presenting something beyond the banality of the rest of the story, but it’s not enough to atone for the contradictory message the film focuses the majority of its time on.
The indie in this bunch is the funniest among them. Steve Coogan plays a hilariously inept actor who has become an even more inept drama teacher at a high school in Tucson. Funding cuts result in an influx of troubled Latino students into his class, and the movie plays with the Dangerous Minds-type setup in a manner that never allows it to become too serious or too cliched, while finding surprising amounts of humor from it. Coogan’s wife is Catherine Keener, somewhat disappointingly underused here. The two of them have financial struggles that are exaggerated just enough to be funny but not too over-the-top, including taking in a boarder to help pay the bills (David Arquette). Coogan’s character decides that he needs to write an opus to revive the drama program at the school, so he comes up with a play that’s so absurd it can’t help but being hilarious. Everything backfires along the way, of course, including the school halting the play’s production and parents and community members protesting the play’s content (prompting Amy Poehler, as an ACLU attorney, to come to their defense).
The surprising ability of this movie to refrain from ever getting too generic with its jokes and plot developments is what keeps it enjoyable. The best example of this comes from the appearance of Elizabeth Shue, who plays herself in the best (and funniest) such appearance since Being John Malkovich. Describing her role in this film is hard to do without ruining some of the jokes, but suffice it to say that she is the unique ingredient in the mix that pushes this movie from “okay, kinda funny” to “good, at times hilarious.”
There are developments affecting Coogan’s character’s personal life that threaten to disrupt his resolve to finish his play, but in keeping with the light-hearted nature of the film they are not delved into too seriously. Rather, they are simply piled up as further examples of how this character is constantly shit upon, and Coogan reacts with the indifference of somebody who’s all too used to such occurrences.
I find it admirable how this movie blatantly ignores the potential it has to offend its audience; in fact, at times it embraces it. Alcoholism is a serious disease, sure, but that doesn’t mean the way Coogan depicts a relapse isn’t funny. The play being produced goes to great lengths to offend just about everybody, particularly Christians, but it’s so over-the-top it’s hard to imagine anybody but those who take themselves way too seriously finding genuine offense in it. And even among those, I bet they have a hard time getting “Rock Me Sexy, Jesus” (the play’s big musical number) out of their heads, whether they see the humor in it or not.