In the type of piece that seems calculated to bait the entire internet into yelling “you’re wrong!” (thereby driving traffic), the Independent‘s Ben Walsh has issued a snarky denunciation of the current state of cinematic comedy: “Put simply, Hollywood comedies just aren’t funny anymore.”
“The art of sharp, snappy, witty dialogue has vanished,” he sighs. “Writers of the calibre of Woody Allen, Neil Simon, I A L Diamond and Mel Brooks just aren’t emerging.” Oh dear!
Somehow, Mr. Walsh has raised an degree of nationalist ire I didn’t even know I was capable of. (And why name-check I.A.L. Diamond instead of his more famous writing partner Billy Wilder?) Naming four of the most prominent writers of ’60s and ’70s comedy undermines the case being made. Those are exceptions, not rules, and I’m not real sure the solution to whatever problem being diagnosed here is lamenting that no one’s writing dialogue on the order of Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men In Tights.”
Minute for minute, few things are more consistently funny than studio comedies from the ’30s, when Hollywood had a gigantic pool of cynically disaffected funny people around to contribute spare bits of dialogue. Even the grimmest melodrama usually had some toss-offs to get started.
Once you hit the ’50s, every decade’s great comedies emerge sporadically, fighting against insurmountable odds (’50s coyness, ’60s disorientation, formal sloppiness from the ’70s on, like “The Jerk” and “Stripes,” hilarious movies despite their utter lack of control). Which brings us to the present.
And the present is fine.
Here are seven comedies released in the last five years that accomplish their goals and are infinitely quotable: “Idiocracy,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Gran Torino” (I swear, it’s a comedy, no matter what happens to Clint at the end), “Role Models,” “Superbad,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “In The Loop.”
All of those film look good (or at least decent), which is more than you can say for most movies Bill Murray was in in the first part of his career. None of them depend upon some kind of prior franchise to work (unless you’re counting the pull of Roald Dahl). Their hang-ups avoid the bromance tropes we’re allegedly mired in. Their timing is sharp. And beyond them, even disastrous movies like “The Goods: Live Hard Sell Hard” have their moments thanks to solid bit players like Ken Jeong.
So the whine won’t fly. Comedy’s as solid as it’s been these last 50 years. And for goodness’ sake don’t bring up “serial offender Katherine Heigl” — no reasonable person expects anything like comedic genius from her anyway.
[Photos: “Love and Death,” MGM/UA Home Entertainment, 1975; “The Jerk,” Universal, 1979, “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” Paramount Vantage, 2009]