11 April 2010
Trends: The Good Unfunny Comedy, 2008 - Present
Today, on the one-year anniversary of the weekend after Observe and Report (2009) premiered (you've seen more desperate post connections), I want to talk about one of my favourite trends in recent comedy. What I call the Good Unfunny Comedy. These are movies so dark they can only be held as comedies through the genre on the label. They are comedies that either have a large dramatic streak or otherwise treat themselves as genuine pieces of cinema and television other than superfluous clowning moments of pop culture. In general these films are very good, but broader audiences pass them up due to their intense niche status.
There have always been some dramatic comedy films or rather comedies that both took their content seriously and pulled off their tone without being pretentious. I'm going after a very particular style of film here that is somewhat hard to pin down. These kinds of comedies do not rely on laugh-out-loud, chuck-a-luck humour to be good movies, instead relying on excellent structure, thinking points and reverberation for their excellence. The first film in recent memory I might place here is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). I'll point to the Coen films Raising Arizona (1987) and Barton Fink (1991) as some later examples. As comedy, their content still went above and beyond even what many dramas could offer in terms of introspection and meaning.
There's a few gradients here. Of all the films I have arbitrarily designated as members of this sub-genre, I'd say Semi-Pro (2008) tries the hardest for the most laughs. There's a lot of genuine problems in the film, but there's also this weird dichotomy between serious characters and dramatic characters. I'm thinking mostly of Monix (Woody Harrelson) and Lynn (Maura Tierney)'s dramatic, passionate affair that is a pretty touching moment until Lynn's husband, Kyle (Rob Corddry) walks in and starts jacking off. The couple's reactions are reasonably startled, but Corddry seems to still be stuck in the lunatic world. The different realities of the different characters are interesting, this film tends to straddle the boundary.
I'll acknowledge two Seth Rogen films here, the aforementioned Observe and Report as well as Funny People (2009). Re-watching Observe and Report again recently has affirmed it for me as one of the best of 2009, if not the decade really (hell, if only for being one of the most divisive among viewers). It's an absolutely brutal film; a Taxi Driver (1976) camouflaged as a Seth Rogen vehicle. Funny People at is core is what its title denotes. It's not a funny film in itself but is more like a dramatic film about naturally comedic characters. In the end these films defy genre and simply exist on their own instead of to be categorized and filed. The Beatles got this message. This well-rounded nature I believe leads to better cinematic experiences.
Adventureland (2009) is an incredible movie that I suppose could be considered more funny than serious, but despite its Superbad (2007)-like advertising, is a teen drama at heart. I especially praise Ryan Reynolds in this film, who plays the most serious character (without a trace of irony) in a role that could have easily been identical to Waiting... (2005).
The two latest Coen offerings also tread this line. Burn After Reading (2008) tends to be more madcap hilarious (despite the abundance of death) while A Serious Man (2009) although near incomprehensible, is a Job-like Comedy that provokes laughter at absurdity rather than pity. Neither are ever haw haw-worthy, but rather draw only a wry smile.
In Bruges (2008) is kind of a goofy action-comedy that always keeps its action very real and dark instead of something like Bad Boys II (2003) which has a similar controlling idea (strange shit happens to two dudes with guns. Alright that may have been a stretch. The point is that In Bruges could have been similar to Bad Boys II if not for variations in tone, scope and sense of plot. These are the key differences in the films I'm describing.)
The last film I'll describe that affirms to this trend is the underseen World's Greatest Dad (2009), starring Robin Williams. The manner in which this film dances between the darkness and hilarity is astonishing. It's the darkest comedy I've ever seen, continuously leaving nothing really under the rock. Again, it's not that funny. It's not a funny film, but it's a good film. It sacrifices humour for something greater. That's the key for all films mentioned today. Comedies don't have to be funny to be good films. Or even good comedy films. Humour is secondary to excellence. Always.
Real quick let's talk Hancock (2008). In its original state, Tonight He Comes, as it was originally drafted named, was much much darker.The first half idea of an alcoholic-hobo-Superman is basically intact (which on its own should have revolutionized our conceptions of what a real-world superhero would be), but instead of the jarring, terrible twist, Big Willie Style should have raped Charlize Theron. Yep. The dark flaws and temptations of an untouchable superhero spun with the awkward laughs of sloppy, drunken crimebusting. Hancock could have been one of the coolest movies of Summer 2008 (Honour instead went to Pineapple Express) and the biggest supporter for my case here, but alas, producers obviously buckled under such a gratuitous plot. Read that above article for some gritty details.
There are a few shows on TV who also walk the line. Rescue Me with Denis Leary on F/X is a very good example of an excellent comedy show with a pervading darkness that verges on pure drama. It contrasts with his earlier show, The Job, which was much more of a comedy, unable to cross into real depth primarily due to its status on Network Television, Denis Leary's pigeon-hole as a comedian and half-hour format.
In addition, on Adult Swim we have both The Venture Bros (which I seem to mention with every post, but for good reason - it's one of the Greatest Shows on Television right now, with features that address anything you can think of) as well as Moral Orel, which had a great ascent from weird quirky claymation parody to arcing, multi-layered character drama with little to no jokes per episode besides its metanarrative.
These movies and shows defy expectation. They laugh at what we find most dark in the world - a trait much sicker than the most sinister dramas. As Mel Brooks famously said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." The comedies that laugh at horror are more horrifying than horror, and when done right, are the most rewarding experiences in cinema.