If you remember the onslaught of awful comedy films that plagued the nineties and two-thousands, you’d be justified in thinking that most of the genre is a lost cause. It’s known to be one of those cheap, easy-to-produce genres where two-bit lines can be phoned in by the actors and the trailer gives most of the good parts away. It seemed like that would be something we might never escape, what with Adam Sandler getting his own version of Social Security via Netlflix. But I may have to take a step back and reevaluate. The overly formulaic, emotionless, mediocre comedies of the past may actually be taking a turn for the better. The types of films which, on the surface, appear to be lame rehashed stories of the past two decades have actually come around in a pleasantly surprising way. As a cinephile, it was a little embarrassing to want to go to these types of movies. Going to see Baywatch by myself was the equivalent of sneaking a cheeseburger from McDonalds on a weeknight. You know it’s not good for you, but you go to enjoy yourself nonetheless. But as of late, the prototypical modern comedy is playing on it’s own awareness whilst appealing to a greater social and psychological milieu. In doing so, we’re seeing better comedic bits, better comedic films, and a great deal more breadth in terms of comedic roles. And just in time too. While I harp on the idea that horror is the genre of the era, comedy is certainly entering it’s own renaissance. I wouldn’t have realized such a thing if it weren’t for a slew of decent comedies I’ve been talked into lately. Probably about once a year, I find myself wandering into a movie I know little to nothing about. So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with these picks. Thanks to this, films like Your Name, Franz, and They Come At Night have come across my radar and my eyeballs are all the more thankful for it.
This latest round happened to include the most-ly low-key comedy, Game Night. The film follows a couple who host a weekly game night with their friends to exercise their competitive muscle, but their latest outing takes the game up a notch. Instead of simply playing their typical round of charades and Yahtzee, they invest in a high-end “murder-mystery” style experience – only they aren’t quite sure whether what they’re experiencing is realistic game among friends or an actual heist/crime in the making. The ambiguous reality of the situation becomes one of the more gripping aspects of the film. It’s actually nearly Hitchcockian in nature! It’s a simple concept, but it was really well executed and served as a fantastic platform for some very apt jokes that are meant to poke fun at the culture at large. It’s cultural awareness that has allowed comedies to blossom. It’s a simple addition which has provided a new way for audiences to experience some of the formulaic joke setups of the past in a way that doesn’t make it feel dated. At first glance, Game Night seems to follow a traditional formula. Introduce a bunch of characters and surprise them with an unexpected event which will cause a bunch of circumstances to unfold. In this case, we have a bunch of friends who gather weekly for an in-house game night, each with their own vice to tackle and each with their own take on the “orchestrated” murder mystery in front of them. This is pretty much the baseline for a traditional comedy format (think Rat Race) and sets you up for a series of gags based on the characters and the “awkward” or “crazy” situations they find themselves in. But this time, it comes across a little more sophisticated. The characters are a bit more developed. The main couple (played by Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) are having trouble determining whether or not to start a family, another couple struggles with the lasting effect of a past affair, and a third (albeit) unlikely pairing find themselves grappling with the facade of a relationship, whilst slowly coming to terms with each other’s insecurities. This creates a twisting web of relationships and emotions between characters and elevates Game Night from it’s predecessors the decade before. Every film has a bit of conflict, sure, but the depth to which they take that conflict only tends to enrich the story that much more. The story’s self-awareness of archetype, for example, is symptomatic of a deeper, more concentrated effort to create characters that are fundamentally easier to identify with. But by doing so, and categorizing them – as we tend to do – we fall right into the writers trap. We lead ourselves right into the expectation they set for us. One of those traps also happens to be the (unsung) star of the film: Gary, the couple’s police officer neighbor. Gary is played hauntingly by Jesse Plemons, who acts as the comedic lynchpin for the film. He constantly expresses desire to join in on their game nights, but does so with the creepy anti-charm of Norman Bates. It’s fantastic. This guy gives the “I will kill you any instant vibe”, while wanting to join in on something so innocently fun as a board game night and, naturally, they do everything they can to avoid him. Their mission to avoid him becomes this little motif they play on throughout the film. Eventually, the audience discovers the humorous and complicated ways that he actually reveals himself to be a hidden “hero” of the group. The way that these motifs are layered in with subtextual references to more complex character development problems and metaphorical “pump fakes” on the audience’s expectations, create an interesting, more innovative comedic film. It pulls away from cheap gags and says something more significant about the comedy culture at large.
