This week’s question: What movie is missing from our recent list of the best big-screen comedies since 2000?
A number of my personal favorites didn’t make the final list, due to their presumed lack of popularity, respectability, or filmmaking acumen, which I choose to take as a grave insult to my taste and character. But none of those qualifiers apply to Spy, a Paul Feig-Melissa McCarthy team-up that made bank at the box office, earned largely positive notices from critics, and proved Feig to be much more than a talented pointer-of-cameras-at-funny-people. Let’s just chalk it up to the ill-advised “Didn’t they just do that in The Heat?” fatigue that made me sleep on Spy during its theatrical run, only to discover it as a cracking action-comedy on VOD several months later. The most common (and least accurate) knock on McCarthy is that her post-Bridesmaids performances are all variations on the same broad, slapstick-prone persona. There are pratfalls aplenty in Spy (usually in the context of one of the film’s expertly choreographed set-pieces), but the film gives McCarthy’s CIA analyst several opportunities to outsmart the field agents, while also setting up situations where her typically posh co-stars like Jude Law and Rose Byrne get to play the loud clowns. And, really, if the words “Jason Statham in a career-redefining comedic performance” don’t do anything for you, then I’ll only take more offense at the fact that you neglected Spy.
A masterpiece of tragicomic poignancy, at turns wry and heartbreaking, a whimsical evocation of the absurd existential dilemma of man’s fecklessness before the fates—these are descriptors that do not at all apply to Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, a movie about a very stupid man behaving stupidly, repeatedly and to no great purpose. With apologies to my more sophisticated colleagues (and to A.A. Dowd for nearly shouting at him), I like comedies that are funny first, with everything else—nuance, character growth, thesis, coherent plot—coming a distant second. This is the working formula of every Will Ferrell/Adam McKay collaboration, and while I’m heartened that Step Brothers and Anchorman made the list for their subtle subversion of the male ego (or whatever), I also have to speak up for this doofy, under-appreciated ramble about a cocky NASCAR star struggling with his first taste of humility. Talladega Nights is often unfairly lumped in with Ferrell’s modern-day-Dorf series of mediocre sports comedies like Blades Of Glory and Semi-Pro, but here the racing is really just a rubric for hanging more gloriously loose, celluloid-wasting riffs from Ferrell and his soul mate scene partner John C. Reilly. Ferrell’s stubborn five-minute prayer to a tiny, infantile Jesus is, in my callow opinion, the funniest comic monologue of the past 15 years, and it has zero intellectually redeeming qualities. As a very stupid man, it makes me laugh repeatedly, and to no great purpose.
France’s Arnaud Desplechin has been trying to approximate Shakespeare for the better part of his career, getting closest with the ingeniously eclectic Kings & Queen. For the purposes of this ballot, A.A. Dowd and I decided that it qualified as a comedy—or, more accurately, that there was enough comedy in its sprawling two-and-a-half hours to make a whole feature film. But who’d want that? Alternating between art dealer Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) and her ex, manic violist Ismaël (Matthieu Amalric), and then complicating things even further with flashbacks, interludes, novelistic touches, and abrupt change-ups of style, Desplechin’s sprawling, ambitious movie touches on countless ideas, reference points, and notes of personal tragedy, and yet still somehow manages to be energetic and funny. (Also, I can think of few absurd turns of events I identify with more than the sequence in which Ismaël gets committed to a mental hospital.)
How does David Wain only show up once on this list? (Admittedly, he’s right there at the top, with Wet Hot American Summer, but still.) Wain’s directed five comedies in the last 15 years, and they’ve all been pretty great, channeling the absurdism of his old work in The State into feature film packages of varying levels of weird. For me, Wain’s funniest non-WHAS work is also his most intently odd, 2007’s shaggy sketch comedy The Ten. Like any sketch movie, it’s wholly uneven—the framing story is an unsatisfying mess, despite Paul Rudd’s best efforts—but when it works, it’s amazing. The highlight is “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Goods,” which sees Liev Schrieber and Joe Lo Truglio face off as a pair of suburban dads who wreck their lives—and their entire town—in a destructive game of one-upsmanship to see who can own the most CAT scan machines. It’s exactly as dumb as it sounds, but the duo’s perfectly deadpan performances sell it (as does the visual of their houses slowly filling with the bulky machines). The Ten isn’t uniformly filled with material this good, but it’s enough to make me a (mostly) unapologetic fan.
