Not Coming to a Theater Near You   2008 in Review

’08: The Year in Laughter by Stephen Snart

Whenever presented with an open-ended prompt about film, I invariably take the opportunity to preach about the trials and tribulations faced for a comedy. It is my firm belief that comedy is the most undervalued and underappreciated genre in all of film. While other low genres like horror and science fiction are similarly neglected from critic’s best lists and awards show glory, they at least have their cult appreciation and are bestowed with annals upon annals of film theory texts devoted to their deconstruction and analysis. Meanwhile, comedy goes largely unremarked upon in all discourses except box office (even pornography receives more academic scholarship). Annual year-in-review columns routinely dismiss comedy in favor of more dramatic fare with only the year’s standout comedy (e.g. Juno, Knocked Up, Little Miss Sunshine) standing any chance to be blurbed. I must admit that I have been guilty of turning in lists and essays that neglect to honor the year’s comedic achievements as well. So it was much to my surprise – and thus the impetus for this essay – to realize that the top three selections of my top ten list for this year were all comedies. There could have been a number of extenuating circumstances for this occurrence that could range from a stronger production-based focus on comedy to merely a downturn in my own cinema-going. Whatever the case, I’m viewing 2008 as a banner year for comedy.

The perpetuated myth about comedy films is that the content is so lightweight and inconsequential that the films are incapable of maintaining any importance or prestige. But the truth of the matter is that comedy is capable of utilizing this long establish reputation to its advantage by producing incisive critique and commentary that subverts the status quo while deflecting controversy with its “I’m only kidding” shield. Certain truths and values (however hard to confront) can surface in a comedy with ease; particularly those that pertain to matters of public versus private. It’s important to remember that a dirty joke need not be only offensive; it can also be insightful.

Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno offers the most honest line of the year. In an effort to explain the monetary potential of making a pornographic film, Zack expounds: “Everybody wants to see anybody fuck. I hate Rosie O’Donnell, but if somebody said ‘I got a tape of Rosie O’Donnell getting fucked stupid,’ I’d be like ‘Why the fuck aren’t we watching that right now?’” It’s hard to argue against such logic: simple, straightforward and in layman’s terms. Zack and Miri Make a Porno also deserves recognition for having the most enjoyable and unforced exposition of the year. Unfortunately the second half of the film becomes too much of a date movie for its own good.

On the other side of the exposition spectrum, one need look no further than Four Christmases to see the most labored and beleaguered efforts to get the narrative ball rolling. On the upside, the mediocre, sitcom-styled film at least provided the opportunity for a Swingers cast reunion and allowed for Vince Vaughn to spit out a few peppery lines of dialogue. The similarly contrived 27 Dresses confirmed the considerable comic talent of Katherine Heigl but offered nothing else. A better romantic comedy could be found in the charming and tender Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. A smarter-than-your-average-teen-comedy, the film achieved an interesting balance between indie sensibility and broad comedy theatrics.

While I wasn’t charmed by the amateurish chutzpah of Mamma Mia, I do appreciate its contribution to female-driven event movie blockbusters--films in which audiences clap and cheer in response to catchy songs and romantic gestures rather than decapitated villains and exploding buildings. For similar reasons I commended Sex and the City: The Movie for ushering in the existence of the epic two-and-a-half hour ‘chick flick.’ I also found that chat fest with the occasional gross-out joke to be quite enjoyable summer fare--perhaps because I was a casual rather than diehard fan of the television show.

Perhaps the year’s most politically-minded comedy (in a non-minded sense) came from Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, a film which used its comic platform to creatively dispel the myth of “The American Dream” by addressing the multi-job-needing, second-class citizen lives that are awarded to dutiful immigrants, although the film’s bid to make terrorism funny again was still a bit sore. While it’s not one of the Sand Man’s brightest accomplishments, it also offers a slight variation on Sandler’s star image.

Pineapple Express commendably portrayed its drug addict lead characters as the sleazy, lackadaisical, underage-skewing predators that their real life counterparts would be. But at the same time that I appreciated their resistance to sugarcoat their material, I must admit I felt rather icky while watching the film and while I laughed quite a bit, I wasn’t enjoying myself very much. There must be some middle ground for balancing the sociological honesty and the enjoyment-factor necessities of the comedy. Sadly it wasn’t achieved in the very funny Role Models either, a film that flirts with making social commentary about child neglect and broken homes but ultimately shies away and reverts to the realm of feel-good fantasy territory. At least it fared better than the innocuous but inept Drillbit Taylor.

The most gleefully enjoyable comedy of the year could be Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, a very expensive comedy that puts its money where its mouth is thanks to the exquisite work by cinematographer John Toll and the elaborately designed special effects and well-executed stunts--much of which was accomplished practically with CGI reserved only for the necessity of confronting dangers like whirring helicopter blades. Designed as a no-holds-barred war against all things PC and all things Hollywood, some jokes did hew a bit too far on the mean-spirited side.

But those moments were nothing like the pain and suffering induced by sitting through Step Brothers, the most unpleasant and unproductively profane comedy of the year. The conceit of two middle-aged buffoons who don’t know the meaning of maturity being forced to live together when their parents remarry could have sustained a five-minute SNL sketch beautifully, but when dragged out to feature-length, it just raises too many unpleasant questions about the characters' mental conditions to maintain joviality. In terms of downright dreadfulness Step Brothers is only challenged by the bargain-bin inanity of Strange Wilderness.

