Before television's The Office, both the Brit and Yank versions, Mike Judge made the funniest manifesto about white-collar life ever. Office Space didn't find an audience in theaters, but on DVD the film's popularity grew like wildfire. If you've ever worked in a cube-farm it is impossible to watch this movie without recognizing it's classic types from your own life. Gary Cole's jerk of a boss… John C. McGinley's corporate axe man… and, best of all, Stephen Root's "that weird guy" character. Office Space is laugh out loud funny, both because of it's moments of reflection and it's plot about a man who, through hypnosis, actually stops caring about the office BS that had been driving him crazy. There are scenes in this movie that are impossible to forget. Once scene, involving an attempt at white-collar crime wherein the hopeful perpetrators refer to Webster's Dictionary to find out what "money laundering" actually is, makes me laugh every time I think about it.
#14…Wag The Dog
Life is marketing. Everything we see, read, hear, taste and touch has been sold to us at one point or another. That goes for our government, too. We get the leadership we elect because we've responded best to their campaign marketing. Therefore, marketing is also the primary factor behind everything from shoes to music to war. Wag The Dog takes this concept and runs with it, and the line where it crosses over from sly satire into broad parody is never clear. The premise is familiar at first: in order to distract the public from the scandal associated with his sexual shenanigans, the president (read: Bill Clinton) sends troops to intercede in the fighting in a mysterious, obscure country (read: Serbia). Of course, the president himself isn't really even aware of the war he's launched... his handlers are managing that. And, the general public doesn't know that it isn't even really a war. It's a pageant; a combination of political spin, Hollywood special effects, and, of course, marketing. Somewhere along the way the movie becomes implausible. Maybe. By the time it's over, you'll find yourself wondering just how much of what you saw was credible and how much of it was silly… and how much of it was maybe even factual.
A "coming of age" movie for guys in the '90's, Swingers both bemoans and celebrates the inept, sincere confusion of the American male in his 20's with hilarious results. On a base level, Swingers tells a story that it shares with films such as Clerks and a personal favorite of mine, Beautiful Girls. It's a story about a guy who's on the verge of real adulthood, and might even be ready for it, if only he could break away from the lifestyle, temporary goals, and the set of friends who are holding him back. But how do you make those kinds of huge changes? How do you keep your circle of friends without staying trapped in their endless, circular lifestyle? What sets Swingers a few notches above other films is John Favreau's outstanding script and the intense, hilarious, and engrossing performances of Favreau and Vince Vaughn. You'll root for the Favreau character, and you'll find yourself actually caring about the decisions he makes. Along the way, you'll laugh yourself into a hernia.
Few movies creep up on you with the subtle power of About Schmidt. For the first fifteen or so minutes of the movie, all I could think was how "Un-Jack-Nicholson" Jack Nicholson's performance in the film is. Nicholson amazingly becomes Warren Schmidt, leaving the classic Nicholson-qualities behind. The swagger, the knowing grin, the glint in his eye… they're all gone. Instead, When watching About Schmidt, you watch a movie about an old man who just happens to look a whole lot like Jack Nicholson. Once you get used to that, the circumstances of the film sneak up on you, and you go from giggling to laughing out loud. Warren Schmidt is a man who's retirement is the first of many dominos that suddenly fall in his life, leaving his orderly and structured existence in disarray. As he tries to put the pieces back together, Schmidt makes a series of mistakes, takes a number of side-trips, and somehow manages to accidentally do the right thing a time or two. There were scenes in this movie that were so funny that Wendy and I had to pause our DVD player so we could quit laughing, regain our composure, and then continue the film. And the last scene, involving an unexpected letter and a child's drawing, will have you laughing and crying all at once. This isn't a DVD to rent. This one is a keeper.
#11…Better Off Dead
Alright, I admit, I'm a child of the 80's and I lack the objectivity to judge 80's teen comedies with total objectivity. If a movie made me laugh when I was 15, chances are it will still make me laugh, if only out of pure nostalgia. Still, I am able to tell the difference between the times I'm laughing because my memories make me happy and the times I'm laughing because the movie is just flat-out funny. Better Off Dead is just flat-out funny. You might expect a comedy about teen suicide to preach and pontificate, but that isn't the case with this movie. Better Off Dead abandons the premise of the main character's desire to die by the end of the first act. Instead, it goes with the story that simply makes possible the maximum amount of funny jokes. And there are some funny, funny jokes here. Between the French exchange student, the psychotic paper-boy, the evil-genius little brother and the sporadic moments of animation, this movie is one funny joke after another. It was funny in the 80's, and when I saw it again a few months ago, it was as funny as I remembered. Nostalgia be damned, this movie is a genuine comic triumph.
