The 2023 Summer Movie Comedy Awards
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, summer movie season actually felt like summer movie season this year. There were blockbuster hits. There were indie films that got great reviews and lured audiences to the arthouses. It had been awhile, but movies were once again treated like an event, which is a gratifying feeling for longtime film lovers like me. Plus, there were lots of comedies, which ranged from great to utter crap. And even in more traditional action flicks, there were big laughs — or, at the very least, strained attempts at being funny in-between the explosions.
Awards season shifts into high gear in the next few weeks as the fall festivals begin unveiling the studios’ most prestigious fare. Comedies tend to be overlooked during that period, but as we say goodbye to another summer, let’s take a moment to honor the funniest films and performances — while acknowledging the misfires, disappointments and worrying trends that emerged as well. And, of course, let us not forget the truly cringe-y thing Ben Shapiro did to get back at a movie about a doll.
Most Embarrassing Trend: Stand-up Comics’ Star Vehicles Bombing Badly
Plenty of stand-ups have made the transition to the big screen. But this summer, two notable names watched their movies crash and burn — on the same weekend.
Sebastian Maniscalco had supporting roles in award-winning films like Green Book and The Irishman, and even got The Irishman’s Robert De Niro to play his ornery dad in All About My Father, which Maniscalco co-wrote. But the semi-autobiographical comedy didn’t wow critics, and audiences barely showed up. Similarly, Bert Kreischer drew from his own life for his film acting debut, The Machine, which was based on his famous stand-up routine about going to Russia, accidentally joining the Mob and robbing a train. (Mark Hamill played his dad.) Viewers tuned out that film as well — and the ones who did go to The Machine didn’t like what they saw.
Although both men are well-known stand-ups, that fame didn’t help much with moviegoers, resulting in the films crashing and burning over Memorial Day weekend. It was a reminder that not everyone can be a Kevin Hart or Tiffany Haddish — finding the right star vehicle makes all the difference. Still, you can’t feel too bad for Maniscalco or Kreischer: Sticking to their day job will probably remain plenty lucrative for them.
Best Deeply Dark Joke: ‘Oppenheimer’
The summer’s big box-office story was “Barbenheimer,” one of those rare online/viral phenomena that actually resulted in real-world success for both Barbie and Oppenheimer. The latter film was obviously going to be the less-lighthearted of the two, but Christopher Nolan’s despairing portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, did contain one bitterly funny moment that has haunted me ever since I saw it.
In the somber drama, when the U.S. government decides which Japanese cities to target with nuclear weapons, Secretary of War Henry Stimson (James Remar) blithely announces that Kyoto will not be attacked because, you see, he and his wife spent their honeymoon there and really thought it was lovely. Journalists have noted that the brazenness of Stimson’s comment provoked a shocked laugh in screenings they attended, but was the scene based in fact? That’s unclear, but it speaks to a darker truth about the arrogance of the United States to indiscriminately decide who would live and who would die in their bomb blasts. Stimson’s line, spoken with superb nonchalance and lack of self-awareness by Remar, plays like satire worthy of the greatest of all nuclear-war comedies, Dr. Strangelove. It was a rare laugh in Oppenheimer, but it was the kind that sticks in your throat.
Funniest Thing That Happened This Summer That Was Tangentially Connected to Movies: Ben Shapiro Freaked Out About ‘Barbie’
At first, I was convinced it was a Photoshop job. It had to be. This picture of a stern Ben Shapiro giving a disapproving look in front of a Barbie display — while holding a notebook presumably filled with all his notes after seeing the film — must be a joke, right?
Nope: The insufferably smug crybaby actually went to the movie just so he could later rail against it. And rail he did, eventually posting a video that ran more than 40 minutes detailing his problems with the movie. (I’m not linking to it: I’m not giving the dude the views.) Shapiro’s temper tantrum started a wave of weird reactions from anti-woke celebrities who just had to let us know what they thought of Barbie. Who cares what any of them think, but I do thank Shapiro for that Twitter photo, which was the most hilarious image of the summer — only matched by the cutting replies and quote-tweets, where all of Twitter joined as one to dogpile on this dork.
