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THE DEATH OF COMEDY.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

At a recent press conference for his new movie, ``Click,'' Adam Sandler was asked how much longer he intends to play imbeciles in movies.

``I like being a moron,'' replied the actor, who has been Hollywood's most bankable comedy star for the better part of a decade. ``I've been called a moron since I've been about 4. My father called me a moron, my grandfather said I was a moron, and a lot of times when I'm driving, I hear I'm a moron.''

Woody Allen could probably make hilarious Freudian hay out of that statement. But not many people go to his movies anymore.

Sandler may be overstating the case, for presumably commercial purposes, as far as ``Click'' is concerned. He actually plays a fellow who has to have a few working brain cells -- he's an architect -- and the story has more narrative and emotional logic than, say, ``Anger Management'' or ``Mr. Deeds.''

And it only has one gas-passing joke, though this one's a doozy (hint: David Hasselhoff is involved). Still, there are numerous instances of Sandler's trademark childish rage, pets humping stuff and bathetic realizations that working hard in a difficult job market is not as rewarding as spending more time playing with (and acting like) your kids.

Mainstream movie comedy today is defined by such vapid, immature formulae.

In fact, any movie that tries to get laughs out of psychological insight, character observation, cultural criticism or any subject that might be taught at a college may not even be considered a comedy anymore (admit it; you probably know more than one person who didn't think ``Sideways'' was funny). It's a trend that's been snowballing -- which is another way of saying barreling downhill -- for decades.

With no end in sight. The past few months alone have given us ``RV,'' in which onetime verbal speed-genius Robin Williams got covered in excrement for his biggest laugh, and ``Nacho Libre,'' a movie that had even people who think masked wrestling is funny scratching their heads at all the gratuitous toilet gags. (And this from the director of ``Napoleon Dynamite,'' which took being zoned-out to a new high, er, low.)

Sandler's ``Click'' co-star, Kate Beckinsale, acknowledged the general drift of the, er, movement when asked about her return to comedy, which she hasn't really attacked since her literate British films of the 1990s ``Much Ado About Nothing'' and ``Cold Comfort Farm.''

``It really was fun,'' Beckinsale chirped. ``And there were more fart jokes this time, so it was a big coming-home for me in many ways.''

Like coming home to the nursery, perhaps. Contemporary film comedy often seems to be about a generation's traumatic toilet training. But that's getting Freudian again.

When they're not being abjectly infantile, big studio comedies rarely rise above the level of adolescent humor anymore. And that seems to be just fine with a substantial portion of the audience.

Travesties like ``The Benchwarmers'' make heroes of grown men who have never matured emotionally (and, to a great degree, mentally) beyond the age of 13. Even adult films like ``Wedding Crashers'' and ``The 40-Year-Old Virgin'' revel in arrested development.

This is all quite a comedown for what was long the most sophisticated comic cinema on Earth. How did we go from the elaborately designed visual gags of silent-era masters Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to a slapstick repertoire that's limited to kicks in the crotch and Hilary Duff pratfalls? Or from the verbal fireworks and mature sexiness of 1930s and '40s screwball comedy to emotionally fraudulent schemes to pry Matthew McConaughey out of his parents' house? Or from Peter Sellers' and Steve Martin's wacko brilliance to Steve Martin dumbing down Sellers' signature creation, Inspector Clouseau, for a ``Pink Panther'' movie aimed at a kindergarten crowd?

As with most matters regarding the regression of American cinema, the turning point probably occurred sometime during the 1970s. From the 1960s to about halfway through the following decade, American comedy had grown so rich that satires such as Stanley Kubrick's Sellers-starring ``Dr. Strangelove'' literally had audiences roaring at the prospect of nuclear armageddon. Films such as ``The Graduate'' and ``Shampoo'' were so attuned to character intricacies and social context that they played like the era's best dramas -- only better because they were packed with uproarious laughs.

``They always were like interesting puzzles, whether it was `The Graduate' or `What's Up, Doc?''' says those films' screenwriter, Buck Henry. ``I liked to fiddle with the different forms. I don't think a lot of people do that now. If somebody seems to know how to do something, they keep doing it until they're dead.''

Which is how what was once fresh and subversive becomes reassuring, juvenile pabulum. But in the '70s, when Hollywood's decades-old censorship rules were relaxed, comics were suddenly free to make jokes about previously taboo subjects. This resulted in Woody Allen's legendary ``early, funny ones,'' such as ``Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex,'' and that rare Academy Award-winning comedy, ``Annie Hall.''

