The problem with Hollywood's mainstream R-rated comedies

Feature Simon Brew 24 May 2013 - 07:27

As The Hangover Part III looks set to clean up at the box office, Simon wonders why comedies can't aim a bit higher....

Amongst the many majestic scenes in Carl Reiner's hugely underappreciated comedy classic All Of Me is one where Steve Martin has to go the toilet. By this time, he's sharing a body with Lily Tomlin, with each of them controlling one half of it. Thus, Martin needs Tomlin to, bluntly, do the necessaries.

It's brilliantly and simply shot, with Tomlin's face the reflection in the mirror, delivering a difficult performance pitch perfectly. Martin, not for the first time in his career, is genuinely astounding too, one of the most gifted comedy actors of all time. They take a simple scene, and turn it into something special. Basically, two gifted performers sell you a superb, very funny scene about a man having a pee.

Steve Martin's collection of comedies in the 80s in particular were terrific at this, though. They took scenarios that could have gone down a nasty, unpleasant road, and, thanks to a cocktail of brilliant writing, acting and directing, aimed higher. They took an idea, and worked it into something brilliant. Examples? The finding of his special purpose in The Jerk. Cinema's finest erection joke in The Man With Two Brains. The beautiful delivery of the "show him, honey" line in Parenthood. Martin, even in his lesser works, is a comedy genius.

I wanted to touch on these, because to say that Hollywood's obsession with potentially crude and rude comedy subject matter of late is a new thing would be incorrect. The 80s gave us Porky's. The 90s gave us There's Something About Mary. The R-rated comedy market has been bubbling along for a long time, delivering plenty of impressive films as it does so.

But heck, I'd argue the mainstream R-rated comedy has never been this consistently nasty before, leaving such a sour taste as the credits start to roll.

Last year, Project X took over $100m at the global box office. For a film made on a relative shoestring, that was some achievement. However, watching Project X was one of the most depressing times I spent in front of a film last year. It was nasty characters, doing nasty things, without any sign of a lasting ramification. If anything, their actions are celebrated at the end.

Even that in itself I could find some way round if the film was funny. But finding a good, solid, well-worked laugh in Project X is akin to finding a consensus on a Doctor Who episode. Appreciating that comedy is always subjective, there seemed little effort made to work the script, or put together funny, compelling jokes and scenarios on the page. It felt like the camera was switched on, people dicked around, and some semblance of a feature was cobbled together in the editing room.

The irony is that the credited screenwriter of Project X, Michael Bacall, also penned the quite excellent 21 Jump Street. That, conversely, was a film that felt like it had been worked, and worked hard, before the cameras were even unpacked. That the script had been tuned and polished. That there was something funny and worthwhile on the page. Sure, that's only half of the battle, but it does seem to be the half that more and more are glossing over.

Inevitably, this leads to The Hangover Part III, which will go on to make gigantic amounts of money over the next week or two. The Hangover Part III, for me, is everything that's wrong with modern big R-rated studio comedies. It's a horrible, nasty film, trading on casual racism, unpleasant characters and undercooked writing, and banking heavily on the fact that we'll support it because we went to see the last one. Which, sadly, lots of us will.

The last one, you might remember, ended with another cameo from convicted rapist Mike Tyson at the end of a staggeringly unambitious, sour retread of the first film. This one is no better. In fact, it asks you to root for the most unpleasant character of the main trio, played by Zach Galifianakis. A talented comedy performer, Galifianakis is on a hiding to nothing come the emotional moment in the new film where we're supposed to actually feel for him. But how can you? He's just the kind of horrible character that, in real life, you wouldn't give second shrift too. Why should you in a movie, when there's been no clear effort made to round him out as a three dimensional character at all?

Earlier this year, Identity Thief had a similar problem. It too put at its centre a thuddingly vile character, in this case played by another talented comedy performer, Melissa McCarthy. In that example, she played a woman who stole the life of Jason Bateman's character. At no point were you given any convincing reason to root for her, yet the film still tried to turn things. As such, it asked you to feel sorry for her, instead presenting Bateman's character as the one that needed to do the grovelling near the end. So: the one who had had his life wrecked? He's the baddie. The one who stole it? She's just misunderstood. It rang hollow, and when the credits rolled, the film felt sour. It was a huge hit.

It feels like we've gone backwards, as if the cycle is starting again. After all, in the aftermath of the original American Pie's success, we got the likes of Say It Isn't So, a movie that gleefully pokes fun at someone who's had a stroke. Again, that in itself still isn't the main problem. The problem is that it never has a joke to tell about it. Films don't have to be consistently likeable to be funny, but this was the equivalent of bullies on the school bus just pointing and laughing. And that was it, it had nothing more to offer than that. I could have cited several American Pie imitators that fell into similar traps, but they soon tailed off.

