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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