Yes, and what of Role Models? Was there really no room for a film that is Wet Hot American Summer’s equal in every way except its cult-movie-made-good legend? The commercial packaging is completely deceptive—the channeled absurdism William just mentioned is all over this one. The weird playfulness of the third act, which resolves all of the movie’s dangling plot lines via a live-action-role-playing game (shades of the nerds in Wet Hot right down to Christopher Mintze-Plasse’s cape) is a perfect illustration of Wain’s approach to comedy: experimental, communal, joyful, strategically stupid, and affectionately indebted to the ’70s (which is why everyone is wearing KISS makeup). I don’t think Paul Rudd’s ever been more dialed-in and appealing in a movie (it’s obvious he co-wrote his own dialogue) and Jane Lynch’s recovering-addict-turned-community-service-impressario is one of the great non sequitur machines of all time (“Why don’t you lay out two lines of your selfishness, which is your blow, draw the shades, take the phone off the hook, grab a straw and snort?”). Throw in Ken Marino in hateful-suburban-asshole mode (reprised brilliantly in Wanderlust, by the way), some perfectly acceptable crowd-pleasing clichés, and the best Wings song Wings never actually recorded, and there’s no good reason this one didn’t make the list.
For whatever reason, Down With Love
didn’t get much play in 2003, even though I loved it so much I saw it twice in two days when it came out. Director Peyton Reed offered an inspired 21st-century send-up of the 1960s sex comedy, with Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger standing in for Rock Hudson and Doris Day. David Hyde Pierce played the hapless Tony Randall part (even though Randall himself also showed up), with Sarah Paulson as a wisecracking Eve Arden type. What would be standard rom-com fare was elevated by the period-perfect details, color-coordinated costuming, life-on-the-town montages, and settings that resembled movie sets of several decades earlier, when every cinematic New York apartment had a terrace. McGregor and Zellweger’s fizzy chemistry floats the movie all the way through to a surprising twist ending and a cocktail-era musical end-credits sequence. Making the case that modern romance is just as confounding in the 21st century as it was in the ’60s, Down With Love deserves another look.
I’m absolutely delighted that Frances Ha made it so far up this list; it’s one of the best movies of the decade and I love it dearly. But I didn’t actually vote for it. With few exceptions, I tried to stick with one movie per director, and I had to go with my heart and throw my Noah Baumbach vote to the lost cause of Mistress America, his other big collaboration with Greta Gerwig. I had recently rewatched both movies for my piece on their working relationship, so I’m more convinced than ever that line for line, scene for scene, Mistress America is funnier than Frances Ha. It helps that it gives much of its second half over to a modern farce, complete with well-timed entrances, exits, door-slams, and the kind of self-aware, self-revealing zingers that both Baumbach and Gerwig know how to nail. And even before the movie kicks into farce mode, little things like the way Tony (Matthew Shear) reacts with angry startlement when his girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) touches him while driving still crack me up after several viewings. I’ll leave it at that, lest my Mistress America stumping reach epic God Help The Girl levels.
It probably shouldn’t surprise me at this point that one of the most undervalued American independent filmmakers of the 21st century—and, more pertinently, one of the funniest—has been left off yet another canonical list. For me, there was no question as to whether or not Nicole Holofcener was responsible for a list-worthy comedy, but rather which one I’d pick. I have a soft spot for 2001’s Lovely & Amazing (the first of her films that I really fell in love with), but eventually voted for 2010’s Please Give, a subtle, heartbreaking wonder that stars Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt as New York antique brokers who want to buy their dying neighbor’s apartment, and Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet as the neighbor’s stubborn granddaughters. Holofcener spins unsparing jokes out of these characters’ respective obsessions with being seen as attractive and good-hearted. The film is unusually honest about how even selflessness can be selfish. But it’s also understanding about what people really want, and how hard it can be just to ask for it outright. For a long time, Please Give seems like it’s about nothing much at all, but as these four lives awkwardly intertwine, Holofcener keeps finding the moments between them that are both comic and true. Next to Noah Baumbach, she’s our smartest, wittiest contemporary screenwriter. It’s time to start celebrating that.
