What is wrong with the world of comedy? 2011 has undoubtedly seen some of the worst mainstream comedies in recent memory, and it seems there is no end in sight. This past summer we were inundated with a glut of loud, obnoxious, arrogant, brash comedies that failed to arose the slightest hint of interest from either critics or audiences: The Change-Up, The Hangover: Part II, Hall Pass, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses. This past year’s films have been met with nothing but disappointment, disgust, and displeasure (granted, Horrible Bosses did inexplicably manage to receive strong critical response despite a rather meandering plot and boring characters). This summer’s comedies weren’t just bad or unfunny; they were something more: they were all just plain irritating.
I bring this up because there seems to be a shared affinity between these disparate, underachieving films. Yes, the actors and directors all seem to lack comedic timing, the actors themselves aren’t very funny, and the jokes are completely unoriginal (unless you consider bizarre pairings of expletives funny – “Fuck-knuckle” anyone?). All of these issues contribute to the films’ failures, but there is something much simpler, rather obvious, and quite mundane that is missing from these films: they are all unable to generate any audience empathy for their characters.
Today’s comedies, and I’m speaking particularly about The Change-Up, The Hangover 2, and Horrible Bosses here, are dominated by such arrogant, unsympathetic, and disgustingly perverse characters that it is impossible to walk away from these films without being annoyed by the characters we are supposed to identify with. They have very few, if any, redeeming qualities; they don’t act like we want them to; they don’t speak like we want them to; and they don’t seem to learn any lessons like we want them to. Instead, they are loud, obnoxious, and quite frankly, hard to watch.
I think that this problem emerges largely from the way that these films slightly change the comedy structure. In a typical comedy, the straight man is paired with the funny man as counterpoints to each other. While we all know that the straight man is usually there to set up the jokes for the funny man, there’s also an important aspect of this combination that often gets ignored: the duo is supposed to mutually learn from each other and come to a shared sense of respect. For example, the straight man usually needs to learn to ‘relax’ like the funny man, and the funny man needs to learn to be more responsible like the straight man. It is this mutual exchange that largely makes these characters identifiable. Despite their extremes characterizations, they come to a shared understanding, and a more ‘agreeable’ lifestyle in the end that justifies their time together.
At first glance, these films all seem to use the archetypal ‘straight-man/funny-man’ combination, but they add a slight modification. In The Change-Up, for example, we are given the mild-mannered, hard-working, earnest Dave (Jason Bateman) and his rambunctious, slothful friend Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) who magically switch bodies and hilarity ensues. But there’s a slight deviation here. Instead of simply a straight man/funny man combination, there is a twist on the model. Instead, we are presented with a ‘weak man/overly arrogant man’ combination that is meant to resemble the archetype, but rapidly devoids the characters of any charm as neither man is particularly funny, and neither is particularly caring. In the place of the ‘funny man’ role, we are given the arrogant, relentless, overly chauvinistic partner who tries to encourage his weak-willed, slightly effeminate, caring friend to become more like him. He curses a lot, he’s dirty, he causes problems wherever he goes, and he’s proud of it. In contrast, the ‘straight’ or ‘weak’ man is too straight, too nice, too easily pushed over (usually by his wife), too accepting, and the only way to conceivably resolve this is by becoming more like his arrogant friend.
This issue played a small part in the first Hangover film, around the character Stu (Ed Helms) and his controlling girlfriend, but The Hangover: Part II structures the entire narrative around this central issue. This time, Stu is getting married in Thailand (against his and his friends’ wishes), and struggles to deal with his future wife’s controlling, overbearing father. The film takes several twists and turns as it tries to give Stu the strength to stand up to his father, but instead of this lesson being something he learns through the bizarre adventures in the film, it is something he learns from Phil (Bradley Cooper), the sauve, attractive, slightly chauvinistic, completely unapologetic best friend who seems to have everything under control. But, who’s the funny man in this movie? Arguably, Alan (Zach Galifianakis) takes on this role, but he is such a minor character in this film. No, I’d say that the ‘funny man’ role has been taken over by Phil. But the difference is that he’s not meant to be funny, he’s meant to be the counterpoint to Stu, the arrogance to his weakness, the charm to his awkwardness.
The typical straight-man/funny-man combo of yesteryear has been utterly gutted and replaced by the pairing of the ‘weak man/arrogant man’ as a comedy duo, all while attempting to pass it off as the same thing. The problem with this structural change isn’t that it’s offensive; it’s that there is nothing funny about a prideful, arrogant man. His only humor is his pride—we can’t believe the things he says (Did he really just say that??), and we can’t believe the wild situations he gets himself into. And the problem is, we really can’t believe the insane, ridiculous situations these characters get themselves into. These films are so filled with prideful, arrogant, and unrepentant side-men, that each situation is more ridiculous and insipid than the next, and the characters don’t seem to show any pathos or growth. In the end, does Phil learn anything from his adventures? Does he change? No, he just stays the same. While Stu is meant to learn to from his crazy adventures and stand up for himself, we can’t say the same about the ‘arrogant man’ role. Phil becomes the object of identification for Stu, and presumably for us as well.
There has always been a certain level of subtlety and honesty needed to make comedy work. Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” The line between comedy and tragedy is a very thin one. Comedians require a little fragility, honesty, realness—ideals the audience can identify with—and ideals that are completely lacking from these comedies, and that might offer the slightest bit of audience empathy. But in these films, the prideful, arrogant, and unapologetic side-men offer no room for identification or empathy. They are more admired than pitied, more obnoxious than comical, and more irritating than empathetic.
Let me offer a brief counterexample that develops my point a bit more. In many ways, Danny McBride perfectly epitomizes this arrogant/funny man role. He perfectly portrays brash, egotistical, self-obsessed characters who are completely unapologetic for their behaviour. But at the same time, there is an honesty, a tenderness in his characters that he taps into. He exposes himself on screen. His portrayal of the crude, selfish, narcissistic Kenny Powers on Eastbound & Down is perfectly augmented by the soft, pathetic side of his character. Even while he is rude and obnoxious, he stills offers a feeling of aloneness, of tragedy in close-up. He can be incredibly abrasive, but he couples that with a true humility and desperation that allows for us to understand his character, and offers a sense of identification, something we can’t say for these other comedies.
I want to end by pointing to one of the few lone bright spots amidst this rather grim, unfunny future. I’ve noticed that many of the most successful comedies of the past several years have featured female-centered casts. I’m thinking particularly of some of the work of Tina Fey, or this year’s film Bridesmaids. These films have used very simple characters, simple plots, and simple structures. No, Bridesmaids is certainly not the funniest movie of the year, and indeed much of the humor ends up falling flat, but there is a quiet earnestness in the film that is lacking in the aforementioned stream of comedies. The characters are real; they’re honest, open, and more than fragile. In many ways, the situations, the problems, the characters all seem familiar, and that is because they are. We’ve seen them before. Indeed, these films have simply adopted a classic comedy archetype and barely changed anything. Perhaps it’s because these female-centered comedies are a relatively recent phenomena in mainstream cinema and TV that they use such simple plot structures, but perhaps it’s because they use such simple characters and plots that these films and TV shows have become so popular. This familiarity isn’t a negative; it allows us to connect to the characters in ways we can’t with these other films. So even when they aren’t funny, they are still identifiable.
Do you agree? Is there something wrong with today’s Hollywood comedies or are they just as funny as ever?