Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Laugh Factory

Usually reserved for the dregs of summer blockbusters as a dumping ground akin to the month of February, something unusual has happened this month. Comedies are reigning supreme. First there was "Pineapple Express", followed these last two weeks by not one or two, but 4 comedies- "The Rocker", "The House Bunny", "Hamlet 2" and "Tropic Thunder". Maybe in some weird counter-programming move, the studios have decided that we need a lighter prospect before entering the drama-laden Oscar 'baiters' of September and October. Either way, I'm sure the dregs are still not far behind ("Babylon AD" anyone?).

Though I've yet to see "Hamlet 2", "The Rocker" or "The House Bunny" (which of the 3, only the comedic sexiness of Anna Faris appeals to me), I can say I was delighted and dumbfounded by the other two films mentioned. I loved one and disliked the other. In one corner, we've got the stoner buddy/action parody written by and starring the golden boy of modern comedy Seth Rogen, directed by one of my favorite quirky young independent directors and rolled out to the public by that oh-so popular Apatow camp. In the other corner there lies the broad, satirical meta-movie about film making that stars name brand faces, injects larger than life cameos and wears its smarmy in-jokes brazenly on its sleeve. "Pineapple Express" vs. "Tropic Thunder". And "Tropic Thunder" lands the knock-out blow, becoming the smartest and most enjoyable satire about movie-making since "Bowfinger" (I know... I know... I'm waaay in the majority in my praise for Oz's 1999 comedy but deal with it). So where did the "Pineapple Express" camp go so wrong and the "Tropic Thunder" crew rack up the laughs?

I think part of the problem with "Pineapple Express" lies in the fact that so much of its comedy stems from the fact that these are two guys getting high 65% of the time. It's not funny unless, gasp, maybe you are high. Certain scenes carry on for far too long (namely the first meeting between Rogen and Franco and the Danny McBride character, as well as any other McBride scene) and director David Gordon Green fails to exact any sense of timing in the jokes. "Pineapple Express" is a clear example of a comedy whose best parts are worn thin in the trailer. Outside of that, you're left with dialogue scenes that feel made up on the fly. This improvised feel has served other Apatow produced vehicles well, but in "Pineapple Express" it feels like filler for a comedy that lasts way too long and wears out its welcome. It may be fun to watch these guys freak out in a wooded area at night time if your high like them, but if your sober then the jokes on you. Taking the loosest framework of a plot- guys on the run from drug dealers- "Pineapple Express" is a schizophrenic mixture of stoner comedy and over-the-top action that fails to generate many laughs or thrills in either genre pastiche.

"Tropic Thunder" is just as rambling with the same loose sense of plot. But what holds that film together (outside of the gloriously funny details such as the "Simple Jack" poster which features the 'retarded' Jack happily chasing a butterfly with a hammer) are sharp moments of spoken dialogue, humorous reaction shots mostly from Robert Downey Jr. and an ensemble that understands when to cut the joke short. I certainly feel I owe "Tropic Thunder" a second viewing because I was laughing so hard over certain portions of dialogue that I missed some other comedic nuances. That's always the sign of a good comedy that hits its intended mark. Unlike "Pineapple Express" which loses steam in its characters laborious search for laughs, "Tropic Thunder" feels like a script (and a cast) who understand the natural climax of comedy. For my money, humor isn't found in watching the gears of an actor grind as he improvises on the fly (yes, looking at you Will Ferrell) but in carefully planned and reactionary comedy in which one line of dialogue progresses into another. In "Tropic Thunder", the laughs are precise and furious.

I wrote an earlier post about the degradation of good comedy and the infusion of the Will Ferrell style of generating laughs... comedies full of non-sequiter images and scenes that shuffle on for way too long (and which "The Family Guy" corners the market). "Pineapple Express" is a milder example of this new form of comedy, and if Seth Rogen and James Franco weren't so endearing and genuine in certain scenes, I fear "Pineapple Express" would hover even closer to the bottom of the comedy genre than it already does. That's a hard thing for me to say because so much of my personal favorite talents were involved in its creation. The hype factor very well may have killed the buzz, and in that regard, it was only a matter of time before a sharp, unassuming comedy like "Tropic Thunder" came along and blew me away much like "Bowfinger" did many years ago. Even now, thinking about the almost throwaway line of dialogue in "Tropic Thunder" where Downey Jr realizes that Nolte has hands, it makes me smile. That's the essence of good comedy- it continues to give long after the lights have gone up.


Anonymous said...

first half of Pineapple Express was about half as good as Knocked Up; the second half was almost as bad as Freddy God Fingered

Joe Baker said...

Very apt. And you know, I just discovered this yesterday when looking up pics for the post-"Pineapple Express" is 106 minutes long while "Tropic Thunder" is one minute longer. "Pineapple" felt like two and a half hours while watching it. That's always a bad sign.

Chris Gaubatz said...

There was that annoying aspect of "Pineapple Express", wherein Franco and Rogen act like ten-year olds that have just declared they are best friends. Long drawn out scenes in which the main theme of the dialogue is, "'re like my best friend, bro". Lame. "Tropic Thunder" was fantastic! It deserves multiple viewings.