By Andrew Russell / LifeAtStart.com Reporter
The thing that makes comedies so hard to talk about, the thing that always leads to low Rotten Tomatoes scores and high audience scores, is that critics can’t tell you what you think is funny.
If I say that something was funny, and you say it wasn’t, we’re speaking factually instead of on our own behalf. We are both right. The thing that I want to talk about, though, is the craft of comedic films. What makes one effective, what makes another lackluster, and especially how we are currently lacking in this genre.
Comedy has always been a divisive genre, matched only perhaps by modern horror in its ability to make people argue with critics over whether a movie was good or not. While we haven’t suffered a shortage of comedies in recent years, much like horror again, we’ve suffered from a lack of truly great comedies. While there will always be a diamond in the rough for any genre, it’s hard to find any mainstream movies that could be said to be masterfully crafted and well made.
It seems like for every five Madea Halloween movies we only get one Deadpool. Sure Deadpool is based on a comic book so it’s hard to argue originality against that, but when compared to everything else around it’s a breath a fresh air, whereas Tyler Perry’s just doing the same thing he’s been doing for over ten years.
One thing in particular that is apparent in many mainstream comedies is improvisation. Basically, the actors are given a general outline of a scene and then they just have to get there through dialogue that they make up on the spot. There are actors who strive in this, even a lot of the greats like Robin Williams and Bill Murray made careers on these comedic instincts, but when the comedy is only what the actors at the time can make up, your movie lacks whether you or the audience notices. Dialogue is only one of many forms of comedy, and when writers rely completely on it for laughs, you lose in places of storytelling and visuals.
I think the best example of this, as much as it pains me to say, is in Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen movies. They all have a pretty generic storyline of guy meets girl, guy loses the girl, guy has to win girl back and movie ends happily ever after.
There are slight variations, where the girl is sometimes replaced by a friend having to win back another friend. Examples are The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bridesmaids, Get Him To The Greek, and Trainwreck being the most recent. These movies are all funny, but they really get tiresome.
Without a solid script and having to rely on the wit of the actors rather than the writers, these movies usually hover a little over the two hour mark, when comedies are traditionally 90 minutes. I love Seth Rogen, but since people like him and Will Ferrell are the big names in comedies right now, they’ve only inspired and bred other movies like their own.
I mentioned earlier about how reliance on improv limits the movie, and I think Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are the perfect example of what a comedy can accomplish when they have a solid, well thought out, genuinely clever idea that is brought to fruition in a way that only film can do. Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz are two of the greatest comedies of all time, and I feel no doubt in saying that even though they were made only a little over a decade ago.
You could listen to an Apatow movie and get 80% of the jokes, but you need to watch a Wright movie to understand. He is a master of visual comedy, and not in a slapstick way, but in the way he directs. His movies wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are without him taking care of every shot. How do you make handing someone a piece of pie funny purely through how it’s introduced in the frame you’re looking at? How do you make a two minute shot of a guy walking down the street to buy an ice cream funny – twice? By being Edgar Wright.
Something Simon Pegg accomplishes that I think Rogen’s writing only can once, since he reuses the same plot and outcome every time, is a reason. By reason I mean for the movies existence. Why did they make the movie? What were they trying to say? What did the writer want me to know?
Through clever writing, Shaun Of The Dead has commentary on friendship, growing up, relationships, coming to terms with yourself, and the way people meander through their lives like they’re already dead, and all off this is done in the context of a zombie horror-comedy that makes fun of as well as pays homage to older Romero-esque films. Don’t get me wrong, Rogen can get it right, particularly with Superbad, but he lacks depth. It’s a case of a funny person just writing funny dialogue, or just waiting until his friends think of something funnier on the day of shooting.
A way we can see how improv has tainted movies today is by looking at older movies that are dialogue heavy or ones that are more focused on what’s shown, where the comedy comes almost exclusively through that medium.
Annie Hall is from 1977, but still has relatable humor, memorable lines and scenes, and a realistic ending and moral, all of which was written and predetermined before filming started. Clerks was written by Kevin Smith who is a known stickler for writing, and almost always against improvisation. Clerks deals with themes about growing up and taking responsibility similarly to Shaun Of The Dead, but done in a way that you feel you could be the main character or know them. On the opposite end of the spectrum, focusing most of the joke’s context through visuals, you have Moonrise Kingdom.
While there’s plenty of good dialogue in Wes Anderson movies, it’s in the direction that they excel most. Anderson is great at presenting information, at using the camera as a tool for storytelling rather than as a tool to show us someone telling us the story.
Many times smaller stories can be witnessed in the background of his shots or the background may allude to something to come. In Moonrise Kingdom, there’s a relationship that’s built between two minor characters that you may not even notice on your first watch, at least I didn’t notice. You actually see it develop, and none of that development is even spoken of on camera.
The idea of a meaning, a rhyme and a reason to a movie, is lost too often not just in comedies, but movies as a whole. Big and dumb action movies are just big, dumb action, with no effort or craft put into them, with no spirit. Transformers is a dead horse that Michael Bay keeps beating because it bleeds money.
The Terminator franchise is like that now as well, even though the first two were fantastically original, groundbreaking, and despite being mainstream and action movies had a lot to say about humanity and our future. Look at James Cameron now, that old sellout. He has five Avatar movies planned for the future, and the first Avatar movie was the most expensive sub-par film since Titanic and oh my God he made Titanic as well. I mean, how many billion dollar movies do you need under your belt, sir? But I digress…
The argument against better crafted and more in depth horror, comedy, action, and even animated movies is that as long as it makes you scared/laugh/cheer, than what’s the problem? It did its job, right?
Well, sure it did its job, but if we expect a movie to just give us jump scares cause it knows we’ll still call it scary, or give us a sexual innuendo because it knows we’ll still call it funny, or give us a Lamborghini driving out of the world’s tallest building and hitting the ground with the driver still perfectly fine cause it knows we’ll call it epic, then that’s all they’ll give us.
When we start accepting movies that just get the job done, then that’s when we can stop expecting to see Shaun Of The Dead and start expecting to see Madea Worships Satan or some such nonsense.
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