Netflix Gems Part 4: Comedies

Netflix’s list of comedies are an on-the-whole frustrating batch of films to sift through.  Statistically speaking, a new pointless direct-to-DVD sex or spoof comedy film is completed every three minutes.  Well, okay that’s not true, but that’s what it feels like.  Fortunately, there’s some shiny diamonds glinting through the rough.

I’m personally of the opinion that a comedy should also be a good movie.  A cheap laugh can be acquired by filming or saying just about anything as long as it’s as far enough off the wall to be unexpected (and I like this stuff just as much as the next guy), but these chuckles are soon forgotten.  A disconnected series of laughs does not make a good comedy.  Concept, writing, acting and directing all have to come together to make one truly memorable.  Fortunately, we’ve got some good representation here:

5.  Strictly Ballroom

Baz Luhrman’s directorial debut is hands-down his best movie ever.  Strictly Ballroom is a very funny comedy about overly intense ballroom dancers.  It’s also a Cinderella story crowd-pleaser and one of the only movies to pull off the shabby-to-princess evolution of the main actress convincingly.  Like all Luhrman films it’s very far over-the-top, but Strictly Ballroom feels a bit more logical than his later films.  Its humble and quirky setting makes the drama feel proportionate instead of layering catharsis upon catharsis with unlimited production value and set design.  Too much money in the hands of a dreamer like Luhrman can have dizzying consequences, but Strictly Ballroom’s modest budget gives him sensible limits.

4.  Swingers

Narrowly beats out Bottle Rocket as the defining Generation X comedy.  I mean, there’s an entire scene built around playing NHL ’95 on Super Nintendo for goshsakes!  And then a discussion about how NHL ’94 was better because it had fighting in it!  You don’t get much more insider than that.  Beyond just outlining generational topography, Swingers has a really good story and really good performances.  Jon Favreau is excellent and Vince Vaughan makes his first appearance as Vince Vaughan.  I realized after watching it that the guy has been playing this same character in every film he’s ever been in.  After finally seeing the original, though, I have to say that it’s a persona worth cultivating.  It also has the greatest closing scene of any comedy ever.  It sums up everything that’s gone before and drives the point home hilariously.  I just love it when writers are that good.

3.  Dazed & Confused

Richard Linklater’s famous high school comedy could have a place in the ‘period pieces’ list from the sort of praise it gets from the baby boomers who lived through that time.  Apparently, everything from the clothes to the music (of which the song “Dazed & Confused” is not a part) to the stereotypes are as close to 1970s glory days as one gets.  It’s also just hilarious and stars some recognizable faces including a famous performance by Matthew McConaughey and a not-so-famous performance (though equally as legendary) by Ben Affleck.  Renee Zellweger has a brief, non-speaking role and Parker Posey is in her prime.  It’s a first rate comedy for movie lovers, an intelligent nostalgia trip for baby-boomers, a parade of excellent performances, and the perfect ‘good-times’ teen movie.

2.  Cookie’s Fortune

My favorite Robert Altman film and an excellent comedy.  It’s an ensemble-casted tale of small town relationships and rivalries set in a small Mississippi town.  The characters as lovable and despicable at Dickensian levels, and the twisty mystery plot also feels like something he would write.  The cast is reason enough to see it:  Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Patricia Neal, Charles S. Dutton, Chris O’Donnell (who actually proves himself to be a good actor), Liv Tyler, Donald Moffat and Ned Beatty.  Country crooner Lyle Lovett gives my favorite performance as a lovesick Catfish butcher.  The humor is witty, petty and soaked in southern whimsy.  Altman champions the life of the simple southerner and gives it more respect and dignity than any other attempt.  Issues of race are explored, but not with liberal mantras of “cross-cultural understanding” or serious societal shake-up.  Instead the reason given for solidarity with those across the tracks is a simple phrase with echoing spiritual connotations: “I fish with him.”  Altman takes the broad spectrum of small-town politics and relationships, reverses them and then says “God bless us, every one.”

1.  This Is Spinal Tap

This deserves a place in the pantheon of great films on its influence alone.  Never mind that it’s a great movie.  Spinal Tap is the very first ‘mockumentary’, to whose style we owe the majority of modern sitcoms.  The Office, Parks & Recreation, Modern Family, Flight of the Conchords, 30 Rock all borrow from Spinal Tap and none have ever achieved its brilliance.  Christopher Guest, who plays lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, went on to further develop the genre by directing some of the better-known cult mockumentaries, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.  In the beginning, though it was Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer who made up the fictional rock group who, due to an actual discography (“This is Spinal Tap”, “Break Like the Wind”, “Back from the Dead”),  and prolific track list including “Sex Farm”, “Big Bottom”, “Rock ‘n Roll Creation” and “Stonehenge” successfully fooled many people into thinking that they were an honest-to-gosh sensation.  In a time before Wikipedia it was harder to tell what was ‘real’ and what wasn’t, which is what made Spinal Tap so revolutionary.  These days, ‘mockumentaries’ can be quickly looked up and debunked.  Back then, it was a new kind of comedy that wasn’t easy to get one’s head around.

The film itself owed a bit to the irony of Martin Mull and Fred Willard’s “Fernwood 2 Nite”, but was mostly its own thing.  Guest, McKean and Shearer never break their straight faces and Tony Hendra and director Rob Reiner (who also acts in the film as its director) are instrumental to creating the environment of jokeless hilarity.  Reiner’s involvement also explains the string of excellent cameos (most of which Guest could never attract in his humbler later projects).  Fran Drescher, Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, Fred Willard, Ed Begley Jr. and Paul Schaeffer absolutely kill in their mostly less-than-two-minute roles as the various support staff the rock group encounters throughout their tour.  The brevity of their parts make their moments shine.  Crystal says about three lines in the film, and I still consider it to be his funniest role.  “Mime is money”.

Spinal Tap is one of the most quotable films of all time, but not in the same way as Airplane! or The Naked Gun.  The one-liners aren’t thrown at you, but arise naturally out of the subtle ridiculousness of the premise.  Spinal Tap is like a big inside joke, and once you’re in on it it’s a source of endless enjoyment.

The film’s plot takes a back seat to its ‘moments’ but it never becomes a series of sketches.  Its plot is thin because documentary plots are thin.  The rock doc atmosphere is as consistent as “The Last Waltz” or “No Direction Home”.  Interestingly, the opening scenes, which are certainly the best, are also the least wacky.  Spinal Tap is the ultimate parody, the first time humorists proved themselves able to deconstruct a genre simply by imitating it.  We owe at least 85% of modern comedic method to this great film.  It’s done more to shape what we think of as ‘funny’ than any other comedy since.


About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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