Once upon a time in the golden period of films known as the 1970s, Mel Brooks was, along with Woody Allen, the biggest directing name in comedy. Both had been on the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the '50s (along with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and both brought a distinctly Jewish tone to their slapstick. While Allen represented the Manhattan highbrow, Brooks’s style lurked more in the offensively low end Borscht Belt style. By the '80s, when Allen's status raised to the level of genius, Brooks’s comedy had already become passe and completely juvenile, working in the obvious (Spaceballs, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.). But his early string of comedies, from The Producers through High Anxiety, created a lot of laughs, peaking in 1974 with two comic masterpieces: Young Frankenstein and, maybe even better, the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The western spoof is almost as old as the western itself—you had Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West, The Marx Brothers in Go West, Mae West and W.C. Fields did My Little Chickadee, and Bob Hope had The Paleface and then Son of Paleface, not to mention Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich (which Blazing Saddles actually directly spoofs). The '60s saw an examining of the western most directly through the Italian spaghetti westerns and American western comedies such as Cat Ballou and Support Your Local Sheriff! In the '70s, the reexamining went to the extreme as the western was turned in on itself and poked at by post-modernists with films as broad as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Altman&rs...
Though they hit the big-time as screenwriters and directors with their first film, Dumb & Dumber, the Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, peaked commercially and critically with their third film, There’s Something about Mary. Their gross-out, dumb humor mixed with lazy sentiment became the standard for turn-of-the-century-era comedy; however, it was actually their less popular second film, Kingpin, which remains their best and funniest flick. It has the raunch, it has some heart, but most importantly, what makes the film special is the outstanding casting of its three leads: Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, and Bill Murray. Their performances, along with some of the supporting character actors, help the film rise above its sometimes weak script. Kingpin may not always bowl strikes but it is at least good enough to share a lane with the other best bowling movie ever, The Big Lebowski.
Back in the disco days of the late ‘70s, a young Iowan man, Roy Munson (Harrelson), looked like he was on his way to becoming a bowling god, until he hooked up with a conniving pro-bowler named Ernie McCracken (Murray) for a little hustling. The naive Roy didn’t realize that the sleazy Ernie, who drinks Tanqueray & Tab, was threatened by the younger bowler’s talent and leading him astray. A bad con with the wrong guys leads to Roy getting his hand cut off and the end to his promising bowling future. CUT TO: 17 years later. Roy now sports a prosthetic hand (over a hook) and a bad comb over haircut. He’s down and out, a drunk and bad conman forced to sleep with his hideously haggish landlady (Lin Shaye, brilliant) to cover his rent. Roy has hit the bottom until he happens upon a naive young Amish bowler, Ishmael Boorg (Quaid, the 40-something actor seems to be playing about 20). After much coercing and posing as an Amish cousin Roy finally convinces Ishmael to hit the bowling road with him to learn the con and eventually play for the big-time, where Ishmael can earn money to save the family farm.
2011 was something of a banner year for movies about at least superficially complicated women who happen to be hilarious. Whether in Bridesmaids, the obvious winner here, or in Bad Teacher (at least they tried) there was something refreshing about female characters who managed to stand out from the shrew/slut/"manic pixie dream girl" trifecta of acceptable female archetypes. The best of these and my favorite film of the year incidentally, is Jason Reitman's Young Adult. It's a dark comedy that explores the realities of life for people who have run out of identity options not based around their high school years.
Charlize Theron creates a fantastically entertaining mess of a character to follow in Mavis, a woman whom everyone can see is losing it except her. Mavis ghost writes young adult fiction and lives in a sad apartment in a Minneapolis high rise where she is alternately drunk or hungover, ignoring her beleaguered pooch, and staring expressionless at her TV which is tuned exclusively to the E Network. She is a woman of no discernible trace of self awareness. She is empty and she doesn’t have the slightest understanding of how to fix her life. Her insane lack of regard for anyone who isn't her compels her to head back to her home town, Mercury, and stalk an ex-boyfriend from high school that has recently had a kid with his wife. She’s going to win him back and they’ll live happily ever after, wife and kid be damned. Along the way she meets Matt, a guy from her high school infamous around town for having been subjected to a brutal “gay bashing” while in high school though he isn’t gay, just an outsider, pretty much the total opposite of whatever it is Mavis represents. But both are pretty bitter people and they find a weird solace in each other’s company.