Best Use of Dennis Quaid: ‘Strays’
I’ve complained before about bad comedies trying to juice laughs out of lame premises by incorporating star cameos. But when it’s done well, it can still be funny.
I didn’t love Strays, the gleefully foul-mouthed talking-dog comedy, but it’s got its share of great WTF digressions. And one of the best/weirdest, inexplicably, involves Dennis Quaid, who shows up at one point playing a birdwatcher. Except here’s the thing: He’s actually playing himself, Dennis Quaid. It has nothing to do with the plot, and he’s on screen for maybe a couple minutes at most, but there’s Dennis Quaid looking at birds through his binoculars. The best part of the bit: When Quaid spots a particular bird, he notes its full scientific name with majestic gravitas and then marks it off a checklist in his notebook. But the checklist just says “Bird, bird, bird, bird, bird.” I wish the rest of Strays was that brilliantly bizarre.
Best Violent Comedy: ‘Bottoms’
In her follow-up to her spiky 2020 debut Shiva Baby, filmmaker Emma Seligman goes for the jugular — literally. Bottoms is a nervy follow-up that focuses on lesbian best friends (Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri) who are teenage outcasts. Hoping to catch the eye of the cheerleaders they’re lusting after, they impulsively start a women’s self-defense class, which quickly escalates into a bare-knuckle fight club attended by the school’s most popular and beautiful girls.
Earning glowing reviews out of South by Southwest, the film cannily dissects the conventions of the high-school comedy, although the laughs are mixed with a shocking amount of violence as these women beat the holy hell out of one another. But Bottoms’ brutality is part of the bitter joke: Every day is a battlefield for young women anyway, so might as well get some jabs in.
Most Underrated Comedy: ‘Afire’
American comedies like Wonder Boys, Adaptation and Sideways have enjoyed skewering disgruntled, struggling writers who stumble their way through despair and self-doubt. This summer, an under-the-radar comedy from German filmmaker Christian Petzold offered something similar, introducing us to one of the season’s saddest, funniest characters.
Afire stars Thomas Schubert as Leon, a self-important author whose debut novel was a smash. He’s on vacation with his best pal Felix (Langston Uibel) so he can complete his sure-to-be-a-hit follow-up, except there’s one problem: The book is bad. (How can you tell? Well, for one thing, it’s called Club Sandwich.) Part screwball comedy, part prickly drama, part portrait of a deluded artist who needs to stop staring at his own navel — and co-starring Paula Beer playing a local beauty who knows just how to push Leon’s buttons — Afire is an affectionate takedown of pretentiousness and ego. It’s well worth seeking out — maybe especially if you recognize any part of Leon in yourself.
Best Comedic Sex Montage: ‘Joy Ride’
One of the themes of this summer’s movies was a celebration of female sexuality in comedies like No Hard Feelings and Bottoms. But the top of that list has to be Joy Ride, about four young people (Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, and Sabrina Wu, who is non-binary) who go on an unexpected trip across Asia, getting into myriad R-rated shenanigans. The film has plenty of outrageous moments — including one involving a character showing off her prominent genital tattoo — but the best has to be a sex montage that’s both hilarious and legitimately sexy.
Sadly, I can’t show you a clip of what I’m talking about, so instead I will defer to the IMDb user on the film’s “Parents Guide” page who described it in such wonderful detail: “Intense sex scenes depict the following: 2 men perform cunnilingus on a woman at the same time; a threesome of 1 man thrusting into a woman from behind while the woman rides a 2nd man at the same time; a man putting a vibrator on a basketball & masturbating a woman.”
Trust me, it’s funnier than it reads.
Most Disappointing Use of a Comedic Genius: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’
Lots of Fleabag fans have been waiting for creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge to make the jump to films, excited at the prospect that she co-wrote 2021’s No Time to Die. So when news broke that she was going to co-star in a new Indiana Jones film — the first in 15 years — the hope was that she would bring a bit of wit and charm to a franchise that was long in the tooth.