Can a movie make a lot of money, win an Oscar, and still be underrated? If it’s written and directed by David O. Russell, it can be—at least among the type of cinephiles who sang Russell’s praises when he was still making manic indie comedies, but turned on him when he started making manic Hollywood ones. Silver Linings Playbook, which got exactly one vote (mine!) for this list, is often Exhibit A in the case against the filmmaker’s post-millennial “mainstream” period. But does Russell’s brand of high-volume, high-anxiety screwball really suffer from being conformed to the demands of a crowd-pleading romantic-comedy? I’d argue something close to the opposite, actually, and insist that his gifts for ensemble chaos—corralling a bunch of eccentrics in a room together and letting their big personalities bounce off each other—redeems the clichés of the genre, allowing him to make something uproarious and idiosyncratic out of them. And the common argument that Playbook is some fairy-tale portrait of mental illness strikes me as a willful misreading: Love doesn’t “cure” Pat (Bradley Cooper), as the detractors claim; he simply starts taking his medication, because he wants to get better for the people in his life, old and new. That’s a moving notion, not sappy wish-fulfillment—and further proof that Russell making good was no sell-out move, but simply a lateral one.
This Is The End
a funny movie sober? I have no idea, nor do I want to. But there’s a place for Rogen/Goldberg films seemingly designed to be consumed while high as a kite. Pineapple Express directly addresses this with its chronically high characters, but This Is The End caters to the stoned audience indirectly; instead of big “we’re all on drugs” winks, we get a plot tailor-made to appeal to viewers watching their screens through a heavy haze of smoke. The wildly unexpected violence, the literal apocalypse serving for light-hearted hijinks, and the plethora of celebrities playing versions of themselves all make for ferociously funny material. At least, I think so—again, I can’t really be sure, but I also can’t remember a movie I laughed harder at, even if it was under the influence.
I would never be so arrogant to say that the absence of Tom Green’s avant-garde masterpiece Freddy Got Fingered
completely invalidates this list, but it does call its definitiveness into question. 2001’s Freddy Got Fingered took the incoherent aggression fueling the scatology of There’s Something About Mary to delirious new levels of anti-comedy. It dignified and killed the gross-out comedy at the same time. Freddy Got Fingered is a full-on assault on propriety and sneering rebuke to Hollywood formula, but more than anything, it’s just really, really, fucking funny. No, that doesn’t capture its comic brilliance. It’s actually really, really, really, really, really, really, really funny, the rare anti-comedy that also produces big laughs in addition to incredible awkwardness and discomfort. I assume that everyone loves Freddy Got Fingered, but its absence from this list suggests I may be mistaken.
Dispiritingly few people saw Lucas Belvaux’s hugely ambitious The Trilogy during its U.S. theatrical release in 2004. That’s not really surprising—it’s asking a lot of people to take a chance on three tangentially related movies in three completely different genres, and Belvaux, a Belgian filmmaker, is largely unknown outside of Europe (though I highly recommend his recent-ish thriller Rapt as well). But The Trilogy’s comedy, An Amazing Couple, is perhaps the best pure farce I’ve seen so far this century. Its clockwork plot is a standard escalation of misunderstandings: Husband (François Morel) hides his forthcoming biopsy from his wife (Ornella Muti), making covert trips to the doctor’s office and the hospital; she thinks he’s having an affair and starts spying on him; he thinks she’s cheating on him with the private investigator she’s hired; etc. But Belvaux unearthed the forgotten art of constructing each new comic scenario atop the previous one (think of, say, Fawlty Towers), so that the hilarity becomes cumulative—a radically different mode from the loose, shaggy, semi-improvised comedies that mostly make up our list proper. What’s more, An Amazing Couple becomes even funnier if you’ve previously seen The Trilogy’s procedural thriller, On The Run, as the two films intersect in unexpected and disarming ways. (The biggest laugh in An Amazing Couple is a scene that’s almost unbearably tense in On The Run, even though it’s identical in both. Only the perspective has changed.) If you’re jonesing for farce after years of withdrawal, here’s a quick fix, at least.