On the other end of the spectrum is Burn After Reading, a vigorous romp in which the Coen Brothers continue to flex their uncanny ability to present material that simultaneously projects humor and suspense--could Brad Pitt getting shot in the face be the single funniest moment of the year? Their perverse sense of humor, troupe of skilled actors and brisk script that took some subtle swipes at the current sociopolitical climate made Burn After Reading one of the most entertaining larks of the year.

What the film didn’t do – and what separates it from my picks for the top three of 2008 – is create strong characters that resonate beyond the laughter. Of course, that wasn’t Burn After Reading’s prerogative; the story necessitated an arm’s length approach. But my top three films of the year – Happy-Go-Lucky, In Bruges, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall – all created recognizable yet individualistic characters that propelled their plots and stabilized an emotional core. Poppy, the morose assassins, and the outer Hollywood types of the three respective films all feel like they can exist beyond the silver screen, and yet they're very distant concepts.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall, under the mentorship of 21st century comedy maven Judd Apatow, achieved a delicate balance between the sweet and the puerile with just the right hint of sentimentality. Co-writer/lead star Jason Segal drew from personal experiences to create this break-up-and-beyond comedy in which his character suffers an unceremonious dumping (in the nude) and finds his torment extended when he inadvertently ends up vacationing at the same Hawaiian resort as his former flame and her new beau. A contrived plot if there ever was one but the film offsets its introductory mechanics with a free-flowing plot that favors natural conversation and realistic resort activities. It’s not as plausible as an Eric Rohmer envisioned holiday but the affable performers create sturdy access points. Like most ‘unrated’ or ‘extended’ DVD cuts, the majority of the additional scenes on the Forgetting Sarah Marshall DVD add little of worth. However, there is one scene that smacks an emotional wallop and should be sought out. It’s a contrived final meeting between the disenfranchised couple that ruptures the momentum of the conclusion but visually depicts nostalgia in its most painful sense, a bittersweet quality that brims throughout the film.

Bold is the comedy that runs over two hours. In Bruges has a running time of one hour and forty-seven minutes but by my count, it could have lasted twice that amount of time without suffering one iota. I would have been more than happy continuing to watch disgraced hitmen Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson continuing their enforced sojourn through Belgium. Farrell gives the best performance of his career as the petulant hothead bemused by their orders to hide out in Bruges while the ire over a contract killing gone wrong dissipates. The older, wiser Gleeson relishes the opportunity to explore Bruges, displaying a foresight that their idyllic situation won’t last very long. The concept could have justified a TV-miniseries but writer/director Martin McDonagh wisely keeps the film at a trim running time and paces it so that the story never gets in the way of the plot. McDonagh, a celebrated playwright, makes the transition to feature film with astounding grace. The film is dark but not just for the sake of it. It’s dark because the characters and plot require it. The lead characters are killers and the film doesn’t let you forget it, even as it invites you to sympathize with them. When the conclusion arrives and everyone receives their just deserts, there’s no sense of dismay just acceptance and recognition of the film’s sublimely poetic wrapping up. Ruminations on death, swipes at purgatory and conundrums of morality resound throughout every frame. And so does laughter.

Mike Leigh’s riff on Bridget Jones' Diary. That would be the simple – and partially accurate – way to sum up Happy-Go-Lucky, the year’s most delightful viewing experience. Sally Hawkins stars as Poppy, the effervescent London schoolteacher whose optimism can’t be harnessed. The character of Poppy is admittedly a deal-breaker: some viewers can’t stand her; some are entranced by her. It’s understandable: it’s not easy to be around someone this optimistic for two hours. Nor is it easy to be optimistic for two hours. But if you can succumb to Poppy’s charms then you're in for two hours of reveling in the glory of life’s little pleasures. British social realism is a hotly contested subject in any discussion of British cinema. Most writings indicate that for a film to be heralded as a realistic depiction of Britain it needs to be gritty and about the working class like the films of Michael Winterbottom or Shane Meadows. Otherwise it’s just considered a progeny of Richard Curtis' London postcard imagery. But Happy-Go-Lucky offers something in-between. The film is gorgeous without a doubt but it isn’t just a fantastical projection of London. Crowded buses that make sharp turns without warning, areas where bicycles get nicked, incurable vagrancy, child neglect, racism--the harsh truths of London living are present too. But they're responded to with a resilient smile rather than a despondent frown. In spite of the world’s best efforts to turn it otherwise, the lead character maintains a sunny disposition and so does the film.

All three films mixed their comedy with a dose of melancholy and all were the stronger for it. Happy-Go-Lucky, In Bruges, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall all address heavy themes and touch at the dark areas of the psyche we hate to acknowledge, especially in a comedy. And despite their emotional weight, all three films are comedies through and through. Films where the laughs are abundant and spirits are raised high from start to finish. They're not even worthy of that mysterious generic amalgam ‘dramedy’ in the way that Lost in Translation or this year’s Vicky Christina Barcelona are applicable.

The other quality the three films share is their free-flowing approach to plot. Each film could be described as episodic and in the hands of less capable filmmakers they would have been sprawling and discordant. The dialogue in each film sounds unrehearsed and improvised and the plots give little impression of possessing a grand master pulling the strings. While Forgetting Sarah Marshall adopts a laconic “Hawaiian time” ethos to storytelling, Happy-Go-Lucky and In Bruges are more skillful in the way their plots resemble unmediated freewheeling until the final act in which you realize just how intricately woven their preceding plot strands have been placed. Forgetting Sarah Marshall does a damn good job at achieving naturalism through construction but only In Bruges and Happy-Go-Lucky achieve brilliance.



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