Unfortunately, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was a disappointment — both critically and commercially — and while I don’t blame Waller-Bridge for that, she’s indirectly part of the problem. As Helena, Indy’s estranged goddaughter who’s secretly a smuggler, the Emmy-winner is meant to be the sassy comic foil, but she’s been saddled with a very unfun character who’s more obnoxious than hilarious. Waller-Bridge escapes with her dignity intact, but Dial of Destiny is only more proof that she needs a starring role worthy of her. Things could have been worse, though: At least she wasn’t playing Indy’s much-much-younger love interest.
Best Performance in a Bad Comedy: Jennifer Lawrence, ‘No Hard Feelings’
Ever since departing The Bill Engvall Show, Jennifer Lawrence has mostly done serious fare, although her Oscar-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook definitely had strong comedic elements to it. Nonetheless, her appearance in No Hard Feelings was something different: an unabashed R-rated sex comedy. She played Maddie, a going-nowhere thirtysomething who needs money, deciding to respond to an unusual Craigslist ad in which some well-to-do parents offer to pay her to “date” their sheltered teen (Andrew Barth Feldman).
Directed and co-written by Gene Stupnitsky (Good Boys), No Hard Feelings is only so-so, but that’s not from lack of trying on Lawrence’s part. She throws herself into the film’s raunchy humor, posing nude for fight scenes, doing some wonderfully terrible sexy dancing and locating the poignancy inside this loser who needs to figure out her life. It’s a go-for-broke performance from an acclaimed actress who’s not afraid to go out on a limb for laughs. Pity the movie doesn’t provide her with a stronger, steadier branch.
Best Performance in a Bad Comedy (Part Two): Melissa McCarthy, ‘The Little Mermaid’
After years of being able to print money thanks to its blockbuster live-action remakes of animated classics, Disney may have finally reached saturation point with The Little Mermaid, which struggled to make back its massive budget. The problem, as it is with all of Disney’s redo jobs, is that the new version was like the original, but just sorta lifeless (and a lot longer) — except, this time, audiences seemed at last to have caught on to the con job and stayed away.
Something that was good about the live-action film, though, was Melissa McCarthy, who does a bang-up job as the villainous Ursula. After suffering through too many of her recent misguided starring vehicles — Superintelligence, Thunder Force, The Starling, oof, it’s been a brutal stretch these last few years — it was encouraging to see her do something legitimately funny and sexy with a role. It had been too long — I’m just sorry I had to suffer through this bloated remake to witness it.
Best Performance in a Good Comedy: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, ‘You Hurt My Feelings’
When Enough Said filmmaker Nicole Holofcener had lunch with her star Julia Louis-Dreyfus to discuss a new idea she was working on — about an author who learns that her husband secretly doesn’t like her latest novel, although he said he did — the Emmy-winner only had one thought: “Oh my god, sign me up!”
You Hurt My Feelings gives Louis-Dreyfus one of her best big-screen platforms as Beth, a mother, wife and writer who starts re-examining every aspect of her life once she learns the truth about how her husband (Tobias Menzies) feels about her work. Suddenly, she doesn’t know what she can trust from anyone — and, also, begins to recognize all the white lies she tells in her life, too.
Beth is a far less caustic individual than Elaine or Selina, but there’s still that fully alert comic energy that Louis-Dreyfus always brings — as well as a genuine sense of disillusionment once Beth begins doubting everything she knows about her marriage. She’ll make you laugh and maybe cry in You Hurt My Feelings, which underperformed in theaters but is now available on streaming.
Comedy I Wish Had Done Better (and Been a Little Better): ‘The Blackening’
Based on a short film, The Blackening takes aim at a galling cliché in horror movies: More often than not, when a serial killer is laying waste to a community, it’s usually the token Black character who gets offed first. Barbershop director Tim Story turns that notion into a feature-length satire about a group of friends who go to a spooky cabin in the woods, where they find a creepy game that forces them to correctly answer questions about Black pop culture — or die.