However, then The Hangover happened, hit very big, and alll of a sudden, this vein of comedy is back in force. Since The Hangover (and the first film has merit to it, and at least had some solid laughs), it feels as though the mean and nasty tap has been turned on again. And it also feels as if Hollywood, rather than trying to gross us out at the moment, is looking to be as offensively unpleasant as possible in some of its comedies, but without the comedic and writing skill and/or effort needed to turn that into a good film.

I've found in the past when I've cited the increasingly nasty core in many successful R-rated comedies, that the counter arguments tend to centre around me being out of touch, that comedy is subjective, and that I'm being a bit too sensitive to it all. Maybe. But then I sit in front of a comedy like Role Models, and laugh like a drain. Or Old School, Anchorman, Election, South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut, the first American Pie, Shaun Of The Dead, bits of Wedding Crashers or the entirety of 21 Jump Street (which felt like a mighty breath of fresh air), and enjoy them. A lot in some cases.

These aren't comedies looking to be politically correct. In some of those examples, they couldn't be less family friendly if they tried. But they worked, and they worked, again thanks to skill and effort.

Mainstream comedy, after all, shouldn't shy away from edgy topics. In lesser hands, Robert Downey Jr's role in Tropic Thunder could have gone very, very wrong. But his performance was funny, excellently pitched, and made a point (even if the rest of the film was bumpy). It may have been uneasy at times, but at least that felt like it was the aim. And to get to that stage, lots of hidden hard work must have gone in.

What's depressing now though is just how classless it's got of late. That instead of working hard for the laughs creatively, there's a sense that people assume that improvising on a set is enough. Sometimes it is, usually it isn't. Sadly, The Hangover Part III seems to demonstrate what happens when arrogance trumps the need for a good script. It feels like Facebook schadenfreude on a big screen. That we're asked to point and laugh at what others are doing, rather than being won over by a well-worked line.

The sad thing is that when you look back at those aforementioned Steve Martin movies mentioned at the start, surely it helps prove that you can have comedies that are happy to target a grown-up audience, and have genuine laughs in them at the same time. Here's hoping the planned remake of All Of Me remembers that too. As it stands, if more time was spent working hard on comedy scripts, then 21 Jump Street wouldn't feel quite like the stark exception to the norm is does at the moment. Because right now, it feels like something of an oasis. And sadly, the ending of The Hangover Part III far from rules out The Hangover Part IV, which in itself is as frightening an indication as to the state of the genre as you need at the moment.

Here's hoping though that the streak of meanness over humour in a number of mainstream Hollywood R-rated comedies is a temporary phenonemon, rather than the new status quo. And, just saying, that Steve Martin has never received an Oscar nomination for his comedy acting is criminal. But figure you knew that already...

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Totally agree - and would even extend a little to say there are very few well cafted laugh out loud comedies R-rated or otherwise.

TV seems to do comedy better than movies these days, a single well crafted epiode of the something like the IT Crowd can deliver more laughs than many 2 hour movies.

I hae nothing against crudeness and/or tough topics in comedy - 'Team America' does sex, racism and vomit gags all very well in a really solid movie, but it does it well because it understands that those things are not jokes in and of themselves, they are just topics about which a good joke can be written - a point that too many bad comedies forget.

Maybe I'm out of touch too - but miss 80's comedies. Fun and funny - and BTW, good call on Steve Martin 'Trains, Planes and auomobiles' is a personal favorite of mine.

All I can say say is Steve Martin comedies real most comedies these days need to use toilet humour they need more movies like trading places or all of me bring back smart humour and not so much hangover type films

toilet humour has never been too bad before as it was always in a solid context within a good film and not every joke. As for nasty characters, talk about steve Martin comedies then you just need to look at Planes trains and Automobiles where neither character is very nice at the start but they developed. I always feel that the Galafanakis and Melissa McCarthy characters are cheap rip offs of John Candy's brilliant work but without the character development or quality writing. They're good actors but they need better written roles

Brilliant article, could not agree more. This "nasty" comedy is just a lazy way to get a shock laugh out of an audience, similar to a jump scare in a horror film. Worse then that is the fact that these movies are making huge amounts of money. There is hope though, actors like Steve Carell, Simon Pegg and Jason Segel seem to be able to be hilarious in films without a malicious bone in their body. Often elevating mediocre jokes into standout classics.

Melissa McCarthy is a talented actress and comedian but I can't help but feel that she's wasted in these adult comedies.

She was far better in the Gilmore Girls series which had a greater degree of warm hearted and gentle, but with that far more witty and intelligent, vein of humour running through it.

