A pratfall can be a work of art, a study in disruptive motion, a klutz’s ballet. This choreography of humiliation is perhaps the least garlanded act in contemporary film, as no Oscars will ever be won for kicks to the groin or tumbles down the stairs, regardless of their originality. Only in retrospect have the golden slapstick silents gained credibility and the brilliant purveyors of today’s guffaws are suffering the same critical fate (although the hurt, it must be said, is not felt in their checkbooks). So here is my list of the top five pratfalls of 2008, some of the strongest and strangest feats from an otherwise lackluster year. Some are from masters of the form (Will Ferrell, Anna Faris), while others seamlessly blend the side-splitting spill into their respective and respectable narratives (Robert Downey Jr., Mathieu Amalric, Pixar). All show a clumsy physical grace (as do their stuntmen), a healthy respect for their audience and a blissful embrace of the stupid. (Click on the images below to see them full size.)
“WALL-E” is packed with brilliantly conceived falls, but my favorite is perhaps the smallest, and its bittersweet tragedy is worthy of Chaplin. It occurs after our trash-compacting tramp’s beloved Eve begins hibernating, and he tries everything in his power to wake her up. After surviving lightning strikes and shopping cart attacks, he’s determined to get romantic with the fembot, conscious or not. He leashes her with Christmas lights and rows her through a river of sludge to a prime sunset viewing spot. With visions of “Hello Dolly”‘s handholding climax in his CPU, he pries open her arm slot and grabs for dear life. Then her arm snaps back, pinning his hand inside her body’s shell. As he tries to pull himself out, he tumbles off the bench and crashes into a neighboring garbage can. It’s a quick, painfully funny gag that effortlessly encapsulates WALL-E’s innocent, desperate loneliness.
Sure to be the bane of sober-minded critics for decades to come, the works of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell are unabashed odes to anarchy that have consistently been dismissed for their immaturity and childishness. “Step Brothers” literalizes this complaint, presenting Ferrell and John C. Reilly as man-children joined by their parents’ remarriage, and it’s by far their most surreal and senseless (in the best sense) work. In one of the film’s many improvised sequences, these already regressive brothers are shown sleepwalking on Christmas Eve, shouting gibberish and piling presents in their parents’ bedroom, before finally hoisting the tree and shoving it onto the bed. By this point, their increasingly aggrieved father, played with manic glee by Richard Jenkins, vows to wake them up out of their hysteria. Bad move. The two sons turn barbaric, screaming and clawing at their father until they aggressively toss him down the stairs. André Breton would approve.
Mathieu Amalric creates a strange kind of alchemy with director Arnaud Desplechin, turning despicable characters into adorable eccentrics — a coup achieved in “Kings & Queen” and now “A Christmas Tale.” Amalric’s Henri Vuillard is a loudmouth drunk who’s been banished from his family by an uptight sister. At his lowest ebb, walking tipsily down an abandoned sidewalk and softly muttering to himself, he pauses at the edge of the curb, staring into his own private abyss. He slowly tips forward, until, in a long shot, he falls face first into the pavement, his back ramrod straight all the way down. He later learns to unload his bile with a smile on his face, like the rest of the Vuillards, but this wonderfully depressing acrobatic feat is an apt representation of the psychological hole he’s fallen into and can’t escape, but which he later cleverly redecorates.
In an attempt to look smart for her nice guy crush, Anna Faris’ ex-Playboy Bunny hits the books, dresses conservatively and dons Coke bottle glasses that bug her eyes out to Tex Avery proportions. Working off notecards, she dishes on nuclear proliferation before knocking tea onto her date’s lap. A little woozy from her non-prescription specs, she gets up for napkins but then takes a header over the nearest table and smacks her crown again while standing up, unexpectedly finding a thick rope of gum affixed to her head in the process. As she races shamefacedly away after apologizing for “all that gravity,” the gum snaps as the chew flails to the ground. It’s another fearless, hilarious performance from Faris, whose breathy, wide-eyed and aging ingénue provokes pity, fear and admiration, usually at the same time.
Jon Favreau, emerging as an ace director-for-hire, wisely gave Robert Downey Jr. plenty of latitude to riff on his signature snarky motormouth persona in “Iron Man,” providing an oasis of comic invention in this otherwise rote superhero saga. The peak of this improvisation is a well-crafted, slow-burning series of pratfalls as Downey’s Tony Stark is testing his new and improved Iron Man armor. After instructing his robot-arm buddy to watch for a flameout, Stark’s first attempt at flight rockets him into the ceiling and then to the floor — and his robotic fire marshal is quick on the extinguisher trigger. After threatening his mechanical assistant with the prospect of community college, Stark’s second attempt is moderately successful aside from some light charring of his vintage car collection. With the final trial, he speeds outdoors in full regalia, a triumphant moment and a cue to expect an action extravaganza to begin. But upon returning home, he crash-lands in his spacious abode, destroying three floors, a grand piano, and a luxury car in his lab. And in the final humiliation, he’s pathetically blasted with the fire extinguisher by his downtrodden mechanical pal. With a tight structure (the callback of the cars and extinguisher), canny timing, and sneaky misdirection in the final section, the sequence could stand on its own as a slapstick sci-fi comedy short.
[Photos: “WALL-E,” Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2008; “Step Brothers,” Columbia Pictures, 2008; “A Christmas Tale,” IFC Films, 2008; “The House Bunny,” Columbia Pictures, 2008; “Iron Man,” Paramount Pictures, 2008]