The Comedy Films of Great Dramatic Directors



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]




Helium won best live action short film at the 2014 Academy Awards. What will win in 2015?

Make sure you click the Closed Captioning button the Vimeo player to turn on English Subtitles.

Helium 2014 (Short film) from Mohammed Abuabdou on Vimeo.


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Back in 2004, a playwright named Martin McDonagh made an almost 30 minute short starring Brendan Gleeson. It went on to win best live-action short at the Academy Awards.

Six Shooter isn’t, however, just any short. It’s the perfect mixture of heartbreaking and funny. McDonagh toys with the limits of propriety by introducing a character, called only “Kid” (Ruaidhrí Conroy), who likes to say everything you’re not supposed to say. When he’s put on a train with a man who just lost his wife and a couple who just lost their child, you can imagine what might happen…

Martin McDonagh has always favored films over plays, even though he’s heralded more as a playwright than a filmmaker. He’s stated that he has ”respect for the whole history of films and a slight disrespect for theatre.” After Six Shooter, he went on to write/direct cult classic In Bruges as well as Seven Psychopaths.

What we learn from McDonagh is that building a successful career in film sometimes requires the long con. He rose in the ranks as a playwright, a medium he admittedly has a distaste for, and even after he was well regarded in that area, he still had to start his film career by making a short.

The short he made, however, was one of the all time greats, and minted his role as an A-list filmmaker.



Martin McDonagh

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Nicolas Cage, Paul Schrader, Nicolas Winding Refn Stage Protest Against Studio


The war between art and commerce in Hollywood flared up this week as actor Nicolas Cage, director (and producer in this case) Nicolas Winding Refn, and screenwriter Paul Schrader staged a protest against the studio that produced their latest film, The Dying of the Light.

The studio in question, Grindstone Entertainment, a subsidiary of Lionsgate, was unhappy with a cut of the film delivered by writer/director Schrader (Raging Bull, The Canyons). They requested extensive changes, many of which Schrader refused to implement, as they infringed upon his artistic vision. The studio responded by seizing control of the film, excluding Schrader and producer Winding Refn from the post-production process. None of the artistic team, including Cage and co-actor Anton Yelchin, were happy with the final product.

In response to having their film “stolen,” Schrader, Cage, Winding Refn and Yelchin are fighting back in a fascinating and innovative way. When actors/directors/writers sign a studio deal, they are barred by the contract from saying anything bad about the studio or the film. Thus, the studio can edit the film into anything they want, and the creative team has no right to object publicly.

The creative team behind The Dying of the Light, however, found a creative way around that rule.


The actors wore shirts imprinted with the contract clause preventing them from saying anything “derogatory” about the studio or the film. Schrader posted the photo on Facebook along with the following statement.

“We lost the battle. “Dying of the Light,” a film I wrote and directed, was taken away from me, redited, scored and mixed without my imput. Yesterday Grindstone (a division of Lionsgate) released the poster and the trailer. They are available on line. Here we are, Nick Cage, Anton Yelchin, Nic Refn and myself, wearing our “non-disparagement” T shirts. The non-disparagement clause in an artist’s contract gives the owners of the film the right to sue the artist should the owner deem anything the artist has said about the film to be “derogatory.” I have no comment on the film or others connected with the picture.” - Paul Schrader

So, although Schrader hasn’t actually said anything bad about the film or Grindstone, he’s made reading between the lines is so easy you could do it blind, kind of like the character Cage plays in The Dying of the Light.

In case you can’t read the legalese on the shirts, here’s what it says:

“No publicity issued by artist or lender, whether personal publicity or otherwise, shall contain derogatory mention of company, the picture, to the services of artist or others connected with the picture.”

It’s the studio’s move now, and lawsuits are sure to follow, but the message to money producers everywhere is loud and clear. Think twice before you interfere with the vision of a creative team you hired yourself.

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Why Matthew Macfadyen Made a Better Mr. Darcy than Colin Firth


By Shaina Ghuraya

With the anticipated October 26th premiere of Death Comes to Pemberley, a new BBC show that depicts a murder mystery taking place six years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, the buzz over whether Matthew Rhys will do Mr. Darcy justice has reached fever pitch. The consensus, even from Rhys himself, is that no one can match Colin Firth’s performance in the 1995 BBC miniseries version of Prejudice.

Yet the Firth performance, as iconic and career-defining as it was, may not be all its cracked up to be. In fact, Matthew Macfadyen’s performance in the 2005′s film version of Pride and Prejudice may be superior to Firth’s.


Firth in the 1995 version of Pride & Prejudice

Before I incur the wrath of the thousands, dare I say millions, of Firth-Darcy fans, I would like to note that I am not condemning Firth’s performance. Rather, I am just stating that his portrayal of Mr. Darcy was not quite as accurate as Matthew Macfadyen’s when compared to the novel.