Even though it has a noticeably horrible Dave Grusin music score behind it (and even worse are the songs, giving it an icky, saccharin, early ‘80s vibe) Tootsie still manages to break conventions and has proved to be one of the best comedies of all time as well as the best film about the desperation of actors since Rosemary’s Baby. What at first can look like a gimmick, “Dustin Hoffman dresses up like a woman,” actually proves to be much more sophisticated; this isn’t a Some Like It Hot updating. With a screenplay by Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart (creator of M*A*S*H, the TV show and part of that group of young writers including Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks who honed their skills on Your Show of Shows in the 1950s) Tootsie, like a Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks classic, is both a laugh-out-loud comedy and an insightful social examination. It may be clichéd but Hoffman’s character comes to understand being a man more from his life as an undercover woman. Fresh from the Women’s Lib era, Tootsie has a lot to say about gender roles and makes its statement cleanly.
Struggling actor slash waiter, Michael Dorsey (Hoffman), teaches acting and coaches his friends’ auditions, but his exasperated agent (played wonderfully by director Sidney Pollack) lets him know, no one will hire him because he’s too much trouble (much like Hoffman’s own difficult reputation). After helping his needy actress friend Sandy (Teri Garr) prepare for a soap opera role, he ends up going up for it in drag and booking it, under his new stage name, Dorothy Michaels. With the help of his droll playwright roommate (an uncredited Bill Murray), keeping up his ruse as a woman becomes a fulltime job. He accidentally sleeps with Sandy, but falls in love with his soap costar Julie (Jessica Lange); she’s involved with the show’s chauvinist director (Dabney Coleman). On a weekend getaway Julie’s widower father (Charles Durning) falls for Dorothy as does her old cad costar John Van Horn (George Gaynes). Meanwhile on the set of the show Dorothy proves to be an actress who plays by her own rules, rewriting lines and following her instincts which make her an instant celebrity (I suppose once upon a time, soap operas had the ability to make their casts into names). Michael wants to put down his mask and reveal to everyone who he really is but besides ruining his now thriving career, it will complicate the relationships that he has made as Dorothy. He also begins to grasp how hard it is to be a woman in the 1980s.
Some movies merit a second viewing to get a better sense of what’s going on. There aren’t a lot of films I’d lump into this category but Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is one of them. When I saw it during its original theatrical release I thought it fell flat. I was expecting a sharp-as-a-blade deconstruction of the kind of guy who, in Baumbach’s own words, seems to perpetually get in his own way. Ben Stiller’s character, Roger Greenberg, is a hyper-critical, excruciatingly self-centered guy aimless and adrift in a Los Angeles completely familiar to anyone who lives here—a place that seems to always have the lonely haze of a Sunday afternoon. Greenberg is a quintessential 21st century miserablist. None of his problems should chart on a list of the biggest issues facing society but in his own way he epitomizes the neurotic, existential crisis surrounding a particular stratum of our white western culture of insane privilege. Greenberg is paralyzed by how his actions make him seem to the outside world. He is obsessed with what people say about him. He is so busy avoiding the things he doesn’t want to do that he ends up not really doing anything with his life. He takes out his anger on justifiable targets—Starbucks, rude drivers—but lacks the self-awareness to see where all this self-obsessive behavior has gotten him. If this sounds unpleasant I assure you it’s actually pretty hilarious but the subtlety of Stiller’s performance caught me off guard the first time.
Roger Greenberg is a New Yorker in his 40s who has just gotten over some kind of vaguely alluded to nervous breakdown. He is offered his brother Phillip’s palatial house in L.A. to recuperate in while Phillip and his family are off in Vietnam on a work-related trip. Greenberg (as Stiller’s character is known) shows up after they leave and meets their personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who agrees to get a drink with him. Their banter is suitably awkward. Greenberg often wears the expression of a trapped animal; his eyes dart around and he doesn’t so much engage in conversation as let you in on what one assumes is his constant, torturous inner monologue: a litany of complaints and contrarian opinions on every subject conceivable. Somehow this charms Florence or at least piques her curiosity. She’s a girl just out of college who is sleepwalking through young adulthood, a nice kid who doesn’t have her shit together and for whatever reason likes Greenberg. Greenberg, though, has a habit of letting people who care about him down. Whether it’s Florence or his former band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), he can’t seem to move beyond his own baggage and he inevitably hurts the people closest to him. Misery, after all, loves company.