I remember complaining the Hangover 2 was awful and getting confused looks from all my friends. The Ken Jeong character and scenes were cringeworthy in the extreme and total lowest common denominator comedy. I find I judge a good comedy by considering whether, if I tried really hard, could I have written something as good. Considering how completely unfunny I am it's shocking how few recent mainstream comedies pass this test.

Of recent 18's rated comedies, in my opinion, 21 Jump Street was very enjoyable, Ted was good and Seven Psychopaths also entertaining. None of these can hold a candle to the much more child friendly The Muppets though!
Feels a long way form the Golden Ages of Dumb and Dumber, Something aout Mary, and Me, Myslef and Irene!
Also Project X is only one very few films I have walked out on in the cinema - the other recent one being that Movie 23 nonsense (they joys of an unlimited card!)

Completely agree with this - excellent article. But why no mention of "Ted" alongside 21 Jump St? Another very funny, R-rated comedy with terrific performances and proper jokes.

I watched Identity Thief last night, Christ what an awful film that is, it felt about 6 hours long and tonally its all over the place. Avoid.

Yeah but Ted suffers from a lot of the same issues- trades on racism, misogyny, and (Seth MacFarlane's fave) overly long nods to 80s pop culture. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was funny- but it's not as funny as it could have been had MacFarlane had the balls to step beyond anti-Semitism and actually write a proper character piece (which we know he can do).

You should have mentioned the McDonough bros films as they're very well scripted, shot and have likeable funny characters in them like Christopher Walken's in Seven Psychopaths

Ted is another good example of how a potentially great idea with clever writers turned into a lazy, gross-out mess that was massively undeserving of its huge success. I'm still angry about paying to see it.

Oh, I see people in the comments actually liked Ted. Fine, the cheese stands alone.

You stand not alone brother!!

Twd was a vile piece of film, but I would expect no less from the creator of Peter Griffin.

Groundhog Day.

I've got a card but still never walked out. I think it's because I figure I've already invested my time, might as well see how it end and be 100% informed when I later rip into it. That does mean I sat through all of The Happening, but when nothing happened I used the card to see something else so I hadn't wasted a journey.

I would have walked out of Paul Blart if I saw it at the cinema though. A great turd of a comedy. I turned it off when he was pushing something and it wouldn't budge. I remember realising I hadn't laughed once to that point. A terrible, lazy comedy aimed at idiots. Studios are too scared of alienating their audience.

The point about Melissa Mccarthy in Identity Thief rings true - this seems to be a bit controversial among friends but I always had this problem with School of Rock. The audience is asked to side with a guy who puts his friend's career in jeopardy - as well as hijacking the educations of an entire classroom of children at an incredibly expensive school - just to settle a tedious personal vendetta? He's one of the most selfish, awful protagonists I've ever seen in a "comedy"

Someone get that cat out of here!

Huh. That's a good point.

I think School of Rock's 'kids movie' tag sort of helps it avoid that pitfall though.

I think with Ted ye knew exactly what it was going to be as it was sold as the Seth McFarlane film. There was enough very funny bits in the movie for me to rate it highly. Problem I had with Hangover II was it took the worst elements of the 1st movie (which was an enjoyable movie) and turned them into an awful sequel

I'm with you here. I've given up on these types of films since Horrible Bosses and The Change-Up. I now feel like anything Bateman does in the cinema will be unwatchable which is a shame as I am a fan of Arrested Development.

21 Jump Street was a massively pleasant surprise but the problem is that gems like this are likely to missed by me now as I've given up expecting anything good from R-Rated comedies.

At least I still have access to 4od and a steady stream of Graham Linehan's shows.

The two moments I found funny in Ted were the Knight Rider ringtone and Sam Jones appearing on screen for the first time since Flash Gordon.

Totally agree with the Hangover statement.. Should've been left alone!

CREATIVITY. It's all you need. The problem is that Hollywood is happy to sit securely in these adult-rating confines, never daring to do anything half as intelligent or out-there as the best comedies of the 90's, let alone some of the older masterpieces. There can be so much better. And All of Me sounds awesome, thanks for reminding me of it. I love those fun supernatural comedy films from that era, such as Hearts And Souls with Robert Downey Jr., another great comedy that is not only far from offensive, but really touching too. What happened to that in comedies?

Excellent article, juxtaposing Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin to the new crop of comedians. I couldn't agree with you more. Lazy, crude, unkind, mean there are so many more adjectives one could use to describe the junk comedies Hollywood sells us these days. How I wish for the days of Men in Plaid! Hahahaha!

Okay, I'm going to say it. I'm an American and can tell you that the vast majority of the American audience is stupid.and eager to pander to brain dead fare at the box office.

The poster for The Hangover 3 spoke volumes to me on this subject. You know the one that has the three main guys in their funeral suits looking all cool and stuff with the simple, bold tagline of "The End". it was a statement that the movie hadn't earned after one half decent movie and a terrible, derivative sequel which even the writer admitted wasn't up to scratch and promised "to do better next time" and this was a franchise in love with itself for no reason.

