Sunday, May 22, 2011

BRIDESMAIDS | 2011 | Classic Screwball Made Modern

Annie (Kristen Wiig) has a failed bakery in her recent past, an x-boyfriend who bailed when times got hard, a sad little broken-down car, a not great job she doesn't do very well, a couple of invasive and unpleasant roommates, and a relationship she's hoping is something more than a fuck-buddy situation (but it clearly isn't).

Her self-esteem is so low that she doesn't even notice that the cop who pulled her over is a nice guy, easy on the eyes, and totally flirting with her.

And now, she's failing her Maid of Honor duties for her long-standing best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph), and terrified she's losing the title as well as the friendship to the beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, and obnoxiously competent event planner, Helen (Rose Byrne).  

If Apatow films are bromances at their core, then this is a womance.  The core relationship in this film is not Annie's romance with Officer Nathan (Chris O'Dowd), but her friendship with Lillian.  And it's that relationship that ticks a whole lot of screwball comedy boxes.  Let's go to the list...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO | 1944 | Screwball Victory Garden Style

Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith's father is a war hero, but he has just been booted out of the Marines after one month due to chronic hay fever.  While stewing on a bar stool, feeling like a failure, Woodrow happens to cross-paths with a batch of Marines (led by William Demarest) who deliver him home in a war-hero package.  Small, well-meaning, insignificant lies swell, and soon Woodrow (Eddie Bracken) is responsible for a massive boondoggle of his Mom, his girl and his entire beloved hometown.

This is screwball with a ration book.  The class conflict here isn't between the haves and have-nots of the Great Depression, it's between the powerful and powerless of WWII, with military and politicians as the haves and regular folk as the have-nots.

It's an inventive wartime reinterpretation of classic screwball, and is solidly successful screwball-wise, comedy-wise and rom-com-wise.  Though the nightclub isn't bright or posh and the music isn't lively or sexy - our heroes arrive broke and/or depressed, the windows are blacked out, and the singer croons about "Dear Old Mother" - it's still screwball.  Like other screwball antiheros, Woodrow must battle to preserve his integrity and earn his girl, only rather than dealing with a Manhattan businessman he's got to outsmart a pack of Jarheads and the civic leaders of his hometown.  Similar power issues, different players.  

Eddie Bracken and William Demarest are delightful in this wise, fair, and fully merciless lampoon of all America holds dear, but so rarely gets right.

Related Reading:
"When We Hated Mom," (New York Times, May 7, 2011)
Article about the changing perception, image and role of Mom in America.

Released: 1944
Director/Producer: Preston Sturges
Leads: Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, William Demarest
Writer: Preston Sturges (Oscar Nomination, also nominated for "The Miracle at Morgan's Creek" - same year, same category)
Genre: Romantic Comedy, Screwball
@ Amazon:  Hail the Conquering Hero

Sunday, May 8, 2011

THE AWFUL TRUTH | 1937 | Adults Become Grown-Ups

Leo McCarey.  Look him up.  Watch his stuff.  THE AWFUL TRUTH, DUCK SOUP, LAUREL AND HARDY, and more.  Do it.

On with the post...

THE AWFUL TRUTH begins with Jerry Warriner returning home to his wife after a trip to Florida (with a basket of California oranges to prove it).  Instead he finds an empty house.  Eventually his wife Lucy returns home after spending the night with her voice instructor (due to some car trouble).

We know that Jerry wasn't where he said he was, but we're not sure about Lucy's story, and so it feels like his guilty conscience is what makes it impossible for him to believe her innocence.  They quickly argue themselves into divorce.

In the divorce she gets custody of the dog, Mr. Smith, but Jerry gets visitation rights.  Which means he's around when Lucy begins dating Dan, an Oklahoma oilman (Ralph Bellamy).  Jerry does what he can to mess up the relationship.  Nothing mean-spirited, mostly he just pushes situations to prove the mismatch.  Of course witty dialog and hilarious hi-jinks ensue.  Just when it seems Jerry and Lucy are on track for the inevitable reunion, the voice instructor reappears resulting in both Dan and Jerry leaving Lucy (this is one of the best scenes of the film).

Next, Jerry takes up with an heiress who has "millions of dollars and no sense," and it's Lucy's turn to show him that the choice he's made isn't a good one, and get her husband back before their divorce is final.

As far as Classic Screwball characteristics, this one has cocktails, nightclubs, class conflict, urban living, and a pet dog as stand-in for child (linking romantic couple).  Contrary to the standard screwball anti-hero, Jerry is pretty capable in life (except, perhaps married life).  He is neither pauper, nor a self-made tycoon, nor inheritor of old money, but he is successful financially and socially.  The only time he gets flustered, frustrated, acts ridiculous and fails is when he's not being entirely straight with Lucy.  She challenges him in ways other women do not, and he needs it.  Without Lucy, he dates club singer and a wealthy heiress.  Each young and boring, and incapable of seeing his childish, manipulative ways.

And this is another way the film diverges from a classic, blue-blood screwball comedy; Lucy isn't a loopy, wealthy heiress.  She improves his life, not by insinuating herself into his life ala BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY but by leaving him.

Although she gets herself into some silly situations, Lucy is not a child-like romantic lead often found in screwball comedies.  The reason the two divorce is because she is an adult, and calls Jerry on his double-standard when he won't let her off the hook for being out all night with her voice coach, and refuses to acknowledge he has done the same thing to her (at least).

One other twist on the Classic Screwball Rulebook is that when Jerry is close to becoming engaged to the heiress, Lucy shows up to remind Jerry they belong together.  This is notable because it's usually the other way around.  Often it's the woman who has opportunity to marry wealth but chooses the heart and authenticity of the male lead.  Here, it's Lucy who puts her heart on her sleeve and makes a public plea for the guy's heart.  She does it by showing she's smarter and classier than the singer he'd been with before, yet a whole lot more fun and genuine than the heiress he's linked to at that moment.  She does it by wearing a trashy outfit, faking drunkenness, accusing an upper-crust family of stealing her purse, and performing a tawdry dance number while pretending to be Jerry's sister - effectively terrifying his potential new in-laws.

Like Jerry, she's neither this nor that.  The awful truth is that they're a perfect match.

Released: 1937(Oscar nomination, Best Picture)
Director: Leo McCarey (Oscar win)
Leads: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne (Oscar nomination), Ralph Bellamy (Oscar nomination)
Writer:  Arthur Richman (play), Vina Delmar (Oscar nomination, Best Adapted Screenplay), Sidney Buchman (uncredited)
Genre:  Romantic Comedy, Screwball

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog, nobody is interested and the frog dies.

The "thesis" for this blog is still taking shape, but I will do my best to avoid anything like this...

The folks on this panel (The Art of the Kvetch:  Jewish Humor as Secularism, The New School University, April 29, 2011) are crazy smart, and the subject of their study isn't wholly dissimilar from where want to go with this blog, but - yawn.  This panel goes on for 98 minutes, and it's often a tough slog.

Which is probably why I've been posting to this blog sporadically.  I've been reluctant to delve too much into anything because over-thinking ruins most everything.

Yeah, that's it.

I set out to blog about the intersection of light and dark, comedy and tragedy - how sad is often funny and vice versa.  I guess this is an example of substance intersecting with comedy and causing a slow-motion fender-bender with no reported injuries...  because it was so boring the local reporter fell asleep at the scene of the accident.