A Chaplin classic, an Almodovar farce, a riotous girlfriend-com, Billy Wilder, Borat and more — here are THR's chief film critic's go-to laugh generators.
Having very much liked the first season (but very much not the second) of HBO’s Big Little Lies, the other night my wife, Sasha, and I decided to check out Reese Witherspoon’s latest miniseries, Little Fires Everywhere, on Hulu. But so predictable seemed the dramatic intent and social attitudes of the characters and the material itself that we couldn’t even make it to the end of the first episode. Needing the bracing tonic of some guaranteed laughs, we switched over to knock back a couple of quick episodes of that old reliable, Schitt’s Creek, and got the relief we were looking for.
Earlier in the week, we’d experienced the very same sort of limited patience with the first episode of HBO’s The Plot Against America, despite the fact that for years I had looked forward to a screen adaptation of what I often (if not always) consider to be Philip Roth’s best novel. But I honestly can’t be certain if it was the show or just our state of mind that was to blame.
At this unprecedented moment, mood relief may be in short supply but heavy demand, quite possibly more so than at any time since the Great Depression. For a while, anyway, heavy, socially relevant content may not be what the doctor ordered when it comes to entertainment; who would want to watch Chernobyl, in my opinion the best show of last year, when the contagion and body count is all you can think about?
Eventually, there will be films and miniseries (and books and plays and songs and every other art form) that delve into the reasons, miscues and tragedies associated with what we’re all going through right now. But more than at any other time in my life, I’ve suddenly been overcome by a genuine craving for escapism — not in a cheap or silly way but in a manner that can lift my spirits and take my mind off of what otherwise is a complete and depressing preoccupation.
Our son Nick, a film major at college, returned home three weeks ago from the East Coast only to see his spring break metastasize into a permanent vacation; he’ll finish his senior year in late May at home, cheated, like so many others, out of a graduation ceremony and facing the worst job market society could devise. My wife also majored in film (I, however, did not), so our interests and tastes overlap considerably, if far from entirely. In all events, however, it’s a pretty film-freaky household (except for our daughter, who could care less).
It didn’t take long to brainstorm a top-10-comedy-of-all-time list. The main point that provoked some reflection pivoted on whether romantic comedies or, more precisely, human comedies should be included in the same category as outright farces and gross-outs. My conclusion, after polling my family, was that humorous classics such as Sullivan’s Travels, The Apartment and Annie Hall, for example, belong in a separate, exalted category of their own, one based more fundamentally in the relatable humanity of the characters than in the jokes and gags. Another classic, Dr. Strangelove, also exists for me in another realm, perhaps one all of its own, that makes it an uneasy fit for easy categorization.
So these are the films that provoke out-loud laughter and, crucially right now, succeed in distracting minds from the woes and tragedies of the moment for at least as long as they last. Although it does stretch across nearly 100 years of film history, the list is admittedly relatively conventional and America-centric.
There’s also the great unknowable issue of what holds up and what doesn’t. When the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something About Mary came out in 1998, it was widely greeted as a comic breakthrough that pioneered new levels of lewd hilarity. Checking it out recently, I found the film almost embarrassingly flat and flagrantly unfunny, not appealing at all except when Cameron Diaz is onscreen. Beyond that, some comedies that play well to an audience in a big theater just sit there sadly when played at home.
Here’s the list, in chronological order. It could easily look different next week and the week after that.
Many wonderful and ingenious comedies were made during the silent era, but Buster Keaton’s rather miraculous Sherlock Jr., which concerns a projectionist who enters the film he is showing, will have to stand in here to represent the other fantastic comic silent films released during the cinema’s first three decades. It is perhaps more jaw-dropping than outright funny, but astonishment is a significant part of its fun.
Old comedies are rarely screened in cinemas or on campuses anymore, and tastes in humor do evolve over the years. But I can testify that this genuinely anarchic madhouse of a comedy reliably provoked houses full of students to roars of laughter not so many years ago. This best of all Marx Brothers films, like all comedies, benefits from an in-the-mood audience, but it’ll be a while until we’re again able to see anything in such public circumstances.
No list of great film comedies would be valid without the prominent mention of Charlie Chaplin. A century ago he was the most famous man in the world, his Little Tramp instantly recognizable to nearly everyone, and this film, made during the depths of the Great Depression, is the one in which Chaplin’s comic genius and social consciousness are most ideally balanced.
Billy Wilder hit his comic peak with this raucous and percolating farce about two Roaring Twenties musicians who elude gangsters by dressing in drag to tour with a female band. Almost every joke in Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond’s script lands, and the creative energy in front of and behind the camera is formidable.
This is not one of Woody Allen’s most frequently mentioned films, but I see it as both the culmination of his initial joke- and gag-oriented period and the first indication that he had something more ambitious in mind (Annie Hall would come next). Checking it out again recently, I was startled by how flat-out funny it is moment-to-moment and by its hints of a stylistic sophistication to come.
This deadpan farce may have more out-loud laughs packed into it than any other movie; the genre, that of a lampoon, is one of the cheapest brands of comedy, but it’s the stoic control with which it’s served up that keeps this in a high orbit from beginning to end. All you have to do is look at the lame sequel, made by other hands, to appreciate the achievements of writer-directors Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker.
Pedro Almodovar’s early films were almost always funny, but this one, which begins with suicide interruptus, raises the bar to the level of a classic farce festooned with an unimaginable array of delirious complications. It’s also naughty in a way that Billy Wilder, for one, might have aspired to but was never permitted in earlier censored times.
If Almodovar took modern screen comedy to a new level of outrageousness, Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles took it to a different planet with this sensation. Guffaws and dropped jaws were the order of the day when this documentary-style tour of the hinterlands saw Cohen “innocently” brazen his way through crowds of unsuspecting Americans.
Female-centric big-screen comedies began to flourish over the past decade, spurred by, among others, this wonderfully written (by star Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) and directed (by Paul Feig) deep dive into female friendship, competitiveness, frustration, libidinousness and everything else a ladies’-only weekend gathering might entail. It’s an angsty and exhilarating breath of fresh air.
I ignored this when it came out, as its TV roots provided no impetus to head to a theater. But when I finally checked it out at home, I was in stitches for the duration, as cops played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill pose as high schoolers to break up a drug ring. Seldom have my scornful doubts about any film been so completely upended by what was onscreen.