Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Can Hollywood make comedies any more?

If this was one of those thought pieces beloved by Sunday paper editors I could come up with reasons that there seem to be so few decent comedies coming out of Hollywood but most of the time those pieces seem either too obvious or too implausible. So let's just look at some recent misfires:

I Love You, Man (John Hamburg 2009) - The basic idea is to make a genre-pure romantic comedy but based on a male friendship, something Friends did once or twice but in much less time and to much greater effect. I'm really not sure if the genre itself can't support a feature based on this idea or if just that this film can't. If there weren't some people visible on screen I'd almost think the entire film was written, shot, edited and scored by computers and nowadays maybe the machines just created the people-images as well. It's never good when the supporting cast upstages the front line folk and in this case people like Thomas Lennon, Jon Favreau and JK Simmons do just that. They're about the only time the film doesn't feel planned on pure, predictable conventions.

I Love You, Beth Cooper (Chris Columbus 2009) - Yep another "I love you" film and one that I watched because somewhere I'd heard the book was actually good. The movie is not. It's basically an 80s teen comedy minus the nudity - guess "basically" should really be "almost exactly". It's the nerd, the popular people, the violent jock, the late-night highjinks, etc. Still the entire thing feels off, like it was shot completely on a back lot (actually Canada which is the same thing). It doesn't look like anywhere really and the characters don't act like anybody particularly. In fact the film is so badly done that I didn't even get much of the basic premise until almost halfway through - the nerd has an idealized version of Beth in his mind and the movie is supposed to be about how the reality doesn't meet the ideal except that the "reality" is she's a bad driver (played for laughs), has an abusive boyfriend (more or less also for laughs or at least plot complications) and the most un-ideal thing she does is kiss a store clerk so she can buy beer when she's not old enough (which apparently in the book is something a bit different). None of this comes across as ideal-shattering unless maybe you're a completely blinkered nerd who didn't pay attention to nearly anything.

Date Night (Shawn Levy 2010) - Middle-class folk lost in the big city or lost in a comedy of errors. Either way it feels some like Scorsese's After Hours which isn't exactly an achievement. The most interesting aspect of the film is to see Tina Fey actually cracking jokes and realize how far romantic comedy has fallen from the screwball era - back then we got individual, strong-willed women like Harlow or Hepburn sparring with equally sharp men but today it's almost timid women like Katherine Heigl being taught the true meaning of life by some "unconventional" man. (See the next two films.) In any case it's not that Date Night is so implausible and apparently takes place in a NYC as small as 24's LA but that there's so little, well, comedy. A bit where Fey and Carell pretend to be Euro-trash at a restaurant feels like an SNL sketch plopped into the film and while it's nothing special more like that could have helped. Again there's some good bits by supporting cast (James Franco, Mark Wahlberg).

My Life in Ruins (Donald Petrie 2009) - Yep overworked career woman taught to be carefree by a carefree man. Or in this case two - Richard Dreyfuss provides a mental shakeup while some Greek hunk takes care of the physical. (I'm sure in a century viewers will make fun of our era - "Did they think everything could be cured by sex?") I never saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding and so have no idea whether Vardalos is really just a supporting actress stuck into a lead or if this film is just a misfire. It hardly matters. Probably the NPR-ish take on Greece should grate but at some point the whole thing feels like some pointless sitcom passing by while you zone out on the couch.

The Ugly Truth (Robert Luketic 2009) - And yet again a career woman etc etc. I'll admit that 27 Dresses had its moments but not this one. The idea seems to have been to replicate Knocked Up and thus a fairly standard PG-13 romantic comedy got laced with so much graphic sex chat that even Kevin Smith might have asked to dial it back a bit. None of that adds anything at all to the film and this is one case where if the filmmakers had trusted the genre conventions to do most of the work they could have turned out a better film or if not better then at least less annoying.

Night at the Museum (Shawn Levy 2006) - The only career woman this time is barely in the film but maybe that was a mistake. After successfully ignoring this for a few years my brother suggested I would like it. He was wrong. As a big-budget, fx-driven event film this is no more imaginative or entertaining than you would expect. It takes forever to get going, runs like thudding clockwork and for a film that ostensibly has some historical content seems to have no actual historical work done. Just think what Terry Gilliam might have done with it. And with Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon credited as writers I bet there's a much better early draft of the script somewhere.

Monsters vs Aliens (Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon 2009) - Maybe a kids movie doesn't go here but since the default setting for such is comic I'm going with it. Despite a few nice film references at the start (House of Wax, etc) this pretty quickly falls into a routine misfits-save-the-day story that rarely bothers to take advantage of the potential in such a premise. If for the titles only Monsters Inc is an obvious comparison but the whole thing feels like the script was a draft away from being truly finished.