In case you are unaware of the hype surrounding Pride and Prejudice and by extension Mr. Darcy, allow me to enlighten you. Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen is set in the 1800s in England and is about a strong-willed young girl (Elizabeth AKA Lizzy) whose mother seeks to get her and her four other sisters married off before their father dies and leaves them homeless. But Lizzy is outspoken and does not think that there could be a man out there for her, until she meets Mr. Darcy, a man of extremely high status who upon first impressions seems proud and arrogant. By the end (spoilers ahead) she discovers how she misjudged his character and falls in love with him, which results in their marriage. That’s the novel in a nutshell.

Countless actors have tried to bring Mr. Darcy to life, two of whom are Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen. Cool, brooding, sexy-all adjectives that have been used by countless Firth-Darcy fans to describe his performance. These are all accurate in describing Firth, but less so in describing the Mr. Darcy Jane Austen wrote. Part of what makes Mr. Darcy such an endearing character is that he really is none of those things. Sure he is proud, arrogant, and definitely handsome, but he is also shy, socially inept, and awkward.

From Lizzy’s first impressions of Mr. Darcy in the novel, we get the sense that Mr. Darcy is arrogant, and we feel this way for quite a long time until we realize that Lizzy is wrong, or rather, Lizzy realizes she is wrong. One line in particular clears up the reason for Mr. Darcy’s anti-social behavior as he tries to explain to Elizabeth, “I certainly do not have the talent which some people possess . . . of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done” (pg 171). The bottom line is that Darcy is an introvert.

While Firth does to an extent portray Darcy’s introvertedness, it is not nearly as socially awkward as Macfadyen’s portrayal. In the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, there is a disconnect between Macfadyen-Darcy’s pride and his actual character – as if arrogance does not quite match his nature. As he stands in the rain professing his love for Lizzy, and how he had to fight against his “better judgement” his “family’s expectations, the inferiority of [her] birth by rank and circumstance,” we get the sense that those are not his words after all, but rather the words society instilled in him. He says it so matter-of-fact, like a child repeating something his parents told him, and Lizzy’s harsh rejection is like a rude awakening to the world where he learns that not everything his parents’ told him is right.


Macfayden in the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice

At the end of the novel, it is revealed that Mr. Darcy was indeed taught the importance of his status by his parents, and would not have questioned these beliefs had Lizzy not come into his life. And that is where the problem lies in Firth-Darcy’s performance. His pride and arrogance do not seem out of place, instead, they seem to fit his character a little too well, as if it is his true nature. His character is just a bit too confident and a bit too self-assured, mirroring Lizzy’s strong-willed pride rather than Mr. Darcy’s learned one.

The other shortcoming of Firth-Darcy is his character’s too-stark transformation after he takes that iconic dip in the lake. I understand the symbolism of that scene, how he is being born anew so to speak, but when conversing with the Gardners he is quite the extrovert, and all signs of awkwardness have vanished. Compare this to Macfadyen-Darcy’s meeting with the Gardners, an earnest effort to show Lizzy that he is trying to become less socially inept, but still quite awkward. Firth-Darcy’s transformation is too complete, too perfect.

Fast forward to the scene where Firth-Darcy finds Lizzy grief stricken after reading the news of her sister’s elopement, and there is a huge discrepancy between how Austen’s Mr. Darcy would act and how Firth-Darcy acts. In the novel, Mr. Darcy offers her assistance, and does not leave her side after seeing how upset she is, but other than that he just paces about the room in typical awkward-Darcy fashion. Firth-Darcy takes this a step up. He proceeds to lead Lizzy to her seat, help her sit down, and then sit next to her, leaning in to express his concern . . . before standing up and pacing. In that moment he is so in tune with her feelings and the proper social protocol for comforting-the-girl-you-are-trying-to-woo that I thought I was seeing a completely different person. Macfadyen-Darcy on the other hand plays the whole scene very subtle, pacing and then finally coming to a standstill in the background as Lizzy relays the situation to him and the Gardners (the scene is different from the novel in that it is not just Lizzy and Mr. Darcy alone). He then sincerely offers his help to her while also playing up the “I’m so sorry I want to say more but I don’t know how” puppy-dog expression.

Perhaps why I find Macfadyen-Darcy’s portrayal so much more amazing is that he only had 127 minutes to convey all the complexities of Mr. Darcy, and he accomplished it more accurately than Firth-Darcy, who had a whole miniseries (six 50 minute episodes) to convince us. With Death Comes to Pemberley airing as a two part (90 minutes each) miniseries, it will be interesting to see how Matthew Rhys measures up. Will we see a continuation of the suave Firth-Darcy, or a more accurate though less sexy Macfadyen-Darcy? Or a totally fresh Rhys-Darcy?

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