Comedies That Should Have Been Awesome (And Weren't)
All of our favorite comedians phone it in for the paycheck once and a while. We can look the other way when Will Ferrell slums it up in loose, runny stool like Bewitched, so long as he's still writing and starring in great stuff like Talladega Nights. Sacha Baron Cohen made Borat: if he wants to pay for a new pool with a shitty cameo in Madagascar, who are we to judge?
But what happens when it's not a "phone it in" comedy? What if it's a labor of love? What if the comedian wrote, directed and starred in the thing? What if, essentially, it looked like everyone involved was trying to make a good movie, and it was stool anyway?
Well, then you get snarky no-talents like us picking apart your crappy movie in this article, apparently. Read on!
School for Scoundrels (2006)
THE PITCH: Scot Armstrong and Todd Phillips, the writer and director of Old School, reteam for this black comedy! Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder gets lessons in self-confidence from Bad Santa's Billy Bob Thornton... but they end up competing for the same girl!
THE PAYOFF: Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton aren't masters of improvisation. They need a fun, sharp script to play off of, and they don't get it here. In one scene early in the film, for instance, Heder's character gets ambushed by two thugs who threaten to kill him. They then shoot at him while he tries to escape, and rob him after he passes out from a panic attack. Scoundrels wants us to take from this that Heder is a big pussy with no self-confidence-but the scene's played so straight, who wouldn't be fucking terrified in that situation? Welcome to every scene in this movie: mean-spirited, played straight, and about as funny as a guy shooting at you.
THE PROBLEM: Scoundrels makes the mistake of thinking anybody watches a comedy for its plot, spending one dull scene after another spelling out who's doing what to who and why. When your comedy has talents like Ben Stiller, David Cross and Sarah Silverman standing around explaining characters' back stories like there's going to be a quiz when the movie's over, you might be overthinking things.
Was anyone who liked Old School on the edge of their seats over whether or not the stars would graduate? Scot "Shakespeare" Armstrong and Todd "Bergman" Phillips seem to think we were. Guys-comedies are retarded. When a character slips face-first into a pile of cow shit, we don't need to know which cow it came from.
Nothing But Trouble (1991)
THE PITCH: Dan Aykroyd writes, directs AND stars in a new comedy with John Candy and Chevy Chase! (This was back when then name "Dan Ackroyd" still meant "the guy who wrote Ghostbusters and Blues Brothers," not "that really fat guy playing Britney Spears' dad in Crossroads.")
THE PAYOFF: Either Aykroyd has a different sense of humor from other humans, or it's possible he just vastly miscalculated the hilarity that would ensue by having grotesque, freakish psychotics attempt to viciously murder people in a nightmarish premise involving transvestites, cannibals with detachable penises for noses and Demi Moore attempting to act. John Waters would have looked at this script and thought, "Wow, that's fucking insane."
THE PROBLEM: Aykroyd apparently based the concept of the film around a real-life incident where he was pulled over for speeding in the back woods, then taken in the middle of the night to the mayor's house to be terrorized by hicks. If you're thinking, "That actually sounds kind of unsettling and horrible, and not a good idea for a laugh-romp comedy," you probably would have come in handy patiently explaining this to Aykroyd before he filmed a joyless, Deliverance-like movie about people getting pulled over for speeding in the back woods, then taken in the middle of the night to the mayor's house to be terrorized by hicks.
Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006)
THE PITCH: the Greatest Band of All Time roars to the big screen in a hilarious musical comedy where they fight The Devil with the awesome power of their rock! Watch for funny cameos from Ben Stiller and Tim Robbins!
THE PAYOFF: After an inspired opening musical number involving a young Jack Black, Ronnie James Dio and Meatloaf, you can almost hear Black and co-star Kyle Gass put on the brakes and think, "Shit, that was our only idea." Tenacious D's premise (two fat guys with acoustic guitars think they're heavy metal rock gods) is, while pretty damn funny in short sketches, a bit of a thin idea for a feature-length comedy. Black and Gass figure this out about a half hour in, resorting to tired Cheech and Chong stoner gags to pad out the running time.
THE PROBLEM: Nobody involved in the making of Pick of Destiny seems to have the first clue why people like Tenacious D. Fans loved Jack Black as a chubby, lovable loser with big metal dreams. Let's turn him into a dumbassed pothead! Fans loved Kyle Gass as the quiet, mopey yin to Jack Black's hyper yang. Let's make him an unlikable asshole for the first hour of the film! (Gass himself complains about this on the DVD commentary.) Fans really dug the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl in his cheesy Devil cameos. Let's bring him back for the movie, then bury him in so much make-up you can't even tell it's Grohl, and give him big stupid fake teeth he can't talk through! It feels like everyone making this turkey was too baked to pay attention. The only way to enjoy Pick would be to follow their lead.
