Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hollywood's Idiot Comedies

During this blog's hiatus in 2006 I posted a review of Talledega Nights on my myspace page. I look at that page infrequently these days. I don't understand the attraction of myspace. There is no intellectual stimulation; it's just people asking other people to be their friends. It's like a cyberspace cocktail party without any witty banter -- a party full of people who say "dude" and "LOL." I'm surprised when I hear people say they spend hours on myspace. Doing what?

I hate to sound elitist, but the overwhelming popularity of mindless pursuits such as myspace unsettles me. I mean -- these people are voting. Ben Franklin, when asked what kind of government the Constitutional Convention would give the nation, replied, "A republic -- if you can keep it." How can we keep it with an ignorant, intellectually lazy populace? People with passive minds are susceptible to the emotional appeals of any cheap demagogue, such as one who promises nothing specific but "change we can believe in."

But I digress.

I just reread that review of Talledega Nights; it makes an argument I have not read elsewhere, so here it is reposted in its entirety.


Talledega Nights

Talledega Nights is a funny, absurd comedy that is ruined because the movie romanticizes the hero and makes him learn something at the end. The arrogant Ricky Bobby learns humility and the movie becomes a tedious bowl of mush.

An unrealistic comedy about fools is more interesting and honest if it refrains from making its cads and morons better people at the end. The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Beavis and Butthead and Dumb and Dumber leave their idiots as idiots and that is the right way to do outrageous comedy. An actor as homely and goofy as Will Ferrell should not try to be Cary Grant in a romantic comedy.

Why does Hollywood insist on destroying the integrity of its comedies by giving their morons a character arc? Several reasons I can think of. First, when you go the idiot-stays-an-idiot route, you lose the women in the audience. Women don't like the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy; these characters exist in a permanent boyhood without romantic interest. Women like grown up men who have sex and fall in love and get married.

Second, star comic actors are rarely content to remain idiots. They all yearn to show off their serious and romantic sides. Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and now Will Ferrell all make boring movies because they try to be leading men. They should remain the Fool to Robert de Niro's King Lear, instead of trying be King Lear. Steve Martin has never been as funny as he was in his first movie, The Jerk. You watch him in a depressing, naturalistic bomb like Pennies From Heaven and wonder what the hell he's thinking. Doubtless, the early deaths of John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley spared us heartbreaking dramas of misunderstood fat guys.

Imagine if Moe of the Three Stooges had said one day, "I want to make something serious and meaningful." He'd have been laughed off the studio lot. Today, no one dares tell a Steve Martin or Jim Carrey that serious and meaningful is not such a good idea.

Actors hate my point of view. They don't want to be stereotyped. Doing both comedy and tragedy is fine if an actor can pull it off; Jack Lemmon did. But most of today's comic actors come from sketch comedy and stand-up. They spend their youth being funny, they train being funny and they gain success being funny. It takes an extraordinary comedian who also has acting talent and romantic charisma to be able to act serious. Most of them are just not that interesting when they get away from funny.

Finally, you have producers with their vapid ideas of what a movie should be. They force creators to romanticize their idiots: give them a love interest, a character arc, redemption, a happy ending. Hollywood's precepts suck the life out of comedy and turn it into predictable swill.

Mind you, I'm not opposed to romantic comedy. I love it! But it has to make sense. If your hero is Butthead for 85 minutes, I don't buy him becoming Jimmy Stewart for the last five minutes of the movie just to satisfy Hollywood's template for successful box office. The more outrageous a comedy is, the less I buy a realistic character change. Talledega Nights wants to be both outrageous and have a realistic character change.


Kyle Haight said...

With respect to Jim Carrey, I have three words for you: The Truman Show. Absolutely brilliant film, and not a comedy.

That said, you may be on to something.

Chuck said...

You make good points here. And just as pure comic actors aren't often good as serious or romantic leads, the reverse is often true, as well.

The American Film Institute's top ten lists for ten categories of movies includes one for Romantic Comedies. One of their choices was Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. I absolutely love Audrey Hepburn, and Gregory Peck is one of my favorite actors. But neither one of them is very well suited to comedy. Barbara Stanwyck is another actress I love, but just wasn't suited to romantic comedy, although she did a few, such as Ball of Fire, and The Lady Eve.

There are some who excel in both categories, serious/romantic and comedy. Claudette Colbert could do both beautifully, as could Cary Grant.

But speaking of comedy, I wonder what your opinion is of the silent comedy stars: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd? I'd like to see more discussion about silent movies generally.

There are now many of the silent movies of Lubitsch, Lang, Griffith, De Mille, Douglas Fairbanks, and others available on DVD. I think there is a lot of once "lost" art there to be explored.

Myrhaf said...

I think Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd are all brilliant comic actors. In my own acting experience I have used Keaton as a model -- never smiling -- with much success. Keeping a blank, emotionless face when a character should be reacting with great emotion can be funny. Chaplin is more sentimental and melodramatic in some of his famous films.

Lubitsch's movies are amazing because he creates a stylized benevolent comic universe, a universe without tragedy. He subverts expectations with delightful ingenuity. For instance, one silent that I saw in New York some 20 years ago, called something like "The Mountain Cat," was about a woman who lived in the mountains. This pretty young girl is with a bunch of hicks, as I recall, and she kicks one of the in the butt. What do the others do? The bend over and point to their butts; they want to be kicked too. It doesn't make sense, and yet it does make sense because the men all admire the young girl so much that it is an honor to be kicked by her. (This is all from memory and I've probably gotten the details wrong.)

Chuck said...

"The Mountain Cat" which you refer to is probably "The Wildcat," which is available as part of a 6 movie Lubitsch box set. The movies are also available seperately. And the actress is the Ayn Rand favorite, Pola Negri.

Something odd to me, in reading Ayn Rand's Russian Writings on Hollywood, is that she loved many of Douglas Fairbanks' movies, but nevertheless does not seem to have liked Fairbanks himself, as an actor. At least, he does not appear on her list of her 25 favorite actors.