Hollwood has forgotten that it's not enough just to throw stuff at us and have us accept their premise automatically and that they have to build up the audience's relationship with the characters and have become increasingly disconnected from the reality of their audience. The depressing thing being even after an awful second movie the Hangover 3 will make big bucks on the basis that people sorta liked the first one and that it is a familiar entity to them . I suppose each generation gets the movies that it's deserves.

Wow !! I must still be a teenager in my head cause I a had a good laugh with almost every movie in this article and didn't find problems in them! I don't look seriously at comedies lie you did in this article, over analysing everything. I loved Project X ! Though the 2 comedies I liked the most last years were 21 Jump Street and Ted. But just because I put them far above the others doesn't mean I can't enjoy them on a lesser level.

I weatched identity thief last night. it was an unfunny and insulting movie. the 90 minute running time felt like 3 hours. i dont remember laughing once. it was so implausible that it was distracting.

I usually avoid movies like this but i took on the "how bad can it be" mentality and it didnt pay off.

Ted was a massive succes because it was very funny, that's all.

You're not the only one who didn't like Ted. I reviewed it here and didn't like it.

When was the last time Hollywood put out a feature comedy that was as funny as ANY ten minutes of "Arrested Development"? I believe then author is quite correct - actors and directors have convinced themselves that they're far more clever than the writers.

Omni - you DO know that season four of "Arrested Development" is being released in two days, don't you? Not the premiere the ENTIRE fifteen episode run.

I wanted to love "Ted" - I was willing to settle for liking it. I wound up walking out on it.

I have really hated the nasty streak in comedies over the last few years which for me began with Due Date a nasty vile piece of cinema. I was shocked at how many people told me I was being a sour puss and gave it a pass because its a "comedy"

You are not alone! Ted was kinda funny at bits but for the most part it I wasn't a fan.

Agreed! You even start to sympathise with Harry from In Bruges (to an extent!)

Totally agree...R-Rated comedies are so freaking lazy. They all use the same recycled humor. Comedy has gotten LAZY.

Bet you watch a lot of Family Guy then.

EDIT: Another hilarious stem of comedy in mainstream culture.

I prefer American Dad, but yeah, I watch it quite often. Don't follow every episode though, I'm more into sci fi stuff, like Doctor Who.

>I suppose each generation gets the movies that it's deserves.

Grow up.

You're confusing wit with speed.

You can actually have both...

A film that sounds repetitive is anything but.

Yeah, he has a lot of standards for a 'gangster-type'. Makes him different.

I didn't see the film because Sulkin and Wild co-wrote it with Macfarlane. Seth has talent and those 2 will drag him down. They've done the most annoying Family Guy episodes.

Quotes someone and then adds the words "grow up" in some attempt to discredit my comment as the ramblings of an immature boy without adding anything constructive themselves. My eight year old nephew nephew could debate better.

Just watched it last week. It's like putting on old shoes. Or whatever old thing you like putting on. I hope THEY never remake it. Bill Murray's brand of meanness just can't be emulated. Can you see Bateman in that role? Or Ryan Reynolds in Scrooge? If either of those possibilities ever come to fruition, I'm, I'm callin the cops.

Hollywood itself has gotten LAZY. These days almost every single movie it seems is a remake, sequel, prequel, former TV show or comic book movie.

agree with everything except that part about 21 jump street being good. Man that film was poor.... laughs few and far between.

It wasn't Knight Rider ring tone it was The Imperial March from Star Wars, don't mean to geek out on you but it's a very recognisable tune :)

One of Bill Murray's best film along with the classic What About Bob?

John Candy was the only actor who could make Polka music an enjoyable addition to a film, lol

No modern comedy will ever be able to do casual racism and funny or smartly as Blazing Saddles, had a ridiculous amount of racism in it but does it great and gets it's social message across perfectly

Wow. Talk about a biased piece of writing.

At no point were you given a reason to root for the character in Identity Thief? Did you watch the movie? She basically breaks down the pain that led her to this that life. Then she turns around and does the right thing; allowing herself to go to jail (and redeeming herself). So, no. You are given a strong reason to root for her.

And, while Mike Tyson may be a convicted rapist chosing those words as the qualifiers to his name is a very heavy handed attempt at making your point.

Etc, etc.

This was a badly written article full of unsubstantiated opinion.

No worries, I knew it was an iconic 80's tune, just remembered wrong after my one viewing of Ted.

Everyone who pays to see these films is to blame for their creation and future crap as well.

I think "All of Me" and Steve Martin comedies in general tend to be aimed at older audiences that the ones who go see "Hangover"-type movies.

70's actually, lol :)

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