Monday, March 15, 2010

The landscape of funny

Couples Retreat (2009) and Big Fan (2009) demonstrate the extreme poles of film comedy production in the US at this time, in budget, aims and results.

Couples Retreat is a full-on studio production with recognized stars, at least within the comedy feature film world, presumably a budget healthy enough for expensive location work, moderately expensive guest stars and an undoubtedly overpriced script by Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, who once made a good film called Swingers, back during the Clinton administration. Have you seen Clinton lately? Couples Retreat is just as bloated and insincere. And worst sin of all, nothing funny whatsoever is said or done in this movie. We've seen couples squabble in movies, and it can be funny. Yes, it needs to be grounded in reality, but there's a touch of hyperbole--some form of overstatement or rigidity in the characters that makes for humor. But these characters say and do exactly what ordinary people would say and do, and it is like reality TV without the preening and the sudden outbreaks of bad taste. Occasionally the film will begin jokes, but not actually deliver them. A "yoga" instructor keeps rubbing his crotch against the wives' crotches to the consternation of the film, and then--get this--then--you'll never believe it--nothing happens. Oh, the men bitch a bit.

Truly, the film is vaguely shaped as if they'd intended to make a comedy to start out, but there is literally no comic element in the story, characters or dialogue. I would like Vaughn and Favreau to host a screening with a talkback and challenge them to stop the film and point out where the funny bits were. Polanski's Macbeth had bigger laughs.

Big Fan is also not funny, but it is a successful comedy nonetheless. It is a very small film, very independent, shot on scruffy video, written and directed by former Onion editor Rob Siegel, who also wrote The Wrestler. Both films reflect the sterility of displacing one's passions into a repetitive and exterior pursuit like professional sports. Paul (Oswalt's character) puts everything into loving the NY Giants and receives almost nothing in return, other than the approbation of a call-in radio host and Paul's one friend. The truly curious thing about the story, is that the first part of it, which concerns the film's "hook", in which Paul is beaten to a pulp by the player he idolizes, and chooses to do nothing about it, doesn't pay off or really relate to the second half of the story, in which Paul seeks out his nemesis, Philadelphia Pete, rabid Eagles fan, who spars with Paul on the call-in radio show.

Clearly, Siegel is not after satire. The film begins like a Jason Reitman film, based around a stubborn contrarian. If it was a studio film, Paul would meet a girl who awake him to the limitations of his life, and finally (think Fever Pitch with Jimmy Fallon), he would let go of his rabid fandom a little bit and become a "more rounded" person.

Siegel and Oswalt aren't having any. Paul's life is small--rattling between a menial job and late-night radio glory--but it works for him and he doesn't need any more than that and doesn't want any more than that. The proof: At his worst, Paul takes immense joy in reviewing the Giant's upcoming season, still more than six months away. It is enough.

One other note--the film is quite accurate visually in that it shows just how dark things are in the greater New York area (the film is set in Staten Island) during a long, hard winter. [A polar opposite to the sun-drenched, yet spiritually parched Couples Retreat.] The Giants might just be the thing to get you through. In any case, I'm so glad the suits and the focus groups never got their hands on this melancholy gem.

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