Steven Spielberg And 3 Other Legendary Directors Who Flopped At Comedy
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CONTENT WARNING: This article contains racist language and characterizations.
It’s a Hollywood cliche because it’s true: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
Comedians making drama? Apparently, that’s easy-peasy-Oscars-pleasey. There are plenty of comedy filmmakers who tried their hands at drama and scooped up little gold trophies for their trouble.
Anchorman’s Adam McKay was Oscar-nominated for Best Director for Vice; he won the screenwriting Academy Award for The Big Short. Todd Phillips went from the crotch-scratching humor of Old School and The Hangover to directing Joaquin Phoenix’s coal-black, Oscar-winning turn in The Joker. Even Peter (Dumb and Dumber) Farrelly directed Best Picture winner Green Book. (He and his brother should have won for Kingpin.)
But try to go the other way? Hoo boy. Just because you can direct possibly the best movie ever in The Godfather doesn’t mean you can pull off a Robin Williams comedy. Let’s take a look at four of the most celebrated directors ever -- and how they tripped over the camera when they tried to make us laugh.
Steven Spielberg broke a lot of furniture to make 1941
When Spielberg decided to took a stab at comedy, he was coming off one of the greatest starts to a directing career in movie history, knocking out Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind back to back. Dude could do whatever he wanted.
What he wanted, apparently, was 1941.
It was a weird choice, even in the moment. The comic screenplay was written by two college guys (who, among other things, would go on to write Back to the Future), imagining a panic in Los Angeles on the night that Pearl Harbor was attacked. Hilarity!
Need a clue that the script might have been a misfire from the get-go? “Originally we wanted to call 1941 ‘The Night The Jps Attacked,’” according to producer John Milius in Empire’s oral history of the film. “Or just plain J*ps.’”
Not that Spielberg set out to make a racist comedy. “I really thought it would be a great opportunity to break a lot of furniture and see a lot of glass shattering.”
Mission accomplished! According to Roger Ebert, 1941 ”reduces itself to an assault on our eyes and ears, a nonstop series of climaxes, screams, explosions, double-takes, sight gags, and ethnic jokes that's finally just not very funny.”
1941 had other problems. Both John Wayne and Charlton Heston turned down parts because they thought the script disrespected America. (Imagine what they thought in Japan.) Roles that were previously bit parts became overinflated time-wasters when young comedy stars like John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd signed on.
“I really didn't know what I was doing on this movie,” admits Spielberg. “I think one of the reasons it came out so chaotic is I really didn't have a vision for 1941. It was sort of like trying to stop a herd of kids at your local Toys R Us.”
Moviegoers knew right away 1941 stunk. At a preview, Spielberg looked out “and at least 20 percent of the audience had their hands over their ears. I knew we were in big trouble at that point.”
“I'm not sure if it's the fault of the director or of the editor, but I've seldom seen a comedy more ineptly timed,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times. “1941 is less comic than cumbersome, as much fun as a 40-pound wrist-watch."
By the way, don’t spill any tears for Spielberg’s career. His next two films after 1941 were Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra-terrestrial.
Spike Lee’s comedy had critics Bamboozled
Let’s be fair to Spike -- he’s directed at least one great quasi-comedy, his full-length feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It. That’s the Spike Lee joint that introduced Mars Blackmon to the world.
But as Spike’s reputation grew, and he fully acquired his directing superpowers, it was scorching dramas -- Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Summer of Sam -- that cemented his status as one of the Great American Directors.
How do you follow up Summer of Sam, a crime thriller about one of America’s most notorious serial killers? Lee decided to lighten things up with Bamboozled, just your average rip-roaring comedy about a modern-day minstrel show featuring Black actors--in blackface.
“I am sure that there will be some criticism, but that has to be expected,” said Spike in an interview with the Harvard Crimson. “The content of the film will raise some uneasy feelings, but by no means am I worried. I actually think that it's great that the film will raise discussion and I don't mind it being the stepping stone to people becoming aware of things that have been forgotten or ignored.”
The film did raise discussion. Unfortunately for Lee, it was mostly about how the film didn’t work. For Roger Ebert, the “fundamental miscalculation was to use blackface itself. (Lee) overshoots the mark. Blackface is so blatant, so wounding, so highly charged, that it obscures any point being made by the person wearing it. The makeup is the message.”
Racial politics aside, other critics decided the comedy just wasn’t funny. “What purports to be a satire about bad television is bad television itself, complete with cruddy sound and image and broad, out-of-control acting,” said the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum. “This is basically sloppy, all-over-the-map filmmaking with few hints of self-criticism and few genuine laughs.”
Audiences didn’t get the joke either. Despite a small $10 million budget, Bamboozled made back only $2.5 million.
Maybe the comedy was just before its time?