Another shockingly gold star in the comedic spectrum was Blockers. All the promotional material surrounding this film seemed to indicate it would be terrible. The posters were trite, the trailer was full of frat boy humor, and one of the leads was a former professional wrestler. Red flags abundant. But to my shock, it came out with glowing reviews from critics, and ones I really respected nonetheless. So I set my judgement aside and gave it a chance. I came out fairly impressed. Blockers centers around a group of parents, whose daughters are best friends with one another, who plot to sabotage their kids prom night because they believe they will make a mistake and sleep with their dates. The whole premise is fairly corny and, again, you could make this movie like any straight-to-Netflix cheap spinoff. But like Game Night, they also shed the formulaic approach of the early two-thousands in favor of something more meaningful. The parents are individual characters (that is, having distinct, deeper issues that affect them in different ways) whose problems are representative of larger issues that society today is contending with. Each parent’s struggle with their child’s approach to the ceremony of prom is unique to a flaw in their personality. One mother, who lives just with her daughter fears her collegiate departure because of what it will mean for their relationship. A father believes his daughter to have followed his militaristic-level prescribed path too closely to be distracted by weaselly teenage boys. These characters play into some of the more common pitfalls of parenthood. They’re self-indulgent, introspective, and they all fail to view their children as anything more than materialized extensions of themselves. This nuance may fall to the wayside between the occasional “parents at a party” gag, but the overall aim of these films is not to stimulate your intellect anyway. These filmmakers are taking a measured look at something more interesting, more realistic about the comedy of real life and the quirkiness of things like parents who vest their agency in their children, or the way an obsessive competitiveness can transcend board altogether and blur the lines between reality and the world of the game. These are small feats accomplished by little changes like more attention to detail and further character development. But these small feats generate more engagement from the audience. Just because it’s a comedy film, doesn’t mean your characters have to be as thin as paper. A little effort goes a long way from making a totally lazy film into a nuanced comedic gem.
Now, are these Golden Globe-worthy films? No. Are they Golden-Globe worth comedies? Not even close. But as a sampling of common humor today, they give some semblance of hope. Films like Jack and Jill will still happen, of course, but look at how far we’ve come from there! I mean compare any of these films to Grown-Ups and you’ll see a monumental leap forward. What we were stuck with was archetypes which were cheap, pre-packaged, over-manufactured, reliant on bodily humor to pull whatever gag they could out of your everyday moviegoer. They appealed to the most instinctual, primitive instincts within humankind, avoiding nearly all layers of complexity. These films utilized physical pain, human waste disposal, oversized breasts, and cheap familial connections to appeal to sensibilities that have existed within humankind since it’s inception. While fun for a moment, it’s use for any duration of time longer is an insult towards the last ten thousand years of human progress and hinges on the assumption that humans are not particularly complex beings and are quite content appeasing our basic physical needs while completely disregarding any practical use for the (unmatched computing power of the) brain. That’s right, I’m looking at you Adam Sandler. You and all your cronies. Because not only is it insulting to our intelligence, it places an extraordinary amount of value in the works that these types of people create. Adam Sandler’s Netflix deal (amongst other ventures) afforded him the ability to provide his three close friends with Maseratis, and earned him the cash equivalent of nearly one hundred times the Parkland Survivor’s were able to get donate for their efforts. And aside from this difficult fact, the effort that are put into these films is so absent, it’s actually written about. The environment on set is apparently just as self-aware about the giant con they are pulling on their audience. They know what they’re selling is easy. It’s simple. It’s expected. Thus, they’re permitted to act expectedly.
I’m not saying the elevated humor of Whit Stillman or Wes Anderson’s extra-dry Martini comedies are the only thing worth sipping in this day and age. Maybe you really want a Margarita! And what I’m saying is: there are great Margarita’s available for you out there. Don’t settle for whatever terrible pre-mix option that motel bartender is serving up. As I’ve written before, people aren’t just passive observers anymore – they’ve come to expect quality from their content and are no longer just “okay” settling with whatever is put into their primetime block. In these times, you CHOOSE what’s in your primetime scheduling and I sure as hell think it won’t be anything not worth your time. So don’t give up on a genre previously dominated by simple plots, petty jokes, and tired stars. There’s still plenty of gold to be found. Comedy is having a moment right now. There are great writers out there who have figured out how to take the current goings-ons in the world and spin a genuinely enjoyable and introspective comedic yarn out of them. It’s 2018 and who knows how long lucky trends like these last. We could be living through a period with a particularly strong creative wellspring. Then again, we could find David Spade popping up in a few years to star in a bunch of horrible remakes of beloved classics. It’s up in the air. That being said, the guys who seem to have the reigns on the comedy circuit at the moment – Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Alison Brie, Jason Segel, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Jason Mantzoukas, Claudia O’Doherty, Steve Carrell, Jonah Hill, Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress – to name a few, seem to have the right idea about the direction comedy should move in. So, with caution, I would say that there will be a few comedic treasures to be found this year. Movements in cinema can seem to go by pretty fast. Make sure you take the time to look around every once in a while, or you may miss a great couple hours of laughter.