Why comedies often stay relevant longer than dramas.

The Movie Club, 2016

Comedies Frequently Pass the Test of Time—but It’s Hard to Tell Which Will Flunk

The Movie Club, 2016

Comedies Frequently Pass the Test of Time—but It’s Hard to Tell Which Will Flunk
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Jan. 3 2017 3:33 PM

The Movie Club, 2016

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Comedies pass the test of time more often than we expect—but it’s hard to predict which ones will flunk.

Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett in Love & Friendship.
Kate Beckinsale and Tom Bennett in Love and Friendship.

Roadside Attractions

Hi folks,

First things first: Amy, I absolutely remember Bagdad Café! It was mandatory viewing in my house growing up, and given enough motivation I could probably still recall the lyrics to the film’s theme song, “I’m Calling You,” which my dad recorded onto an audio cassette from our VHS, and which we’d listen to in the car. I also remember that Jack Palance played a painter whose look, I realized years later, was modeled after Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Giotto in The Decameron.

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Mark, your point about the “very long timeline” to which these new films belong is absolutely critical. As I write these words, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is preparing a retrospective called “Illuminating Moonlight,” featuring films handpicked by Barry Jenkins as influences on his own—from Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep to Claire Denis’s Beau Travail and Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light. I wish more directors not named Quentin Tarantino would have the opportunity to do this sort of thing on a regular basis.

Also, there absolutely is a movie behind the irritating high-frame-rate techno-wankery of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. After what felt like a disastrous New York Film Festival premiere, I was lucky enough to catch a plain old 24-frames-per-second screening. And while Lee’s film still has some issues, it all worked much better as a regular movie. Joe Alwyn’s lead performance as the emotionally wounded vet trying to hold it all together felt much more genuine, and you could finally sense the tenderness in his relationship with his sister Kristen Stewart. Before, under the high-tech sheen and ultrasmooth textures of 120 FPS, everything felt stilted, artificial. I think you could probably teach an entire course on screen acting—on what works, what doesn’t, and how form sets the limits of its own reality—by just showing the two versions of Billy Lynn back to back.

Mark and Amy, I sure as hell wish I liked Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping as much as you guys did. I do know that the trailer was one of the funniest I’d seen in ages, and I was very excited to experience the full thing, and I even skipped work to go see it and … well, I thought some of the songs were very funny, but I couldn’t get over the comedy-sketch-stretched-beyond-the-breaking-point quality of much of the rest of it. I’m sure it works better if you’re steeped in all its various reference points. That said, “Incredible Thoughts” is an amazing song. And I’m pretty sure “my brain is a genius” is an actual thing that Donald Trump said in 2016, so maybe those words will be on currency by this time next year.

As for Sausage Party, my 7-year-old son certainly wishes I liked that film as much as Mark did. Don’t worry; he’s not allowed to see it. But, let’s just say it’s not easy explaining to a small boy why he can’t see the animated movie with the posters of talking hot dogs and assorted sentient foodstuffs plastered all over New York. He has begrudgingly settled instead for merely plastering me with nonstop questions about it, every single day. And about its cast: He wants to know if Seth Rogen and James Franco are “nice guys.” I’ve assured him that I have it on good authority that both of them are lovely people.

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I tell you all this in an effort to explain the fact that I have thought a lot about Sausage Party this year, probably more than any movie I actually reviewed. And I can say that while the film was quite funny in parts, I found its notion of transgression fairly unimaginative; it was more aggressively raunchy than genuinely shocking (unlike, say, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut). Still, I did enjoy its full-throated, foul-mouthed takedown of religion and the promise of an afterlife.

But who knows? Both Popstar and Sausage Party may grow on me. Sometimes, just a couple of winning comic bits is all it takes for a film to withstand the test of time. Mark, you note that even very successful comedies like Postcards From the Edge and When Harry Met Sally are rarely showered with the same kind of awards and acclaim as more serious prestige fare. This is something that I beat myself up over all the time. We all like to talk about Oscar’s bias against comedy … but when one does emerge as a contender, many of us immediately see it as some lightweight usurper: I still can’t believe The Artist was the film to beat for Best Picture in 2011. I also recall the wave of panic that hit the film-nerd community 10 years ago when Little Miss Sunshine briefly looked like it might steal the big one right out from under The Departed. What would happen this year if Florence Foster Jenkins bum-rushed the Oscar race and suddenly threatened to unseat Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea or La La Land in their favored categories? There’d be blood on the streets, and some of it would probably be mine.

This is another reason why I like to ask myself (and others) what movies we’ll turn out to be wrong about in 10 or 15 or 20 years. Today, I think Notting Hill and Bowfinger are better than at least four of the films nominated for Best Picture in 2000, and Office Space is better than all of them (yes, even The Insider). Would I have said so at the time? Probably not: Back when it came out, I was disappointed by Office Space, but a few years of working office jobs made me realize that it’s one of the greatest comedies of all time. I do know that for me, comedies often have to age before I give them their proper due.

There’s an irony there, I suppose, since comedy is so often founded on the purity of an immediate response: You know it’s working if the audience is laughing. But as a genre, it may also be more relevant to our average lives than drama is; I have more days that remind me of something out of The Apartment or Tootsie than days that remind me of something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey or There Will Be Blood. But sometimes you have to drive the gags around your life for a while before figuring out exactly how they endure.

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Of course, one of the most acclaimed films of this year, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, is certainly a comedy. I love it for the way it nails the languid bullshit of the corporate world, and for its delightfully complex central father-daughter relationship. A critic friend at Cannes pointed out that the film at times plays like a three-hour European variation on the much-reviled Adam Sandler flick That’s My Boy! As a big fan of That’s My Boy!, I am totally fine with that, but I’ll grant there’s a lot more going on in Ade’s film. In an era when many comedies can be indifferently directed, it achieves a very particular cadence that reflects the rhythms of daily life, in a way that few other movies of any genre manage. But while it is at times very funny, Toni Erdmann is not exactly a gutbuster. Love and Friendship, too, mines a more refined type of humor. Except, as Mark points out, when Tom Bennett comes on, at which point it suddenly transforms into a Will Ferrell–esque, laugh-out-loud comedy—and a very good one at that.

What comedy made me laugh the hardest this year? I certainly laughed a lot at The Nice Guys, a movie whose cult has already started forming in the wake of a lackluster box-office performance. Ghostbusters couldn’t possibly live up to expectations—people expected it not just to be funny, but to actually save the world—but the wild, unhinged energy that Kate McKinnon introduced into that film was life-affirming and transcendental. (And, ironically, she upstaged Melissa McCarthy, who’s usually the one stealing the show with her deranged rhythms. Bad reviews kept me away from The Boss, but I have this weird feeling I’ll like it.) And I cackled like an idiot throughout most of The Brothers Grimsby, but that movie is Wrong and Bad and Gross and Evil and Problematic, and oh god I think I have to put my Blu-ray on, like, right now.

Love,

Bilge

Bilge Ebiri is a film critic for the Village Voice. His work has also appeared in New York magazine, Rolling Stone, Bookforum, and Businessweek.