THE PITCH: Steve Martin writes, directs AND stars! Eddie Murphy breaks out his patented "Playing multiple characters in the same movie" gag! It's the great taste of chocolate and peanut butter.. together for the first time!
THE PAYOFF: Bowfinger isn't a bad comedy. Its plot, which involves a team of down-on-their-luck filmmakers putting a Hollywood star in their movie without his knowledge, has some genuine laughs. The problem's in how mean-spirited a lot of it comes off. When an actor/director as successful and talented as Steve Martin writes a comedy about actors and directors with no success or talent, it feels like a fat guy showing off a photo album of all the buffets he's attended to a group of starving Ethiopians.
THE PROBLEM: When not laughing at people less successful than himself, Martin fills Bowfinger with obscure industry gags you'd have to be a Hollywood player to enjoy. I can't see too many audiences in Dubuque, Iowa pounding on their armrests and thinking, "It's so true! I hate it when Fedex doesn't arrive with my next batch of scripts to review!" or "You don't have to tell me what it's like to work with Scientologist actors!" Watching Bowfinger, you want to force Steve Martin to sit through a comedy about plumbers filled with chuckling references to spray foam insulation and flexible coated gas piping. "See? That's what it feels like!"
Harlem Nights (1989)
THE PITCH: Eddie Murphy writes, directs AND stars! Comedy legends Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx join Murphy to present three generations of groundbreaking black comedians in one movie!
THE PAYOFF: Assuming you enjoy the word "fuck", Harlem Nights delivers beyond your wildest expectations. Assuming you were expecting comedy giants like Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy to have actual amusing things come out of their mouths, you might be disappointed. Nights feels like an excuse for Eddie and his friends to dick around on a set in 1930s period costumes, and it probably was, but even then you have to wonder: with that much talent in one room, wouldn't someone by accident have been funny once or twice while the camera was rolling?
THE PROBLEM: Harlem Nights was billed as a "comedy-drama", which is a lot like making a "romantic horror" movie or a "hardcore Christian porno," and sounds suspiciously like a term thought up by a Hollywood ad executive after watching the movie and realizing it was as hilarious as colon cancer. "Work with me on this. What if it wasn't funny... on purpose?"
Quick Change (1990)
THE PITCH: Bill Murray directs AND stars in a comedy about New York City!
THE PAYOFF: The premise of Quick Change is one of those ideas that sounds funny on paper ("What if a group of criminals pull off a flawless bank heist in New York City, but then can't actually get out of the city?" Wah wahhh!) but logically gets more and more contrived and idiotic the longer the movie drags on. The first time our heroes fall victim to New York's notorious traffic jams, crime and public transportation problems, it's sort of amusing, assuming you've lived in Manhattan. By the fifth time, Quick Change has officially run out of variations on "Say, New York traffic, huh?" and has to resort to increasingly stupid ways to keep our heroes trapped in the city. By the twentieth, they've all but had a group of Predators gang-raping them before they can hop on a bus.
THE PROBLEM: We don't care how confusing the map is-Mahattan's an island that's like three miles wide. If you can't figure out how to drive in a single direction for five fucking minutes until you see water, then take a left or a right until you find a bridge, you don't deserve the money you've stolen, Magellan.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005)
THE PITCH: Academy Award nominated American actor, writer, comedian and director Albert Brooks stars in a documentary about comedy and foreign cultures!
THE PAYOFF: Like most of Albert Brooks' comedies, Looking For Comedy is an unbelievably interesting premise that stumbles to its knees through its execution. In a landscape as xenophobic as America post 9/11, the idea of a documentary examining what makes other cultures laugh should have been a slam dunk, delivering a feel-good "We're not so different after all" message with plenty of fish-out-of-water laughs along the way. Except it's not a documentary. It's a scripted comedy with a sitcom-ready premise.
Yeah. Didn't make any sense to us, either.
THE PROBLEM: What should have been a thought-provoking study as to whether comedy is a universal phenomenon or defined by its culture ends up being an embarrassing lesson in how profoundly not funny Albert Brooks is any more. In his many stand-up routines in front of a Muslim audience, it's true, nobody's laughing. The problem is, nobody was laughing in the American theater I watched this in either. A more accurate title for Finding Comedy in the Muslim World might have been Watch Albert Brooks Suck the Laughter Out of a Room for an Hour and a Half. Good God, just look at the picture of Brooks with the puppet up there. Doesn't that make you cringe just looking at it?
Nacho Libre (2006)
THE PITCH: Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess's new Mexican wrestling comedy stars Jack Black, from a script written by Hess and School of Rock's Mike White!
THE PAYOFF: It's entirely plausible that something hilarious and interesting happens after the one-hour mark. We've just never met anyone who's managed to stay awake that far. Hypothetically, then, the last twenty minutes is the funniest comedy you will ever see in your life. (But probably not.)