“At the turn of the century, it seemed like a crude attempt at sketch comedy,” David Fear recently argued in Rolling Stone. “Twenty years later, the movie feels like a forgotten gem in Spike’s career, one whose spit-polish and reappraisal comes at the exact right moment.”
That’s not much consolation to Spike. “To me, the definition of a cult classic is a film that nobody went to see when it came out.”
Steven Soderbergh Let Loose with Schizopolis
“When I finished Schizopolis …I honestly thought that I was really onto something that was going to be very, very popular. I thought it was going to be bigger than Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” Steven Soderbergh told Believer Mag. “You have to believe that while you’re making it.”
“Once I started showing it, I didn’t believe it anymore.”
Soderbergh himself was the star(s) of the experimental comedy, playing the dual roles of Fletcher Munson (an office dweeb for a Scientology-like organization) and Jeffrey Korchek (a sexually self-assured dentist). Surprisingly, Soderbergh the Actor is one of the best parts of the movie -- he’s like Woody Harrelson’s nerdy, balding younger brother.
The film is messy by design, an homage to the manic comedy of Soderbergh idol Richard Lester, director of the Beatles’ Hard Days Night.
“He tries so many gambits here, using 'Schizopolis' as a blank canvas for gleeful whimsy, that the effect ought to be more exhilarating than it proves to be,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. But the result is a “goofy, ineffectual prank.”
Film nerds point to Schizopolis as the movie that made the rest of Soderbergh’s career possible -- his freewheeling experiments with nonlinear narrative, color overlays, and dentist sex jokes may have goosed the creativity needed for classics like Traffic, Out of Sight, and Oceans Eleven.
“You just want to be free and unencumbered,” Soderbergh told the Los Angeles Times, “and yet all these people are constantly trying to restrain you.”
“This is truly a movie that went right out of subconscious onto the screen with very little analysis on my part, what it meant and where it was going.”
And that’s exactly what it feels like. All that freedom didn’t make Schizopolis any funnier. Or any less of a mess. In bits and pieces, there’s a lot to like but there’s too many bits and pieces, requiring us to pan for the comic gold. It’s exhausting.
As Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas says, Schizopolis is “relentlessly zany without being funny.”
Francis Ford Coppola doesn’t know Jack
The concept of Jack might sound poignant -- a baby is born with a rare autosomal recessive disorder, meaning he’ll age at approximately four times the rate of an average kid. He’ll be dead by the time he’s 20. It's so tragic!
But then you read the tag line from the film’s marketing campaign:
Jack Powell is about to tackle his biggest adventure ever -- fifth grade!
Apparently, this disease is hilarious.
Coppola and Williams were old pals -- they were neighbors in a suburb you or I could never afford, and owned a restaurant together with Robert De Niro. But the two movie legends had never made a flick together.
That changed when Coppola’s granddaughter Gia complained that the auteur never made movies for kids to see.
“OK, darling, how about Pop-Pop directs a little something about a boy with a made-up aging disorder?”
“Thank you, Pop-Pop! Thank you!”
As many critics note, there’s a way to do a movie like this in a way that’s charming and funny: You cast Tom Hanks and call it Big. But Coppola went another route, coming up with a vaguely unsettling strategy to get Robin Williams into kid mode.
"I thought, if I took Robin Williams, who is playing Jack, and seven nine-year-old boys and kept them 'captive,' in a manner of speaking, living together at my ranch, it might work. The kids would become friends, and Robin would become reacquainted with the child within."
Let’s leave aside the bit about Coppola holding nine-year-old boys ‘captive’ for a second. Did Francis really think Williams needed help getting in touch with his inner child? The guy spent his entire career playing man-children, from Peter Pan in Hook to the emotionally stunted nephew in Toys to the naively infantile alien on Mork and Mindy. Even Williams thought “been there, done that” -- but he couldn’t turn down the chance to work with the guy who did The Godfather.
The wonderful Williams has always been at his worst when he’s trying to make you laugh through your tears. Patch Adams, anyone? But Coppola had to go there. “Well (Robin) has a sadness in him,” he said. “ All clowns do, don’t they?”
Jack plays to the worst syrupy impulses of both Coppola and Williams, resulting in a movie that all critics could agree to hate.
“It's a feel-good casserole that got left in the microwave too long,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Glieberman. “By the end, when Jack grabs oh so tastefully for your heartstrings, it's hard to shake the feeling that Coppola, who once made masterpieces, has now become a hack in an artist's body.”
So the sad part doesn’t work. Roger Ebert thought the comedy sucked too. “When (Jack) sits down on his first day in fifth grade, the desk isn't big enough, it collapses beneath him, and my heart sank: Why would anyone the size of Robin Williams try to sit in a fifth-grade chair except to produce a slapstick gag?”
Both Williams and Coppola were too talented to let Jack ruin their careers. But thankfully for granddaughter Gia (and for the rest of us), the two never worked together again.
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Top image: Universal Pictures