Friday, January 31, 2014

Potty is the New Screwball

Cary Grant in Leo McCarey's
The Awful Truth (1937)
I finally saw This Is the End (2013). In a nutshell: too many demon penises. Still, I'd take it over a dick and fart joke Kevin Smith flick any day of the week. Having said that, when the next phase in big-budget comedy is featuring a finale with an outdated music act from a former decade (Wilson Phillips in Bridesmaids; Backstreet Boys in This Is the End) we got trouble. Right here in River City. At least the Farrelly Brothers used Jonathan Richman and an act like this.

Remember when the Farrellys made really funny moves? Okay, so Hall Pass was actually one of my favorite releases of 2011. Prior to that, the best film the impish Duo wrote and directed was hands down the Woody Harrelson-Randy Quaid bowling epic Kingpin (1996); even if Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There's Something About Mary (1998) were bigger box office champs.

The Farrellys are fairly well-known for their artful elevation of potty humor as well as being fearlessly offensive to just about anyone including the physically or mentally disabled. We all remember the blind kid in Dumb and Dumber. The surprisingly docile Johnny Knoxville flick The Ringer (2005) was produced by the Farrellys and was a laugh riot.

singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman
Then there were those near-bizarro cameos by sports people in their films: Cam Neely in Dumb and Dumber; Roger Clemens in Kingpin (as well as a baker's dozen professional bowlers and golf players combined); Brett Favre in There's Something About Mary; Anna Kournikova, Brendan Shanahan and Cam Neely (again) in Me, Myself & Irene (2000); Ron Darling and Lyndon Byers in Shallow Hal (2001); Neely, Tom Brady and a whopping dozen pro athletes in Stuck on You (2003); the entire Boston Red Sox team in Fever Pitch (2005) among others.

They were like little kids putting sports heroes in their movies. There was something almost endearing about it. Almost. So the Farrellys weren't the first to cameo sports celebrities. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in Airplane! (1980); Joe Namath did an episode of The Brady Bunch (1973); but they were the first to feature an exploding diarrhea scene against a shower wall.

Even if I tuned out most of their infantile antics between 2000 and 2011, I still have fond memories of Bill Murray's crazy "Ernie McCracken" hair in Kingpin, and Jim Carrey spiking Jeff Daniels' beverage with laxatives and the subsequent toilet explosions in Dumb and Dumber. Yes, I love Robert Bresson films as well as toilet pranks. I'm not a total snob.

above left: Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve; Sullivan's Travels
above right: Ernst Lubitsch (Heaven Can Wait; To Be or Not to Be); below: George Orwell

As we have now made it exactly thirty years beyond George Orwell's dystopian milepost Nineteen Eight-Four (first published in 1949), it would seem that potty humor has become the popular form of entertainment, and is here to stay. Let's face it, it's easier to churn out something disposably amusing like This Is the End rather than a sophisticated comedy like Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Awful Truth (1937) or To Be or Not to Be (1942). Not that the screwball era didn't have its share of turkeys too. Attitudes are different now; people have changed. Seth Rogan and the Farrellys have become the Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch of our times, but only by default.

Michael Cera in
This Is the End (2013)
That's all well and good, as long as what they produce is actually funny. Rogan seems to be trying a little harder, pushing for something beyond mere stoner gags (even if the heaven bit in This Is the End was done a lot more funnier on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm). He's already surpassed the one-note Judd Apatow who gave him his start, but he's no Mike Judge (Office Space; Idiocracy) or Jody Hill (Observe and Report; Eastbound & Down).

Then the Farrellys gave us The Three Stooges (2012) which featured the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore in an extended cameo. It's one thing to throw in some of your favorite sports players, but the cast of Jersey Shore? From my vantage, the audience just wasn't in on the joke. Especially since by 2012, Jersey Shore had long since run it's course and had fallen far out of pop culture favor; even for a puerile spectacle.

Not to mention the fact, the film just wasn't any good; Larry David playing a nun aside. Needless to say, when Movie 43 (2013) rolled around, I was extremely hesitant. Produced and co-directed by just Peter Farrelly this time (no Bobby) along with eleven other directors, the lowbrow sketch comedy anthology actually had it's moments.

Putney Swope (1969)
The "Middleschool Date" segment directed by actress Elizabeth Banks and Farrelly's early bit with Hugh Jackman wearing testicles on his neck were probably the most funny. Although Richard Gere was also in fine form as an "iBabe" executive. The framing device with Dennis Quaid (I guess Randy Quaid was uninsurable) and Greg Kinnear also made me chuckle, despite a cameo by the spectacularly mediocre Seth MacFarlane. The film was a resounding critical bomb.

I think the movie could have gone on to be a bit of a cult item one day (much like This Is the End), if only it were less, well...dumb. I was never much of a fan of the similarly styled The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) as opposed to Robert Downey Sr.'s lesser-known and more experimental satire Putney Swope (1969). As a rule, I generally prefer my anthology films to be strictly horror related. If I want to watch sketch comedy, I can always see what's on The History Channel, or Animal Planet.

actual alien
It's true. Even our television programming has been invaded by lowbrow. Do people really enjoy watching shows about hillbillies wrangling alligators or men pretending to be scientists and historians talking about how humans once mistook alien visitors for angels during Biblical Times? Hell, I liked Hall Pass, so I guess anything is possible.

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