I understand this may be largely a matter of categorization, but it doesn’t matter: Elf
is a funnier, richer, and all-around better film than most of the comedies I’ve seen in the past 16 years. You can chalk it up to numerous factors, including a hungry young director still eager to prove himself in Jon Favreau, an endlessly charming script by David Berenbaum, and a cast with charisma to burn (Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Mary Steenburgen). But ultimately, it’s the Will Ferrell show, a film that would live or die by its star, and Ferrell showed up ready to play. He imbues Buddy The Elf with the kind of star-making performance that led to him becoming arguably the most beloved big-screen comic presence over the next decade. He’s endearing, funny, and innocent in equal measure—it’s such a perfect match between artist and role, I have a hard time picturing anyone else pulling it off. Plus, Elf is just delightfully, consistently funny, and I will sing it loud for all to hear.
The Devil Wears Prada is annoyingly ubiquitous right now thanks to the internet’s love of anniversary-related nostalgia, but it more than deserves a place on this list. A smart, mid-budget, box-office success aimed at women? It’s practically a unicorn. Aline Brosh McKenna’s clever screenplay is tonally spot-on. It’s not nasty, but has just the right amount of bite, ribbing the fashion industry while also basking in its glamour. Sure, there’s a hint of Sex And The City fantasy, but that’s part of what makes it fun. Where it could pander to women or demonize them, it’s instead nuanced. (It’s no surprise that McKenna is now doing amazing work on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.) The performances, however, put it in the pantheon. And I’m not just talking about Meryl Streep, even though she is spectacular. Stanley Tucci is the movie’s wry heart, and Emily Blunt is a revelation; her timing and delivery is impeccable. Every time I watch it, I find something new and delightful in her wicked condescension. The Devil Wears Prada is the Working Girl of the ’00s, which is high praise coming from me.
I was pleased to see that the first Jack Black/Richard Linklater collaboration, the genuine crowd-pleaser School Of Rock, came in at a respectable No. 37 once all the votes had been tallied. But as I scoured the top 50 a few times over for their superior second film together, 2011’s Bernie, it gradually dawned on me: The movie somehow hadn’t made the cut. There might well be omissions from this list that elicit a steadier clip of LOLs, but the unassumingly dazzling Bernie is dark-comic gold in its richest and purest form: a true-crime character study about the court of public opinion in a tiny East Texas town. The film boasts a truly extraordinary gallery of personalities drawn from real life, from the kindly undertaker-turned-murderer Bernie Tiede (Black) to his nasty victim, Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), to the assorted townspeople who sit for documentary-style “interviews” about the case at hand. Thanks to some improbably well-judged performances, these folks rank among the century’s most amusing—not to mention truest-to-life—onscreen creations.
The act of trying to combine a road trip comedy and a teen sex comedy is one which only the most gifted Hollywood chemists should ever attempt, but director Sean Anders and his co-writer John Morris managed to deliver a strong, if raunchy, outing with Sex Drive. There’s no chance of false advertising with the film’s title, as the proceedings unabashedly revolve around recent high-school grad Ian (Josh Zuckerman) hopping into a 1969 Pontiac GTO and driving to have sex with a gorgeous girl he’s met on the internet (Katrina Bowden). Make no mistake: Not only is the film raunchy, it surely must rank among the raunchiest of teen sex comedies that don’t actually qualify as porn. But it’s also very, very funny, thanks to a cast that includes Clark Duke, James Marsden, David Koechner, Seth Green, Michael Cudlitz, and Charlie McDermott, unwittingly getting in some practice for his next big gig: playing Axl on The Middle. That it didn’t crack the top 50 isn’t terribly surprising—it would be more than fair to say that it’s uneven—but when it works, it’s great. All together now: “Rumspringa!”
Hedwig And The Angry Inch is hard to categorize. It’s a musical, it’s a cult film, it’s a character study, it’s an examination of identity, it’s a bittersweet romance. But Hedwig was No. 5 on my ballot. For all its depth and darkness—because of its depth and darkness, balancing poignancy with humor, giving greater resonance to both—Hedwig And The Angry Inch is one of my favorite comedies. Co-written by Stephen Trask and director John Cameron Mitchell (who also originates the role of Hedwig), Hedwig mixes wry clarity with compassion. The jaded polish of Hedwig’s patter as she works her captive audience at Bilgewater’s could be pathetic; instead, there’s a weary dignity to her unspoken determination to bring professionalism to the makeshift stage between the potted palms and the ladies’ room door. The comedy in this scene, and in this film, comes not from any character’s inadequacy or embarrassment, but from the contrast between the circumstances and the tone.
