Who's Laughing Now? A Guide to Hollywood Comedy
There are not, and never should be, critical terms to dictate what is funny. Nonetheless, it's a pivotal fact that when Zak Galafianakis allowed a tiny monkey to chomp on his sweating crotch in The Hangover Part II, a line was drawn in the sand. There are those who will raise their frothing beers aloft and salute the chubby patron saint of boorish funsters. Others, meanwhile, will sigh and lament the scene as a degradation to the dignity of human – and monkey – kind. It's of little consequence what camp you fall into, chances are you still saw the movie. Hollywood have made it their business to tell us what's funny, and business is good. Audiences scrambled for seats at The Hangover Part II as though in the chill grasp of an incurable addiction to penis jokes, and it took $581 million, making it the most successful R-rated comedy ever. With every rumble from the recession thundercloud we run to hammer on popular culture's door, weeping for an opiate to take the edge off. Like any vaguely aspirational drug dealer, Hollywood is only too eager to oblige.
The film industry's most recent jackpot revelation: it is intellect, and not gender, that impairs an audience's ability to laugh at spontaneous bowel evacuation. All for equal opportunity gullibility, there have been significant attempts to cater to women yearning for a Lambrini-induced Hangover. Hollywood successfully sneaked another white, middle class, heterosexual wedding past the finish line in the form of Bridesmaids. Some critics deemed it refreshing; others called it progressive. What’s certain is, while everyone quarrelled over feminism, anti-feminism and whether Kristen Wiig could be a well-disguised man, laundry facilities most proximate to Universal Studios were inundated with giddy producers wielding soggy sheets, keen to obliterate all evidence of their latest wet dream come true.
Although Bridesmaids merely re-bundled the male-oriented gross-out comedy with a pink crepe bow, it was at least successful. Crass attempts by the rom-com to woo male attendees have met with unrelenting failure. Stumbling into the spotlight: the stunted, interstitial prom-com, so named as an attempt to shoehorn promiscuity into a formula which has always depended on chasteness for its plot development. Emergent examples like Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached peddle shallow, mannequin-people played, not incongruously, by beautiful, dimpled sorts like Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. Like sentient sex-dolls, they seek interludes of perfunctory copulation with each other before dismounting to continue their busy, soulless lives. It's like watching the National Geographic channel, but with Justin Timberlake where a straining, grunting lion should be. Such films cleverly manage to splice together the more diabolical aspects of two genres, creating a perfect fusion of mind-crushing smut and diabetic slush which dispenses with formalities like plot and morality.
Because when all else fails, a concept is all a comedy film really needs to market itself. The high-concept-com is heavily reliant on the fallacy that singularity might lead to greatness. No idea is too ridiculous, and the genre often relies on bizarre, inexplicable sabotages of reality's parameters. Director Brian Robbins has made notable contributions to the cause, abetted by the relentless presence of Eddie Murphy, who has given up acting other parts permanently in order to focus on playing his own caricature. His most recent contrivance, A Thousand Words, sees literary agent Jack McCall doomed to silence by a cursed tree. It attained the rare accolade of being deemed the worst comedy of all time by critics. Meet Dave, another Robbins/Murphy-led humour-massacre witnesses a crew of tiny aliens living inside Eddie Murphy's hollowed-out body. A poor hypothesis for a film, there is significant merit in it as a theory on what happened to the slick-fire Beverly Hills Cop who once thought up zingers faster than he could spit them out. Equally high-concept forays into inadequacy can be credited to Ricky Gervais, who in 2009 managed to both invent lying and talk to ghosts, and Paul, who to his credit is at least a CGI alien.
It’s cruel to single out individuals in this climate of pervasive banality, but one man has done more for the concept-com than the sum total of the remainder, and for this, deserves credit. Adam Sandler is the emergency biscuit in every screenwriter's desk drawer; his is the power to liberate capital from the basest scenario. In a career spanning 24 years, there are few films in the Sandler canon that can't be reduced to a one line summary. Adam Sandler can manipulate the fabric of time (Click). Adam Sandler is given a small child to disappoint and annoy (Big Daddy). Adam Sandler's girlfriend is blessed with nightly amnesia, which helps her forget she's dating Adam Sandler (50 First Dates). The pinnacle of his career though, is 2012's epoch-shattering Jack and Jill, in which Adam Sandler plays his own sister. The endeavour earned him no fewer than all ten Razzies. One exceptionally disturbing scene involves Al Pacino flitting around a Dunkin' Donuts, singing with the manic enthusiasm of a man whose loved ones will be tortured and killed should he give pause to question why. Online theories for his complicity range between blackmail, drug abuse and the onset of dementia. All that remains to be said on the subject: Adam Sandler is Forbes magazine's richest comedian.
Emerging from a chronic smog of weed fumes to the mellifluous thrum of Seth Rogen's larynx: the comedy of Judd Apatow. The bromance oligarch might have been dabbling his toes in the custard pie as far back as the mid-nineties, but his breakthrough came with proto-failure Andy Stitzer, or The 40 Year Old Virgin. Andy spunked a flood of single-cell heroes and overnight rendered male underachievement as commonplace in film as in life. In 2007 Knocked Up saw a man outsmarted by his own sperm. Superbad then posited a heterosexual male love triangle. Pineapple Express venerated a moronic bailiff, rewarding him for his fatuousness and drug abuse with blubberingly loyal chums and a lithe, forgiving girlfriend. Forgetting Sarah Marshall poked man-sponge Jason Segel into the role of an overeating, newly-single thirty-something who spends all his time weeping and successfully appearing less attractive than pirouetting pubis Russell Brand.
While many of these films suggest comedy’s spiralling descent into primordial slime, the trajectory isn't all downward. Last year’s Submarine was a delicate jewel. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom bursts with quirky panache. Tim Burton may just pitch back to pre-cliché with Frankenweenie this winter. Works like Pixar's Brave and Disney’s Wreck it Ralph might prove animation a forgiving vehicle for Hollywood comedy, presumably because it demands time to produce, facilitating the formation of thought. So let’s forget nostalgia orgies (American Pie: Reunion) and haggard sequels (Men in Black 3) and joyfully embrace originality. There's a hopeful online murmur that remakes are plummeting in popularity, and after the indisputably hostile commercial reception of $6 million for A Thousand Words, there is also the outside chance Robbins and his ilk may be encouraged to return their delusions to the drawing board by an audience who still understand the concept of shame.