Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Top 5 (Recent) Comedies

For some reason (mostly having to do with my Cabin in the Woods Bestiary post) my blog is getting some attention from people outside of my Facebook friends, so considering that half of my writing is overly steeped in Lacanian jargon and the other half is angry indictments of amazing movies with tiny flaws I thought it was time to show my new audience that I am, in fact, a human (dangit, stop that, I'm trying to prove a point). With that in mind, here is a list of my top 5 favorite contemporary (sorry, no classics to be found here) comedies, or as I like to call it, Movies Not Directed By David Cronenberg That Find Their Way Into My DVD Player.

Since I'm honestly disappointed when I read lists like this and the #1 pick comes first and ruins the tension, I'm going to present these in reverse order, and since I had to include an "honorable mention" that's what's coming first. So, yeah, here it is. Expect minor spoilers. And yes, five of these six movies came out in 2008 or 2009, and no, I didn't plan that. Golden age of (recent) comedy, or the years when I started developing my cinematic tastes? You decide.


Honorable Mention: Zombieland (2009)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Why It's On The List
Well, it's kind of not on the list, but you know what I mean. I guess part of the reason this is one of my favorite comedies is that I generally prefer horror to comedy when it comes to genre flicks and Zombieland is very much indebted to zombie movies. I think the real reason that I end up watching this so often though is that the film has so much personality. Everything in this movie is just so lovable, from Bill Murray's role as himself to Woody Harrelson's quest to find a Twinkie. On a more theory-based level, I also love the film because the trust issues and family ties theme that the movie plays with to me represents a microcosm of communist ethics, a fantasmatic happy place for me. Finally, Zombieland has a special place in my heart because it was the first movie I wrote about for this blog (original post here) and I would've been sad not to include it even though it's not the funniest movie in the world.

Why You Might Not Like It
Well, most obviously, if you don't like zombies you might not like this movie. It's certainly not a very scary movie, but I can't deny that it is at its heart a zombie movie. Also I've heard of people who don't like Jesse Eisenberg, so if that's the case you definitely don't want to buy a ticket to Zombieland. Jesse Eisenberg does indeed play the character into which he has been typecast (the insecure nerdy type). Sort of in the same vein, the movie is a little childish (Woody Harrelson plays the only character with real emotional depth), so if you're looking for a serious comedy you should probably look elsewhere (like maybe on someone else's top 5 comedies). Finally, while I personally enjoy the romance between Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone, I can see how it could be unnecessary/unenjoyable for some viewers.

Number Five: The Informant! (2009)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Why It's On The List
I love Steven Soderbergh's comedies, and although technically speaking Schizopolis is probably his best, The Informant! is my favorite. Easily the most enjoyable part of the movie for me is Mark Whitacre's (Matt Damon) voice overs, which are not only hilarious non sequiturs ("I don't like wool on skin. Not even that merino wool they have at Marshall Field in Chicago. Ginger likes it because it's formfitting, but she likes avocados and who wants that texture in their mouth?") but also do some work to foreshadow the fact that his character is a compulsive liar. Mark's almost complete incompetence (he opens his briefcase containing the recording device he's using to tape his colleague's illegal activities during a meeting with those very people) is also incredibly enjoyable to watch. Finally, the soundtrack to the movie gives it a light-hearted tone that might otherwise be missing, especially in an exposé about a man who stole millions of dollars.

Why You Might Not Like It
The most glaring reason this movie won't thrill everyone is that the protagonist, Mark Whitacre, is a scumbag. He not only tells people his parents are dead to win over their sympathies, but as we learn about halfway into the movie, "Mark Whitacre, driven by his own boundless ambition to take over ADM, has attempted to frame his superiors in a price-fixing conspiracy of his own invention. His cooperation with the government, merely a smokescreen to hide his lying, cheating and stealing." Not exactly the most likable guy, and you're forced to spend all of an hour and forty-eight minutes with him. Also, because the movie is based on a true story it might infuriate viewers instead of make them laugh.

Number Four: Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Directed by Mark Osbourne and John Stevenson

Why It's On The List
Part of the reason Kung Fu Panda is such a success in my book comes necessarily from the amazing cast providing voice work. We get Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie (one of only two movies with her I actually like—what's the other?), Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Ian McShane (Bobinsky in Coraline), Randall Duk Kim (the Keymaker from the Matrix trilogy), James Hong (Chi Fu from Mulan), Michael Clarke Duncan (Armageddon's Bear and The Green Mile's John Coffey)—the list is staggering. Personally I also love the movie (again, for theory-based reasons) because of the dragon scroll and the way it functions in the movie as a fantasmatic object of desire which is revealed to be empty. Finally, and this actually jumps back to the strength of the voice actors, but I never seem to get tired of Mantis saying "I wish my mouth was bigger" when Po cooks them his secret ingredient soup.

Why You Might Not Like It
I can think of a couple of reasons, but most of them are pretty minor. All in all I think this is maybe the best children's movie of all time, which is hard for me to say since aside from this movie I'm a hardline Pixar fanboy. Some people might not like this movie because they don't like Jack Black. Some people also might not like this movie because they don't like Dreamworks. If you don't like Kung Fu Panda for either of these reasons, that's fine, I get that, but you're wrong and I hate you.