Woody Allen fans are usually most impressed by the insightful, "poignant" comedies that Allen made in the middle of his career. And those are fine films. There's nothing wrong with Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. They're smart, they're funny, they're very, very good. But, for my money, if you want to simply laugh yourself silly, the Woody Allen movie to see is Bananas. This is broad, low-brow slapstick at it's best… and every time I see it, I laugh my head off. There's a ton of classic laughs in this movie ... Howard Cosell's out-of-the-blue narration. The jungle scenes that make the Three Stooges seem cerebral. Best of all, the manically demented speech by the dictator Esposito ("…all children under sixteen years of age are now… sixteen years of age!") Oh, it's still so funny. Sooooooo funny.
Alright, it's a love-it-or-hate-it movie… and it might even be fair to call it a guy-film. Nonetheless, if The Jerk doesn't make you laugh at least a few times, you might check your pulse. It might be hard for people who only know Steve Martin through his recent rash of family-friendly films to believe, but there was once a time when he'd do anything for a laugh. There was no premise that was below him. In The Jerk, Martin let's the audience see him sweat in a major way, going for every possible laugh he can get… and he really lands them in a big way. The Jerk is pure nonsense, total buffoonery, and absolutely idiotic behavior, and it all works. Supporting performances by director Carl Reiner and Bernadette Peters are solid, too. Everything just jells in this movie, and Martin has never been funnier.
The Farrelly brothers do the kind of comedy that you either love or hate. They'll go to any extremes for their laughs, and vulgarity is a given. Some of their movies have made me laugh pretty hard. Dumb and Dumber comes to mind, and of course There's Something About Mary is very funny, too. Their masterpiece, however, has got to be Kingpin. This is one of the best collections of gags, gross-out and otherwise, ever assembled into one film. Now, I should warn you, if your sensibilities are delicate, you should avoid this movie like the plague. Between Woody Harrelson's landlady, the cow-milking scene, and all the jokes involving Harrelson's missing hand, this movie doesn't care who it offends. Still, funny is funny… and if a vulgar joke is funny along with being vulgar, I'm not too haughty to laugh at it. Kingpin really is vulgar, but there's no denying that it really is funny. You might laugh in spite of yourself… you might even feel guilty about laughing… but if you're like me, Kingpin will make you laugh a whole lot.
It's just dumb jokes. Dumb, pointless, brainless jokes. And, as dumb, pointless jokes go, Airplane! is as good as it gets. This Abrahams/Zucker classic was, in a way, a landmark. I suppose it's fair to say that Airplane! qualifies as a satire of the disaster movies from the 70's. Yet, to my knowledge, Airplane! was the first movie wherein the jokes worked because the script was purposefully and blatantly obtuse. These were just dumb jokes. One dumb joke after another, and all of them worked. I remember thinking the first time I saw Airplane! that it was probably the stupidest film I'd ever seen, and I remember that I was laughing like crazy. This was beyond simple farce. This was a movie so stupid that it might just be brilliant.
OK, so it's a guy film. I don't know a lot of women who like it, and my own wife thinks that it's terrible. Regardless, Animal House is a funny, funny movie. Bravo called it the best comedy ever, and I wouldn’t go that far, but it really is a timeless classic. Besides, it inspired about a billion imitations. Revenge of the Nerds, American Pie, and, of course, PCU all owe something to Animal House. In my opinion, they owe quite a bit to John Landis and this watershed movie. Animal House is the template for pretty much every the-losers-strike-back comedy that ever followed it. None of them get close to Animal House, though, because none of them benefit from that perfect combination of ingredients. Take John Belushi, Tom Hulce and John Vernon, stir in a very young Kevin Bacon and Karen Allen, and top generously with horse-gags, beer-gags, a sabotaged parade and a toga party. Mix well, laugh heartily.
#5…Monty Python's The Life Of Brian
It's easier than you might think to pick one Monty Python movie as their very vest. Sure, The Meaning Of Life and The Holy Grail are both classics, but The Life Of Brian is Python at their funniest, smartest and bravest. It's amazing that this movie works at all, considering that it's humor all depends on theological concepts and the viewer's understanding of the politics of Palestine circa 30 AD. It works, though. It works so well. And, contrary to what the premise might imply, the movie isn't really a lampoon of Christianity or Jesus Christ. It's more a lampoon of the combination of frailty and self-righteousness that many of us Christians often embody. Anyway, I know that I often embody that combination. So when I laugh at The Life Of Brian, I'm usually laughing at myself. But don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that this film is all heady stuff. A sequence involving a lisping Roman governor and another featuring a ride on a spaceship provide enough silliness to keep the movie from getting high-brow. By the time the Pythons end the film with a brilliantly warped send-up of the principle paradox of Christianity (a scene involving crucified men who are singing "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life"), it's impossible not to be won over.