The other major funny filmmaker to emerge at the time was Mel Brooks, who besides ``The Producers'' mostly directed outrageous spoofs of other movie genres.

There is no comparison between the wit and care Brooks lavished on the jokes in ``Young Frankenstein'' and ``Silent Movie,'' and the lazy reference humor that marks today's ``Scary'' and ``Date Movie'' spoofs.

But it could also be argued that Mel started the bad-gas era of vulgar comedy with his most memorable scene of all, the campfire bean symphony in 1974's ``Blazing Saddles.''

Such fragrant emissions had never been heard on screen before. But as ``Entertainment Tonight'' historian and critic Leonard Maltin points out, ``Notice that Mel Brooks hasn't repeated the gag. He knew how funny it would be because it was daring and truly outrageous -- a word that has lost all meaning -- at the time. But he had no need to repeat it or expand it in his subsequent movies. He had other funny things to explore.

``And there's the difference between a real talent and a bunch of slackers,'' Maltin adds.

Of course, Brooks went on to make lamer comedies, and Allen got serious (not that there was anything wrong with that). Even the greatest clowns run out of inspiration at times. But the slackening that Maltin speaks of started becoming systemic in the late '70s when, paradoxically, some of the boldest comedians from other disciplines -- such as the incendiary stand-up Richard Pryor and ``Saturday Night Live's'' Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy -- rounded off their humor's distinctive edges to appeal to wider -- and increasingly younger -- movie audiences. In their place came silly faces, bodily functions and sappy sentimentality.

For example, as much as I adored ``National Lampoon's Animal House'' back in my party-hearty post-college days, I could still drunkenly discern that the 1978 campus riot had not a smidgen of the educated references found in the magazine it shared a brand with. And that was one of the more rigorous Lampoon/``SNL'' mutations. A hundred ``Deuce Bigalow'' and ``Joe Dirt'' celebrations of stupidity would follow.

Even the few bright areas of movie comedy that have emerged over the past quarter-century were subject to this kind of spiraling comic entropy.

The off-the-wall inventiveness of rapid-fire movie spoof ``Airplane!'' lost its cool in subsequent sequels and spinoffs, around the time Leslie Nielsen started acting kooky instead of just playing it outlandishly straight (guess he was worried some 6-year-old might not get the joke).

The Farrelly brothers' ingenious gross-out gags were aped by talents that were just plain gross. And silly as Jim Carrey can get, the man reaches for physical and behavioral extremes few mortals can imagine. How much effort along those or any other lines does Carrey's box-office heir Sandler make?

OK, that was harsh. Sandler has admirably, if not very successfully, tried to stretch himself beyond crude slapstick schmaltzfests with such sounds-smart-on-paper projects as ``Punch-Drunk Love'' and ``Spanglish.'' In his next feature, ``Empty City,'' he'll play a man trying to recover from the loss of his family in the 9/11 attacks.

But Sandler was asked about the relative rewards of big-kid laffers such as ``Click'' or ``The Waterboy'' and more mature stabs at dramedy.

``(I'm) much more comfortable showing up that day knowin' we got a funny scene comin','' the comedian replied, apparently trying not to sound like the New York University graduate that he is. ``I don't like sitting in my trailer being depressed all day. ... I'd rather go to work and fart in Hasselhoff's face.''

And so what if he does? Hasn't there always been silly, stupid comedy? Since the silents' Harry Langdon through Stan Laurel, Lou Costello and Jerry Lewis, big babies have been on screen.

The Three Stooges' low-comedy sibling act was as much a cultural institution as the Howard boys' more erudite contemporaries, the Marx Brothers.

And even the cleverest screwball films of directors like Howard Hawks (``His Girl Friday'') and Preston Sturges (``The Miracle of Morgan's Creek'') were populated with fools and naives.

But there was one big difference in earlier eras.

``When I was growing up, Jerry Lewis was my favorite comedian,'' Maltin notes. ``But there were other role models in movies.

``What worries me is that this is now the norm.''

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss@dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) dumb & dumber

Comedy takes a tragic turn as juvenile schmaltzfests rule the screen

(2) Brainless gross-out humor got a boost in the 1978 comedy ``National Lampoon's Animal House,'' starring John Belushi.

(3) While Adam Sandler's ``Click'' is nowhere near as simplistic as his earlier comedies, it won't be mistaken for high-minded entertainment.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 23, 2006
Words:1613
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