Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Diamonds in the garbage heap - Part II: Comedies


There certainly are a lot of bad comedies out there. Humor is, of course, an awfully fickle thing, tied in with various subjective elements such as taste, culture, language and history. Yet it seems fair to say that many comedies that come out these days lack a certain grace and sensitivity, an artfulness and craft that defines many of the classics of the genre. It is also a medium which contains countless underrated gems which have sadly fallen by the wayside. So let's stroll along the path of comedic brilliance, perhaps finding common human ground in things that delight and give wonder.


1. The Circus - 1928


Chaplin's mastery in the realm of comedy is, of course, largely unsurpassed. The intensity of light emanating from his masterpieces such as City Lights, The Kid, The Great Dictator and Modern Times sometimes blinds us to the beauty of many of his lesser known efforts such as this lovely little film starring Charlie and Merna Kennedy (who was briefly married to Busby Berkeley in the 30's). Charlie gets hired as a janitor at a big-top circus and falls in love with the daughter of the owner, a talented acrobat. The hijinks that ensue stand among Charlie's most accomplished slapstick, including a nasty run-in with a fearsome horse and some astounding tight-rope work (done by Charlie with no strings or effects attache,d 40 feet in the air!). The Tramp was seldom as angelic as he is in this film, a creature of great compassion and care. The ending is bittersweet and lovely, a testament to the humane and poetic character of Chaplin's art.

2. Big Trouble in Little China - 1986


Probably Carpenter's most hilarious film, a fantastic send-up of a cacophony of genres including martial arts, action and fantasy. The running gag at the heart of the film, largely lost on viewers in the 1980's, is that musclebound Jack Burton (played by a very game Kurt Russell) is actually a bumbling idiot and his ethnic sidekick Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is the real hero of the piece, an adapt martial artist trying to save his bride-to-be from the evil David Lo-Pan (the classic James Hong). Burton is a magnificent creation, adeptly handled by both Russell and Carpenter, a very funny symbol of both American culture and film, an overbearing lout whose bark is definitely louder than his bite but who is nonetheless somehow astonishingly loveable. Combining the most endearing palooka since Rocky, fantastically goofy special effects (why were those so amazing in the 80's?), a great villain and solid direction, Big Trouble in Little China is a great comedic masterpiece which is finally starting to find its audience.

3. My Favorite Year - 1982


Peter O' Toole is great as the Errol Flynn-esque matinee idol Alan Swann. A carouser and professional hedonist, Swann is about to get thrown off a variety show he was to appear on and which could have salvaged his failing career when junior writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) puts his neck out to save his idol. Benjy is promptly ordered to babysit Swann, a Herculean task. The mid-50's period flavor is wonderfully done, especially the scenes in 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a paean to the glory days of television (director Richard Benjamin worked as a page at 30 Rock as a young man).

4. The End - 1978


A bizarre, black-as-espresso comedy starring Sally Field, Dom DeLuise and the Man himself: Mr. Burton Reynolds Jr. Quite the opposite of the Smokey and the Bandit movies starring Burt and Sally, this one has Burt as a man dying of cancer who wants to kill himself to get it all over with though he doesn't have the cancerous guts to do so. He hires a completely (Dom)delusional mental patient to finish the deed yet the process turns out to be infinitely more complicated than anyone could have imagined.

It's a rare thing indeed to see an American film, let alone a comedy, deal with death and this film offers a strangely compelling, wacked-out meditation on the big sleep. It's often astoundingly funny and bitter, the kind of thing one might expect Woody Allen to write if you added insomnia and alcoholism to the New York neurosis. There's a lot of problems with this film - it's often a painfully flimsy affair - yet it is a sadly unheralded piece with a lot going for it, a strange and dark meditation on the unbearable lightness of suicide, the sort of film that wouldn't get made in a million years in our current horrifying era of focus groups and marketing executives. Check it out with a bottle of wine at hand but keep the razor blades away.

5. 101 Reykjavík 


Perhaps I'm biased when it comes to this rather delightful Icelandic comedy but it is among the best offered by the country's burgeoning film industry. Director Baltasar Kormákur (who is now holding fort in the Shangri-La of Hollywood) provides a darkly hilarious portrayal of a thirty-something loser still living with his mother who falls in love with her lesbian lover, played by the lovely Victoria Abril. Mrs. Abril is a perfect center of attention since Kormákur's cinematic sensibilities owe a great deal to the great Pedro Almodóvar with a dash of nordic existential angst and humor (the two being largely indiscernible, both in film as in life). Lead actor Hilmir Snær Guðnason gives a wonderful performance as the forlorn Hlynur, a porn-and-drinking obsessed gen-Xer whose spiritual vacuousness is only matched by his psychological superficiality. Yet Hlynur is not a bad person but rather a victim of a culture and an era which has nothing to offer except sex, cigarettes and indie-music. The film has it's shortcomings but it is well worth seeing, a work of art whose cultural specificity translates to universal applicability.

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