Is this Kubrick's only comedy? I guess it is. There were blackly humorous moments in Full Metal Jacket and in A Clockwork Orange, but only Dr. Strangelove really went for the jokes in a broad and obvious way. I mentioned Wag The Dog above, and for it's time, that film really is a smart and insightful political comedy… but Dr. Strangelove is timeless. Everything about the human tendencies toward war, mistrust, insecurity and political manipulation is summed up to my satisfaction in this film. And it's all summed up with delightful, hilarious results. Dr. Strangelove's message might be that power corrupts ... and absolute power corrupts to the point of absolute insanity. It's impossible not to laugh at… and simultaneously be creeped out by… the quirks and delusions that drive the main characters here. From Sterling Hayden's obsession with "precious bodily fluids" to the President's desperately casual phone call to the Russian Premier about a base commander who's gone "a little funny in the head…" I watch this movie, I laugh sooooo hard, and for two hours I can't help but share in Kubrick's gallows humor. Top everything off with Peter Sellers in three classic roles and my favorite George C. Scott performance ever, and it's hard to top Dr. Strangelove.
#3…The Big Lebowski
I guess I didn't know what to expect from The Big Lebowski. I wasn't sure how the Coens could follow the brilliance, poignancy and hilarity of Fargo, so I guess my hopes weren't that high. In retrospect, I think the Coens did the only thing they could have done. Movies as smart, funny and meaningful as Fargo are once-in-a-lifetime achievements. So, for the followup, the Coens decided to forget the artsy-fartsy stuff in favor of pure, unadulterated comedy. The Big Lebowski won me over about two minutes into the film, when the narrator who was setting up the story lost his train of thought and had to stop and try to remember what he was talking about. From there the absurdity never stops, and never stops being funny. The Coens approached this material fearlessly and managed to get fearless performances from their actors. John Goodman in particular has never been funnier. Goodman's Walter is a walking punchline just waiting for a set-up… and those set-ups usually involve cars. Whether he's driving them, jumping out of them, or beating them with baseball bats, whenever this movie puts Goodman in a scene with a car, you can expect to laugh until your sides split. Highly quotable, delightfully screwball, and featuring a stellar cast, The Big Lebowski is spot-on.
#2…This Is Spinal Tap
How many comedies can you think of that are rife with so many jokes that you can still find new ones after watching it fifteen or twenty times? Only one comes to my mind right away. This Is Spinal Tap is beyond classic. It's one of those films that I don't think I'll ever get tired of. Each time I see it I'm either laughing at jokes I've seen over and over… or I'm laughing at some sly joke that had somehow slipped past me during previous viewings. If The Jerk and Bananas and Kingpin work because they go over the top, looking for every possible joke, then This Is Spinal Tap works in almost the exact opposite way. The jokes are small. Slight. Subtle. They're there, but only if you want to watch for them and actually pay attention to the film… and if you do, the jokes are are extremely funny. This is satire at it's finest, with characters who take themselves absolutely seriously, never once stopping to ponder the absurdity of their situation. Even the broad jokes in the film are set up in absolute seriousness. The centerpiece of the film, involving a two-foot Stonehenge monument, is painstakingly set up for ten minutes prior to the punchline. We see it coming a mile away, and the payoff still works because the characters have no idea that their situation is very, very funny. To them, their circumstances are practically life-and-death. In terms of irony, on a scale of one to ten, ...Spinal Tap goes to eleven.
This movie could never have been made today. And, if it were ever made, it would never be released by a major studio. Blazing Saddles is the smartest, funniest, most durable comedy ever made because it was the most fearless comedy ever made. In this day and age, racism rules this nation with an iron grip of fear. Race related topics are avoided at the risk of inflaming someone's sensitivity… and if race is addressed at all, it's in an effort to soothe someone's hurt feelings. Blazing Saddles was and remains a movie unlike any other. No movie before or after has had the guts to look racism dead in the eye and point out how stupid and futile it is. Blazing Saddles did for racism what the C.S. Lewis classic The Screwtape Letters did for evil: It shamed it into submission. Racism, like all forms of evil, can't abide mockery… and Blazing Saddles mocked racism and racists with a broad and honest courage that nobody has ever mustered up since.
Everything mentioned above makes Blazing Saddles the most important comedy ever made. I haven't even began to describe why it's the funniest comedy ever made. And, really, how do you do it justice in a quick paragraph? Mel Brooks's direction… the script by Brooks, Richard Pryor and others… and the pitch-perfect performances of Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Alex Karras… everything works exactly right in Blazing Saddles. Everything. I have no idea how many times I have seen this movie, but it remains as fresh, funny and important 30 years after the fact as it was the day it was released. Blazing Saddles is the funniest, smartest, most important comedy ever made. We'll never see it's equal.
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