By Andrew North
Alejandro Innaritu’s Birdman came out last week. Most people agree it’s a beautiful blend of human drama and acerbic humor. If you’ve seen anything by Innaritu before, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movie can pull at the heartstrings, but can it really be funny? For a director with a limited portfolio of super-serious dramas like Babel and 21 Grams, it seems a nearly impossible that Innaritu could succeed on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Yet he’s not the first drama director to attempt this genre crossover. Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Ang Lee, Chan-Wook Park, John Huston, and Paul Thomas Anderson have all tried similar experiments in comedy, with varying degrees of success. Of course, none of these attempts are traditional comedies. They’re usually quiet and slow, and, with the exception of Dr. Strangelove, short on lol-inducing punchlines. Indeed, comedies by dramatic directors tend to make us chuckle only with the understanding that, by the end of it, we will be sad.
The King of Comedy (1982) - Martin Scorcese
Scorsese made The King of Comedy after Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. He brings Deniro back in this film as another man driven by an unhealthy obsession. Rupert Pupkin (Deniro) chases his dream of becoming a late night talk show host by trying to insert himself into the life of his idol, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). It gets creepy quick as Rupert desperately tries to force pieces of his life to match the fantasy in his head.
In some ways Rupert fulfills his fantasy by the end, but he becomes such a problematic character with child-like faith and stubbornness about getting his way that you don’t really have anyone to cheer for after the climax. All you have is a disgruntled talk show host and a crazy guy in prison.
Dr. Strangelove (1964) – Stanley Kubrick
Having released Spartacus four years earlier, Dr. Strangelove stands out like Kubrick’s sore thumb, particularly because the black-and-white comedy isn’t a semi-comedy-drama, but a full-fledged slapstick farce that’s still somehow hilarious today. It’s the kind of thing you could watch for fun, and the manic progression of the story suits the nuclear scare that it’s skewering.
The nuclear theme gives the film a dark backbone. It ends with a punchline, Strangelove getting up from his wheelchair and yelling “Mein Führer! I can walk!” followed by a series of nuclear explosions to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again.” It’s almost soothing, until you remember that Kubrick is mocking a lot of stupid, scared people with nuclear weapons.
Taking Woodstock (2009) – Ang Lee
The story of the man responsible for making Woodstock happen seems like it would be a gold mine for comedy. A small farm town hosting a music festival attended by millions of drug-riddled, free spirited people from around the world. How could this not be at least a little bit funny? Turns out it is just a little bit funny, though. Everyone is just a little bit funny, starting with comedian Demetri Martin as the protagonist Elliot Teichberg, who holds with the standard stiff, socially awkward straight man to the free-love antics of the eccentrics increasingly populating his life.
Elliot slowly grows out of his shell, with some help from some colorful new friends and their equally colorful drugs, but even more from his strained relationship with his mother, played by Imelda Staunton. It’s really about Elliot finding himself, which he does, and that sounds suspiciously like a happy ending, but only if you forget that the last time you see his mother she’s on the floor of a closet in a pile of money, crying from a hangover and the impending loss of her son. Take from that what you will.
I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Okay (2006) – Chan-Wook Park
Park takes the romantic-comedy, cuts its head open, and shocks its brain until it starts hearing colors, then throws it in a mental institution. I’m a Cyborg is about Young-goon, a girl who thinks she’s a cyborg and does everything she can to become the best cyborg she can be by electrocuting herself and not eating. A relationship blooms with Il-soon, a schizophrenic kleptomaniac, who strives to keep her alive by making her a “cybernetic” food converter, and at one point steals her sympathy so Youn-goon can kill the “men in white” who took her grandmother away.
It really is a silly, sweet movie despite the self-mutilation, shock therapy, dysfunctional and apathetic family, and crippling existential crises. It came out just after Park’s vengeance trilogy, which is utterly devoid of silliness or sweetness or anything that doesn’t have to do with torture, rape, and betrayal. Cyborg at least has a happier tone, even if that happiness comes from characters living in fantasy worlds.
Wise Blood (1979) – John Huston
This adaptation is a little quirkier than Flannery O’Connor’s novel, mostly due to the banjo soundtrack, but it’s still the kind of story that makes you start praying for a single normal character in the first act. It follows the wounded veteran Hazel Motes in his journey to “do some things he’s never done before.” There are con men preaching on the street, prostitutes, a gorilla suit, and a mummy. Huston’s genre crossing with Wise Blood feels more natural than you might think, when you consider he adapted Moby Dick and A Farewell to Arms, which could not be more different, and demonstrate an affinity for filmic stagings of the great American novel. Three years later, he directed Annie.
Punch Drunk Love (2002) – Paul Thomas Anderson
Punch Drunk Love is the shining example of a quiet comedy. Anderson has no problem taking his time with every scene, slowly setting up the awkward, offbeat life of Barry Egan, a character made all the more bizarre by being acted by the normally boisterous Adam Sandler. The first scene holds us in one take for several minutes, of which maybe a third has any talking, following Barry from his desk to the street where a piano falls off a truck. This pace and tone keeps up for pretty much the whole movie.
Anderson worked on a short video for SNL after his three hour epic, Magnolia, so maybe that’s where he caught the comedy bug. Also, the angst in Punch Drunk Love is somewhat autobiographical for Anderson, in terms of family dynamic and anger problems, so maybe that’s why he gave the story a happy ending.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width="1/6"][vc_facebook type="button_count"][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/6"][vc_tweetmeme type="horizontal"][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/6"][vc_googleplus][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/6"][vc_pinterest][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/6"][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/6"][/vc_column][/vc_row]