Morgan Stewart's Coming Home
Bold as it is to say, if you’re a horror fan and you appreciate the style of teen comedies that were often made in the ‘80s, then I think Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home is pretty much the most romantic movie ever made. What follows is my evidence to support this statement.
Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink’s Duckie, as most of you know him) plays 16-year-old Morgan Stewart, a sweet prankster currently serving time at his 10th prep school who just also happens to be a huge horror fanatic. The opening shot of the movie starts out on a close-up of his vintage theatrical one-sheet poster for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and then pulls out and pans across his room to reveal a barrage of masks, a mechanic moving severed hand, and a slew of posters ranging from Dawn of the Dead to Tales of Terror to The Exorcist. He ends up meeting the girl of his dreams, Emily, (Viveka Davis) while waiting in line at a mall to get George A. Romero’s autograph. She insists on being called “Em,” “just like in Dial M for Murder, the only film Hitchcock ever did in 3D.” Their first date is to see a late night screening of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Hell, even Em’s parents are cool and give her crap over her choice of a date movie, "when William Castle’s Strait Jacket is playing at the Inner Circle!" (And clearly it’s the better choice.) She convinces Morgan to jump into the shower with her while wearing Halloween masks in a wonderful nod to Psycho, which of course always warms my black and bitter little heart. See? Most romantic movie ever, right? Oh wait; there is a story and a plot here, too!
Husbands and Wives
If Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s ode to falling in love, 15 years later Husbands and Wives is an examination of falling out of love. Where the look and style of Annie Hall was clean and precise, Husbands and Wives is franticly shot handheld with herky-jerky editing and an almost improvised vibe to the performances. If Annie Hall marked the beginning of Allen’s great run of introspective masterpieces and near masterpieces, Husbands and Wives is the end of the streak. It’s his last really important Woody Allen film and definitely his last strong acting performance before he fell into a cliché of himself or brought in other actors to substitute, aping his own famous mannerisms. Husbands and Wives doesn’t have as many laughs as some of his earlier work but the insights into relationships can be utterly nerve striking. Made during his dramatic break up with his then wife Mia Farrow, it may be the last time Allen really had something he wanted to say or was worth hearing.
Besides the French New Wave camera work and cutting, there’s an occasional narrator and interviews with the characters; what was meant to give the film a documentary feel actually seems now to predate reality TV. Gabe (Allen), a writer and college professor, is in a stale marriage to Judy (Farrow); they are shocked when, before a dinner date, their good friends Jack (Sidney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) announce their separation. Subconsciously it may expose their inner doubts about their own marriage. Jack quickly gets a much younger girlfrie...
Woody Allen’s most controversial film was hated by fans upon its release for its narcissism and disregard towards his loyalists, but time has made Stardust Memories a much more entertaining film than it was considered in 1980. It blatantly references Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, in both plot (a respected filmmaker trying to clear his mind while dealing with fans and women) and its look (shot in beautiful black and white photography which, like Feliini, includes grotesque close-ups of all manner of odd looking people). Woody actually comes off as one of the beautiful people compared to the faces on the extras. Though Stardust Memories is funny, it’s also deeply depressing. Woody plays Sandy Bates, maybe his most confident character, and though always surrounded by admirers, he may also be his loneliest.
Like Allen himself, Sandy is a beloved maker of comedies who longs to get more philosophical and serious in his work. While attending a film retrospective weekend of his work, he is bombarded by sycophant fans; every couple of minutes someone seems to be asking for his autograph or his attention for their cause or script idea or just heaping praise on him. Time jumps back and forth from the beachfront festival to his New York apartment, while past and present relationships are examined. He’s haunted by memories of his ex, Dorrie (the icy Charlotte Rampling), an insecure and possibly insane actress, and his current French girlfriend, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault from Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s), who maybe he loves, but isn’t in love with. Meanwhile he strikes-up a friendship with an Annie Hall esque sincere violinist (Jessica Harper of Suspiria, who also appe...
"Like I've been telling my wife for years: 'Aside from sex,’ and she's very good at it, goddammit, 'I like you guys better.' I really do."
—So proclaims Harry, brazenly played by Ben Gazzara in Husbands. This bromantic refrain of love for his two friends characterizes the crass, yet affectionate honesty of John Cassavetes's 1970 comedy about life, death, and freedom.
“It’s hell gettin’ older, especially when you feel 21 inside.”
— A sobering reflection made by the aging Diane, brashly played by the vibrant, and still very alive at 86, Elaine Stritch, in Woody Allen’s 1987 drama, September.