Robin Williams’ movie roles saw him go self-indulgently gooey as often as self-indulgently manic, but in his last great film performance in pal Bobcat Goldthwait’s black comedy World’s Greatest Dad, he’s brilliant. As the grieving father of a truly loathsome teenage boy (who accidentally hangs himself while jerking off), Williams’ failed teacher and writer is the perfect protagonist for Goldthwait’s prickly, puckish dissection of easy sentimentality. Williams’ Lance is a good-hearted nonentity with pretensions to substance, and his well-intentioned staging of a more dignified suicide for his douchebag of a son (perfectly embodied by Daryl Sabara from the Spy Kids franchise) sees him riding the outpouring of unwarranted love for the little prick almost all the way to achieving his stifled dreams. As director (Sleeping Dogs Lie, God Bless America), Goldthwait is a stealthy genius at comically punching through the veneer of civility that allows society to operate, and World’s Greatest Dad lands blows at will, while remaining wryly sympathetic to its characters’ desperate need for their delusions. It’s Goldthwait’s best film, and Williams’ best performance, grounding satire in character, and pitch-black comedy in clear-headed empathy.
My choice might have been disqualified on account of being a documentary, or docu-fantasia as writer-director Guy Maddin has it, but I can’t think of 2000s comedy without My Winnipeg. Told in a rhythmic flurry of pictorialist imagery and silent movie intertitles, such as the memorable “Dance Of The Hairless Boners,” My Winnipeg takes us back in time. Maddin’s modern city symphony unfolds on two parallel tracks, the first a sort of reenactment of Maddin’s childhood in the sleepy capital of Manitoba and the second a more straightforward-seeming report on the city’s quirky history, itself heavily embellished by the wonder and gullibility of youth. For example: the city’s yin-yang taxi services, one of which sticks to main thoroughfares while the other confines itself to the backalleys and hidden byways. Or the field of frozen horse heads, preserved like a polar La Brea. My Winnipeg might have a documentary chassis, but all its tall tales make it one of the comedies of the century.
Though two worthy Coen brothers films already made our master list, there’s one that didn’t that stands as one of my favorite pitch-black comedies of the new millennium. A Serious Man, the story of Larry, a Jewish physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life slowly unravels for seemingly no reason, finds the Coens working in the harsh absurdist mode of Kafka, a writer whose comedy derives from the frustration of living with existential discomfort. Though many argue that the film is a dour exercise in mild sadism, the comedy doesn’t exclusively come from Larry’s pain, but rather the universe’s maddening indifference and Larry’s inability to understand it. The Coens strongly sympathize with Larry’s predicament, and in fact admire his ability to soldier on, but they still poke fun at his Daffy Duck-esque frustration at his refusal to accept the mystery. They construct A Serious Man like a parable, but its instructive lesson is that the world is devoid of any discernible meaning, that life is a burden that we must constantly shoulder. Lesser filmmakers would have made a nihilist drama out of such a premise, but the Coens make a joke out of it. “We can’t know everything,” a rabbi calmly tells Larry after spewing a rambling story about “The Goy’s Teeth.” “It sounds like you don’t know anything!” Larry yells back. The humor of the film lies in that poetic frustration.
Truthfully, I’m not surprised The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus didn’t make it onto the final list. The story of a con man caught in a wager between an ageless storyteller and Satan isn’t strictly a comedy, and an uneven film besides—and more so for having to incorporate multiple cameos to compensate for the untimely death of Heath Ledger, the film’s protagonist. But that sloppy mutability, germane to most Terry Gilliam movies, easily allows you to pour them into whatever genre you like. And for my purposes, any film that utilizes Tom Waits as the devil summoning a house-sized babushka for Russian mobsters to hide inside before she explodes is as good for a laugh as anything. Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python absurdism and fairy-tale imagery blend two of my favorite sensibilities in a too-rare combination: wild, unhinged fantasy grounded by dark humanist comedy. The supporting talent of Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, and an especially fantastic Verne Troyer help considerably in smoothing out the film’s lumps.