Broad, 1980s-Style Comedies Are Alive and Well. They’re Just on Streaming Platforms Now
Data confirms what you have probably personally observed: feature film comedy releases are on the decline. The theatrical market is tough, with major chain Regal closing more than three dozen locations earlier this year, so the few screens that remain are more likely to show features from genres that more reliably draw crowds: action movies, particularly about superheroes. But even if broad, crowd-pleasing comedies are rarer in theaters than they used to be, you can still find them, and you don’t need to travel further than your nearest TV.
During lockdown, I knew lots of people who very intentionally used the enforced downtime to stream true jewels of the screen — shows like The Sopranos, or movies like The Irishman. I, however, wanted to laugh, so I combed the new releases on all my streaming platforms feature film comedies — specifically, comedies from the 1980s and 1990s. I’m all for challenging art, in general, but not then; what I wanted was a tight 95 minutes from a screenwriter who either honed their craft in the Borscht Belt or aspired to sound like they had.
Of course, I was partly just seeking to recapture the feeling I had watching these movies in my carefree youth. But these movies are also just fun. In the days of the monoculture, comedies aimed to appeal to as many viewers as possible, which is how you, your kid sister, your grandparents and everyone in between could all find yourselves in the same movie theater, all watching Tootsie, or Big, or Coming to America — and all enjoying them!
Today, this kind of four-quadrant appeal is more often attempted in TV comedy series, like Abbott Elementary or Bob’s Burgers. Indeed, looking back at some of the most beloved comedies of the 1980s and 1990s, it’s easy to imagine that something like Soapdish or Back to School would be pitched as sitcoms today. But as this week’s release of Vacation Friends 2 reminds us, streaming platforms are now also the delivery systems for comedies goofy enough to stand next to 1980s and 1990s hits — and not just Prime Video’s sequel Coming 2 America.
Take Netflix. While all the teenagers you know will eagerly tell you about The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, they make romcoms for adults too: Set It Up — in which assistants played by Zoey Deutsch and Glen Powell set up their workaholic bosses to get their weekends back, then fall in love themselves — is exactly the sort of thing you’d see someone like Isla Fisher headlining in theaters 10 years ago. Wine Country stars Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and every other middle-aged woman from every comedy show you’ve ever loved. Always Be My Maybe is both a delightful romcom showcase for Randall Park and Ali Wong and the vehicle that gave Keanu Reeves an all-timer of a cameo. The Murder Mystery movies, with Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler, will take you back to the slapstick joys of Clue or Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Some original gems can be found on Prime Video (like the throwback action comedy Shotgun Wedding) and Paramount+ (the retiree caper Jerry and Marge Go Large). But Hulu is really the class leader. Fire Island and Crush are charming romcoms about contemporary queer love. Rosaline, a sneakily subversive take on Romeo & Juliet starring Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, has Princess Bride vibes and contemporary slang. Palm Springs, a record-setting Sundance Festival sale, probably would have gotten a theatrical release if not for the fact that it came out in 2020; as it is, it’s one of the best original movies on Hulu, and perfectly fit to be mentioned alongside the likes of Groundhog Day, given the many similarities in their plots.
Vacation Friends is the first Hulu original comedy to get a sequel, and it’s easy to see why. Among its writers is John Francis Daley, the Freaks and Geeks star turned comedy screenwriting phenom, with writing and/or directing credits on Horrible Bosses, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Game Night and the (unexpectedly solid) 2015 remake of Vacation. (Daley also wrote and directed this year’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which is not a Paramount+ original but is currently streaming there. Take it from me, an avowed fantasy hater: It’s good!)
In addition to Daley, the original VF boasts a cast of proven comedic talents: stand-up comic-turned-actor Lil Rel Howley; comic and Insecure alumna Yvonne Orji; Search Party star Meredith Hagner; and John Cena, Trainwreck’s $2.5 million man. The premise is simple: A pair of straitlaced professionals (Howley and Orji as Marcus and Emily) go on vacation to Mexico, where misadventure throws them together with a couple of extremely extroverted maniacs (Cena and Hagner as Ron and Kyla). Our more conventional protagonists go home expecting never to see the wackos again, but fate has other plans. The stakes are surprisingly grounded. Will crashers (no spoilers, but you can probably guess who) ruin Marcus and Emily’s wedding? Will Marcus win over Emily’s disapproving father (Robert Wisdom)? What will happen to the heirloom wedding rings?
But the loose cannons bring chaos, the normies get flustered: it’s a straightforward comic premise that can continue replicating itself in set pieces through the run of the film, much like What About Bob?
It can also replicate itself through a potentially endless number of sequels, starting with Vacation Friends 2. This time, the friends are reuniting for a trip to the Caribbean. Marcus has booked them in a shockingly lavish suite and is vague about how he managed it. And the newly married Marcus and Emily are officially trying for a baby, as Marcus’ intrusive ovulation app keeps reminding him. Just as Marcus has confessed the professional obligations he’ll also be fulfilling on this trip, Kyla gets a huge surprise: the arrival of her father Reese (Steve Buscemi), fresh off a stay in San Quentin. Without spoiling the story, this time the plot is driven by much more preposterous developments — think Romancing The Stone, ish — and the very last thing a movie like this should be is hard to follow. It also finds an utterly contrived reason for Maurillio (Carlos Santos), the reception desk clerk from the last movie, to have a much bigger role this time, but Santos is funny, and his sitcom Primo still hasn’t been renewed, so I’ll take it.
It’s fine to choose a film that will make you think. It’s a thrill when a film teaches you something you hadn’t known before. But sometimes you’re not in the mood to learn, or think; sometimes you just want to laugh, and preferably at something extremely dumb. Filmmakers are still making movies like that, and just because some of them go straight to streaming, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. It might just mean there aren’t any superheroes in them. Or, if there is a superhero, he’s not doing anything super, he’s just catching fire from a flaming limbo stick.
And sometimes that’s exactly what you want to see.