Number Three: Be Kind Rewind (2008)
Directed by Michel Gondry

Why It's On The List
Quite simply, Be Kind Rewind is a movie about the magic of movies, and with a film degree hanging on my wall I can't help but love that. Throughout the movie we get to see what amount to student film remakes of classics like Ghostbusters, RoboCop, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (unfortunately only short snippets of them with the exception of Ghostbusters). At the end, the movie Jerry, Mike and Alma make saves their little video rental store from being demolished by the evil forces of capitalism (embodied by none other than Sigourney Weaver). Similar to Zombieland, I also like this movie because for me it embodies a kind of communist ethics. When the video store is threatened with both destruction and an IP infringement lawsuit, the Passaic community comes together to create something new. This something new happens to be a historically inaccurate account of how famous jazz musician Fats Waller grew up in Passaic, which wonderfully highlights how a community needs a history, a sort of fantasmatic background against which they can act, but that this history is precisely that: a fantasy, a figment of the community's imagination.

Why You Might Not Like It
I don't know, because you don't like movies or something? But seriously, as with Kung Fu Panda this movie does star Jack Black which may be a problem for some people (ironically I'm not much of a Jack Black fan myself—you'll notice a curious lack of School of Rock in this list, a must for Jack Black fans as I understand it). I could also understand not liking this movie if Mike and Jerry's recreations of these famous films sort of ruin the originals for you I guess. It's getting harder to think of reasons as I get closer to my very favorites, so sorry if these are getting less helpful.

Number Two: I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Directed by David O. Russell

Why It's On The List
My next big analysis project is going to be updating a paper I wrote on I Heart Huckabees for my senior seminar back in school (finished the project, here it is) so I don't want to ruin too much, but I love this movie. The ensemble cast is incredible and all their characters are hilarious. In the lead role, Jason Schwartzman plays an activist who tries to deal with his perception that his work doesn't seem to be making a difference. Mark Wahlberg (who needs to be in more comedies) plays a fireman obsessed with petroleum who is confronted with the problematic appeal of nihilism. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are two existential detectives in a philosophical war with nihilist Isabelle Huppert. Jude Law is a big business executive who's dating advertising model Naomi Watts, and together they discover that their identities are as constructed as the repetitive stories Jude Law tells his coworkers (how am I not myself?). None of these characters sound particularly funny in themselves, but the way David O. Russell pulls it off is absolute genius. The movie succeeds because it doesn't take itself too seriously, it doesn't have an agenda it's trying to push with all its philosophical meandering (this is also why my forthcoming essay about it sort of misses the point, but whatever, I wanted to write about it and I don't know how to write about comedies). This is one of those movies where I just can't help repeating the dialogue along with the movie (which is why I often have to watch it alone to fully enjoy it). If you liked the recent Silver Linings Playbook (same director) you should really check this one out.

Why You Might Not Like It
I think the biggest danger, and one that my fellow theory friends have fallen into, is taking the movie too seriously. If you do, all the characters begin to come off as almost solipsistic in the way they care more about themselves and their opinions than other people. Also, if you prefer more of a slapstick style of comedy then you should look elsewhere (not that you have to think hard to get the jokes, just that this is very far removed from The Three Stooges).

Number One: Speed Racer (2008)
Directed by the Wachowskis

Why It's On The List
If it weren't for the year I took off from college during which I watched Memento every day after work then Speed Racer would be The Movie I've Seen More Than Any Other In My Collection. I wasn't sure at first whether to even include it in this list since it's not a comedy strictly speaking, but since the only wrong way to watch this movie is to take it too seriously (and I'm not sure what other category to put it in—Action? Sports?) I decided it was fair game. Where do I even begin with this movie? I guess first and foremost it's stunningly beautiful. The post-production colorization (complemented by the excellent lighting) is something we haven't really seen since the days of Technicolor. The way the movie uses wipes is unparalleled by all but the wipe master himself Akira Kurosawa. Some of the dialogue is absolutely hysterical (can this really be the first movie to use the term "nonja"?). Sparky's role as the probably homosexual mechanic provides a priceless reinterpretation of his character from the original series.

As far as theory goes, Speed Racer provides just enough to keep me hooked. On the Marx side of things, there's the (admittedly fantasmatic) overthrow of the corrupt capitalist system underpinning the big league races, and on the Lacan side, we get a depiction of Speed confronting (rather directly) his ego-ideal ("the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and propels me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize"*). During one summer while I was in college I wrote a 14 page Marxo-Lacanian analysis of this movie for fun (maybe not so shocking considering I'm now writing this whole blog for fun, but whenever I tell anyone about that paper the first question I get is, "Oh cool, what class did you write that for?").

Why You Might Not Like It
I can pretty easily come up with two reasons you might not like this movie: first, that it's visually overstimulating; and second, that you're "faithful to the original series". That said, I think either of these reasons would be a failing on your part. If you're not looking to be stimulated by a movie, then what are you doing watching one? And if you think this movie ruins the original series by not being faithful, have you watched the original series recently? I have, and it ruins itself. I wish the Wachowskis had included the Car Acrobatic Team as much as the next Speed Racer fan, but at least we get Snake Oiler (as well as a wonderful homage to the Mammoth Car). Seriously, I know this movie did terribly at the box office, but I think if more people give it a try they'll fall in love as deeply as I have. Or, you know, maybe not.


*Zizek, Slavoj, How To Read Lacan, Granta Books, London, 2006

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