THE PROBLEM: Directing a movie to be intentionally meandering works in a film like Dynamite, since the gags were meant to skewer life in the rural midwest. Unfortunately, Hess pulls out the same trick here, learning the hard way that the last thing you want to do when you've got an actor as high-energy as Jack Black, in a sport as frenetic as Mexican wrestling, is turn the volume down to two and take the slow, scenic route with the windows down. Nacho Libre's concept promises crazy scenes packed with adrenaline. Instead, Hess frustratingly delivers a movie filled with quiet moments, like how amusing tight pants can be (still more amusing when Jack Black calls them "slacks"). The fact that more screen time is given to Black's ongoing crisis of faith in a monastary than to his wrestling scenes should tell you where Hess's priorities are here.
Me, Myself & Irene (2000)
THE PITCH: The Farelly Brothers, the geniuses behind There's Something About Mary, reunite with their Dumb & Dumber star Jim Carrey for another offensive, hilarious romp!
THE PAYOFF: One scene involving Carrey repeatedly trying (and failing) to put a cow out of its misery by shooting it reaches the dizzying comedic levels of Mary and Dumber. More often, though, the circuitry behind the Farelly Brothers Comedy Construct-o-Matic 5000 starts to show for the first time. Retarded people dart in and out of scenes, F-bombs are used as punchlines and bizarre physical comedy appears every other minute. But we've seen it all done better in other films. Irene feels like the Farellys swept up everything they left out of There's Something About Mary and tried to stitch it into a new movie.
THE PROBLEM: Putting aside the displeasure any audience innately feels when forced to endure Renée Zellweger's pinched, lemon-sucking facial expressions for an hour and a half, the real fault here lies with Jim Carrey's split personality roles in the film, Charlie and Hank. In any good comedy duo, there's the straight man and the crazy guy. The Farellys not only make the mistake of ensuring their straight man and crazy guy occupy the same body, but then have the crazy guy be so violently, unenjoyably sociopathic that anything he does looks more frightening than funny.
Carrey's been down this road before, in the equally unenjoyable The Cable Guy. The fact that he was willing to force the same unlikable character down our throats twice is evidence he'd already switched his focus to more dramatic roles by this time, and was happy to phone in performances in bad comedies in between the films he genuinely cared about.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
THE PITCH: Wes Anderson, the writer/director behind such brilliantly touching and intellectual comedies as Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, returns with another cast of thousands, this time in a funny send-up of Jacques Cousteau starring Bill Murray, hot off the success of Lost in Translation!
THE PAYOFF: All the elements of a classic Anderson comedy are in place: the large, quirky cast of misfits and eccentrics; the signature camera angles and cuts; the goofy dialogue spoken straight-faced. But around the one-hour mark, a sneaking suspicion creeps into your head. These people... they're all, well, unbelievable morons, aren't they? Do you know anybody who talks and acts like this?
THE PROBLEM: Since Aquatic has close to an identical cast and crew to far superior efforts Rushmore and Tenenbaums, looking for a reason why this one wasn't better is as easy as looking for who sat it out. In this case it's Owen Wilson, who-while he does star in Aquatic- for the first time doesn't share any writing duties. Anderson might be a savant when it comes to smugly giggling at misfits and eccentrics, but it looks like it was Wilson who took the time to make them sympathetic. In Aquatic, we're laughing at these people, not with them. If we're not being given a chance to care about these idiots, how can we get invested in what happens next?
Ali G Indahouse (2002)
THE PITCH: British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen takes his runaway hit character Ali G to the big screen for the first time, in a movie sure to gain him the American audience he's long deserved!
THE PAYOFF: It's not a bad film, but it is dumb, and the laughs force themselves down your throat with the subtlety of a White Castle slider. Almost all of the set-ups present themselves clumsily enough that you're looking at your watch, waiting for the punchline to arrive like it was a late bus.
For instance: Ali G's standing next to a fence blindfolded with his pants down! Wait, now an old man's walking slowly towards him, polishing the steel bulbs of the fence! Wait, now a busload of nuns has parked itself right in front of Ali G! If you're unable to connect the dots as to what happens next, congratulations: you're the target audience of this stupid movie.
THE PROBLEM: Sacha Baron Cohen's comedic style depends on him being the only guy up on screen who's in on the joke. Whether disguised as Borat, Ali G or Bruno, the biggest laughs come from the unsuspecting flustered straight men he forces his characters onto in real-life situations. Indahouse is criminally negligent in ignoring Cohen's not-that-difficult-to-understand formula for success, choosing pre-scripted scenes, paid actors and a paint-by-numbers comedy plot over hidden cameras and embarrassed onlookers.
Given the runaway success of Cohen's follow-up, Borat, which did understand the formula, Ali G Indahouse should be a sad testament to what could have been from the gifted Cohen-a reminder that he could have invaded America four years ealier if he'd had his shit together.