This low-budget Lionsgate release, which starred Grace Byers, Jermaine Fowler, Melvin Gregg and X Mayo, didn’t make much of a ripple at the box office, and to be fair, part of the issue is that the short’s cleverness didn’t work as well extended into a feature. Still, in the post-Get Out era, there’s certainly room for more horror-comedies that critique institutional racism and the ways in which movies perpetuate harmful stereotypes. The Blackening is uneven but it’s got lots of sharp, funny ideas — ideas I hope that a better film will build on.
Funniest Buds: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’
If you’re like me and have been watching movies about the Turtles since the early 1990s, one of the constant complaints has been “Hey, why aren’t these guys more of a blast to be around?” Too often, filmmakers treat Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo as the kinds of teenagers nobody likes: smart-alecky assholes who aren’t nearly as hip as they think they are. So thank god Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg decided to finally give us a Turtles movie in which these guys are lovable — while still absolutely behaving like normal, endearing teenagers.
Voiced by Nicolas Cantu, Micah Abbey, Brady Noon and Shamon Brown Jr., these heroes in a half shell exhibit all the insecurities and adolescent preoccupations we recognize in the kids around us, but their sweetness shines through — not to mention their relentless desire to affectionately razz one another about everything. Some of the best parts of Mutant Mayhem involve just listening to them joke back and forth while nothing of any importance is going on. The Turtles have always kicked ass, but they’ve rarely been such fun company.
Most Depressing Continuing Development: Pixar Movies Aren’t Great Anymore
It didn’t seem that long ago that you could count on Pixar to provide at least one bright spot during the summer. The animation studio would have a new movie out nearly every June, and they tended to be funny, heartwarming, visually striking and just plain entertaining. But between last June’s Lightyear and this June’s Elemental, it definitely feels like Pixar is struggling to recapture the old magic.
To be fair, the recent Luca and Turning Red demonstrated that the company was still willing to branch out and keep trying original ideas — Pixar hasn’t released a sequel since 2019’s Toy Story 4, although another Inside Out is slated for next year — but even so, the dizzying highs seem far, far away. In fact, outside of its wondrous animation, Elemental was depressingly ordinary, lacking the great characters and amusing dialogue that have long been Pixar’s staples. A studio that used to be routinely innovative in its storytelling has become mundane, settling for singles when it used to hit home runs. Pixar has had an incredible run, but I fear it’s over.
Best Alien: ‘Asteroid City’
If you’re gonna tease the fact that an extraterrestrial may show up in your movie, then you’ve got to deliver the goods when it’s time for the big reveal. No surprise that Wes Anderson didn’t disappoint with his adorable stop-motion animated intergalactic traveler, who practically steals the deft Asteroid City.
Best Comedy: ‘Barbie’
It’s such a rarity when the highest-grossing movie of the summer is actually good. Not just good, in fact, but actually kinda great. Following up Lady Bird and Little Women, director Greta Gerwig faced down the task of trying to make something heartfelt and funny out of what is, as everyone has pointed out, just a plastic doll. But not since The Lego Movie has a film that’s ostensibly a feature-length ad for a toy been so imaginative, Gerwig satirizing Barbie’s hold on our culture while also understanding what it is about the Mattel character that makes her so important (and also so divisive) for so many people.
More than anything else, though, the film is just damn delightful, headlined by Margot Robbie as the sunny titular doll and Ryan Gosling as her dim, long-suffering Ken. Jokes about Zack Snyder and “Push” sit comfortably side by side with sly throwaway comments that you only catch when you see the movie a second time. (The way Robbie says “Yay, space!” is fantastic.) In a summer in which going out to the theater was “back,” Barbie was a happy, silly, moving enticement that made the multiplex such a great place to be. And the film’s last line, both witty and ironic, already feels like a classic.