When it comes to comedy, the subjectivity of all film criticism becomes inescapable. You can't tell a person that a film's not funny if they're laughing at it. But there has to be a reason why you're not laughing. At a certain point, I suppose, criticizing a popular comedy becomes a critique of the audience, which is probably beyond the scope of a movie blog. I might want to argue that there is something objectively wrong with a culture that rewards the people who pass for comedians today, but that "objective" part would be tough to prove. I might only prove the extent of my alienation from contemporary popular culture. All I can do is put my cards on the table and declare my own preferences and dislikes.
As the discussion of Tropic Thunder this week suggests, I don't care for much of modern comedy. From the appearance of Ace Ventura in 1994, comedy has been dominated by performers who "act out" in grotesque or infantile ways that usually fail to amuse me. There have been different kinds of "infantile males" since the silent days. Harry Langdon was nicknamed "the baby," but that was due to a sort of stunted tentativeness rather than a tendency to tantrums. Lou Costello probably comes closer to what I mean by infantile, but I find I can stand him, maybe because he's balanced by the all-too-adult Bud Abbott. Jerry Lewis comes closer yet, and despite Dean Martin I can't stand him as much. Don Knotts might be considered infantile but I think he has other issues. But after Knotts we seemed to have a period where the infantile male was extinct until Jim Carrey's big break opened the floodgates -- a fluid metaphor probably isn't inappropriate. But infantilism is really a sub-category of awkwardness, which is always a major concern of comedy. You can probably trace a culture's anxieties by the kinds of awkwardness that become objects of comedy. In the silent and early sound eras you had immigrants trying to fit in and everyone dealing with technology. Lewis supposedly embodies a more profound anxiety that I can't explain, but what anxieties might the awkward, infantile males of our era represent? A quick assumption is that they don't want to grow up, but is that the culture's problem or theirs? I suppose it has to be some of both, or else those movies wouldn't be popular. But understanding doesn't lead to appreciation.
The modern generation isn't the first to "act out," though. As I thought about it, they started to remind me of the zany vaudevillians who infiltrated the early talkies. The Marx Bros. are the tip of an iceberg of comics who ran about acting wacky or talking funny with little reason, though sometimes with rhyme. The Ritz Bros., for example, leave me cold, but might have done well today. Another example from a little earlier would be Stan Laurel before he teamed with Oliver Hardy. I watched a DVD collection of his solo shorts, and they stink. He mugs and laughs at himself and presents himself as a kind of archetype of stupidity, and it only rarely works. Ironically, from my standpoint, he became successful once he developed a more infantile persona -- arguably imitating Langdon. Once he had a sense of himself as a particular character, Laurel's latent skills as a writer and gag man kicked in, which only proves that talent can transcend the categories I'm ineptly trying to establish. I'm going to have a Jim Carrey film on my list to demonstrate this point, though I'd like to think it's exceptional in his career. Ultimately, all I can say safely are that there are films I like and films I don't. I offer the following list as a potential guide for people who might use it to predict whether they'll agree with my views of other films. So with no further ado, here are ten films in alphabetical order.
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). I have a soft spot for this one because it has the Universal monsters in it. As a kid I took seriously Larry Talbot's enmity toward Dracula, but as I watch this more often I appreciate the solid story construction and the teamwork and timing of the stars. I haven't seen all their films, but they seem note perfect here. It has one of my favorite dialogue exchanges. As Talbot, Lon Chaney Jr. explains that when the moon is full, he turns into a wolf. Costello: "You and fifty million other guys." It helps if you know what a "wolf" meant in '40s idiom, but there are also throwaway moments like Lou holding Glenn Strange's Monster at bay behind Dracula's cape, then nonchalantly lowering his guard to announce, "He thinks I'm Dracula" in a way that's almost inexplicably hilarious.
The Big Lebowski (1998). The most recent film on my list. It just occurred to me that this is another team comedy. It probably wouldn't work the same way if it were just Jeff Bridges as The Dude or just a blustering, belligerent John Goodman acting out. There's an element of danger in this film (like in Burn After Reading) that only makes it funnier for me compared to too many contemporary comedies in which stupidity never seems to have real consequences. But despite that danger, this has a charming temperament entirely opposite of the sneering misanthropy usually attributed to the Coens.
Blazing Saddles (1972). The definitive genre-parody movie, but definitely better without the scenes inserted for television. One of my favorite payoff lines: "Don't you know that man's a nig" -- the second time.
Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Does this really need explanation?
Duck Soup (1933). From the Marxes it was either this or Monkey Business, which I like for its lacking the usual musical interludes. But Leo McCarey's film has the best blend of Marxism and sight gags of the brothers' Paramount period, plus the all-too-plausible-for-its-period madness of Groucho ruling a country.
Dumb and Dumber (1994). More than halfway through my tentative top ten, we have three team movies and three ensemble casts. In this case I consider Jeff Daniels' contribution crucial. He has my favorite scene in the film: the snowball fight with Lauren Holly, highlighted by the sublime expression of insane rage that spreads across his face. This was when the Farrelly Bros. had the courage to let their losers lose. Kingpin was nearly on this level, but it's been steadily downhill from there.
Ghostbusters (1984). Arguably, Bill Murray exemplifies the period when the infantile male was absent from comedy -- making it that much sadder whenever he succumbed to the temptation, as in What About Bob? In this and Stripes Murray came the closest we ever got to a modern Groucho Marx, and here he's supported ably by Aykroyd, Ramis, and an incredible Rick Moranis. When I first saw this in a theater, the line "Now that's something you don't see every day" made me fall out of my chair.
Our Hospitality (1924). Buster Keaton's movies are great films but not necessarily great comedies. He's really the inventor of the modern action movie, and in his way the first action hero, The General being Exhibit A for an argument I intend to make at greater length in the future. But this earlier effort has some of the best sight gags of the silent era. I really like the bit when the adorable antique train is attacked by a rock-throwing man who provokes an attack of firewood from the engineer in reprisal. Once the train is gone, the man collects the firewood and goes home.
The Producers (1968). The date is important. The musical remake allows us to isolate what was essential to the original's success. So let's give credit where due to Dick Shawn as "L.S.D." the hippy whose "baby"-fied portrayal of Adolf Hitler turns the tide of the movie. Without the song "Love Power" ("I gave my flower to the garbage man/He put my flower in the garbage can"), it isn't the same show. Need I add that Kenneth Mars easily out-Nazis Will Farrell, and that role-for-role, the original outclasses the musical, and is still more transgressive?
Sleeper (1973). It used to be on TV more frequently and in those days I watched Woody Allen's sci-fi fantasy religiously. Of the movies on my list, it's most like Duck Soup in its combination of wit, slapstick and sight gags ("That's a big chicken"). I'm old enough to appreciate the comment about Howard Cosell being used to torture criminals, and including this movie among my favorites may be my most nostalgic gesture of the evening.