I've been writing alot about comedy lately. First, there was my previous post ranking the Top 50 comedies of all time and now this. Is it because I'm growing more and more wearied at the increasingly violent quagmire we've gotten ourselves into in Iraq? Nah, I'm not that politically minded. I just don't usually fall hard for comedies. While all of my friends eagerly anticipate the next served laugh, I've always been the one anticipating something else. Comedies rarely get me to the theater. The recent exception, of course, being "Hot Fuzz". And fyi.. you have to hear the commentary on this one- did you know that Cate Blanchett was the mask-covered woman who breaks up with Simon Pegg in the beginning, or the 1 second clip of a Santa Clause shanking Pegg was Peter Jackson? The entire commentary is simply movie-drunk and a fascinating listen.
So, what got me out to see the new comedy, "Hot Rod", was it's slightly amusing trailer and amiable word of mouth on Aint It Cool News. What got me out to see "The Simpsons Movie" was its seventeen year history of generating enormous laughs through visual puns and carefully constructed situations. These two films couldn't be further apart as far as comedies go- one is the granddaddy of animated art, still emanating a heartbeat after all these years and reflecting laughs off current events and pop culture iconography, and the other is a mildly diverting comedy featuring Saturday Night Live alum Adam Samberg and espousing that oh-so hip manner of dead pan filmmaking combined with non-sequiter humor. Both of these films represent modern comedy, although they score wildly different results.
"Hot Rod", in and of itself, is not a terrible movie. I laughed a few times. But it's the manner in which it goes about its laughs that's disturbing. It belongs in that camp of comedy that I'm guessing originated with the films of Will Ferrell; or perhaps even further back with other Saturday Night Live spin-offs such as "A Night At the Roxbury" and "The Ladies Man", or dare I say "The Coneheads". Then again, I could be wrong and the blame lies at the feet of David Zucker with his 1980 "Airplane" (which is a great comedy by the way). Simply put, these are sketch comedy films, stretched out to feature length proportion through odd, humorous tangents. When you watch a film such as "Hot Rod", or "Talledega Nights", or "Dodgeball", or most certainly "Anchorman", it feels like an insider's club; you can imagine the cast and crew sitting around thinking up improvisational bits to levy the unsubstantial structure of the script. Think of the cameos that come flying at you in "Anchorman", or the prolonged riot that breaks out, or the scenes that carry on long after they should end as a character laughs or suffers (specifically the images of Ferrell running around the racetrack in his undies). In "Hot Rod", there are so many I lost count, including the scene where our hero trips and rolls.... and rolls... and rolls down the side of a mountain for what feels like 3 minutes. There's another moment when Rod Kimble, stuntman extraordinaire, summons the spirits of a dolphin, a wolf, and a house cat before he proceeds to jump. If that bit of outer space humor fails to register with the audience, we're given quick insets with pictures of the mentioned animals circling his head. Or there's the character who desperately wants to help Rod and his crew, and anytime he's on screen, he breaks into an 80's type thrust dance (you have to see it to believe it). And if that's not enough, when Rod visits heaven briefly, we're entertained by the images of a stuffed taco and grilled cheese sandwich fighting (don't even ask, it'd take waaay to long to explain). Yes, it's all there along with the kitchen sink. Where did this type of humor come from? Why does it often stop a comedy dead in its tracks when I see such an out-of-body comedy moment? In "Hot Rod", that's all the film has going for it. You watch because you just can't believe what writer Pam Brady may throw at you next. This may work in films such as "Napolean Dynamite", which I consider a personal favorite and the film that "Hot Rod" has been unjustly coupled with, but only because writer-director Jared Hess earns my respect for his characters. It's also probably unfair to mention the comedic canon of Judd Apatow at this point, but if one wants to see how comedy should be done right, then go watch "Knocked Up" or, even better, his 1999 television series "Freaks and Geeks". Not only do his characters make us laugh at them, but certainly laugh with them. His films (and writing) surface something human in their comedy which Will Ferrell, Adam Samberg and Adam Sandler don't understand.
Then you temper that with "The Simpsons Movie". This, in all essence, shouldn't work. It shouldn't garner the amount of laughs it ultimately draws from the audience. Alot of its success depends on its zeitgeist cult following (a following that Fox's "The Family Guy" is slowly eroding with much more tawdry humor). The amazing thing about "The Simpsons Movie" is that, after 17 years, it still packs a humorous wallop. Maybe even more so due to the fact that we've grown up with these characters. We feel for them in a way. And, like the best of the Simpsons episodes, it begins in one place and ends a world apart, defying our expectations in glorious ways. Like "Hot Rod", it relies on tangential laughs- Homer and a pig, Homer whipping a pack of dogs, even the cut to a picture inside Homer's head as a monkey plays while Marge talks. This is not far removed from the sense of humor that received a resounding "thud" in a similar scene in "Hot Rod". Does the animation, illicitly reminding us this not the 'real world', make excuses for laughs found in "The Simpsons Movie"? I'd wager that "Hot Rod" feels less 'real world' than The Simpsons. The humor there feels forced upon us while in "The Simpsons Movie", it settles into a routine that feels familiar. I'm not sure how much of a slam that is to "Hot Rod", but its never good when you take away more emotive connection from an animated film than with a flesh and bone acted movie. Both films intend to make us laugh, but only one really succeeds.
So what does this tell us about the comedy genre itself? Nothing. This is a genre that will always succeed and continually make money. I'm not sure if I care to see Adam Samberg in another comedy, but the next big breakthrough will be supported by Saturday Night Live and more comedy 'thuds' will be heard in theaters. As long as we have plenty of Judd Apatow films and "The Simpsons" to curb those moments, we'll probably be ok.