Continuing our tour through some recommended celluloid comedies—because while there’s a place for masochism, you probably don’t really need to be entertained by throat-clutching suspense or existential despair at present—we continue to weave our way through (hopefully) some of the less-obvious choices amongst movies determined to make you laugh. You no doubt already have some cinematic “comfort food” favorites; this is an attempt to expand that menu. A little sleuthing online should find you the full movies on free platform or streaming services.
Hollywood began spoofing itself as soon as the term “Hollywood” solidified in the public consciousness, but few industry satires have ever been so unbridled and hilarious as this proto-screwball classic. Jean Harlow more or less plays Jean Harlow—a platinum-blonde movie star just trying to have a normal life while the studio and various hangers-on try to make her every private moment a public one. Her greatest nemesis in that regard is a publicist played by the motor-mouthed Lee Tracy, a brash, manipulating sort whose shamelessness knows no bounds.
Portraying the glamorous life as incessant chaos and phoniness, Bombshell is pretty sure that if sincerity ever existed, it died and milked a few press releases from that tragedy some time ago. Herself an untimely casualty (she died of kidney failure at age 26 just four years later), Harlow had seemed a dreadful actress at first in dramatic roles, until films like this revealed a terrific, unexpected verve for comedy.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943)
Preston Sturges’ heyday as a writer-director didn’t even last the entirety of World War II (not counting two underrated postwar features that flopped before his work really declined), but it’s doubtful any comedy director can beat the run of absolute jewels he created between 1940-44. A screwball wiseguy for the jitterbug era, his dialogue was peerless, his gallery of Americana eccentrics hysterical, the entire combo uniquely brassy and witty.
Some think his best 1941’s starry romance The Lady Eve, that same year’s ambitious seriocomic allegory Sullivan’s Travels, or the next annum’s riotous The Palm Beach Story. But my money’s on this still-astonishing end-run around the censors, in which Sturges somehow got away with a story about a smalltown girl (Betty Hutton) who goes to a USO dance, then has rather fuzzy recall about what happened later—including who was the sperm donor for her scandalous out-of-wedlock pregnancy. This cheerful nose-thumbing at middlebrow morality manages to make its heroine’s situation funny, poignant, and finally downright patriotic.
The President’s Analyst (1967)
Topical comedies don’t tend to age particularly well, but Theodore J. Flicker’s 1967 satire remains one of the great delights of a great cinematic era. An inspired James Coburn plays the titular figure, whose sessions hearing the POTUS’ world-bearing woes are turning him into a paranoid wreck. (Needless to say, a remake set in today’s White House would be impossible—that reality has transcended the possibility of satire.)
The inside intel he receives also makes him prey to various hostile forces, eventually turning the film into a spy-flick parody that has room for ridicule of hippies, suburbia, and much more. Unlike many another psychedelic cinematic relic, Analyst hasn’t lost potency—its flippant absurdism plays it cool in a hot medium.
Not for the faint of heart or demure of humor is this spinoff from a hit Danish TV series written by its two stars. Hopelessly geeky Kenny (Frank Hvam) is desperate to prove to his pregnant girlfriend that he has paternal instincts—though nothing could be farther from the truth—so he “kidnaps” her 12-year-old nephew to take along on a canoe-camping trip in the company of decidedly not-suitable-for-children BFF Casper (Casper Christensen). Between the latter’s “party animal” horndoggery and Kenny’s general haplessness, it turns out to be quite the educational experience for little Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen).
A huge hit on home turf (spawning two sequels to date) that was barely released in the U.S., Klown: The Movie is bad-taste comedy in the general realm of The Hangover and such. But it’s much, much funnier and less formulaic than its Hollywood equivalents. It’s high-end lowbrow humor—not for everyone, but if you like this sort of thing, you’ll find it hilarious.
Love and Death (1975)
Somewhat neglected as the missing link between Woody Allen’s early, “just funny” movies (it followed their zenith, Sleeper) and his emergence as a more serious auteur (next up was Annie Hall), this 1975 satire of Russian literary epics is nonetheless a fan favorite. Its plot vaguely following the model of War and Peace, Allen plays the runt offspring of an otherwise robust landowning clan two centuries ago. While his two virile brothers volunteer to serve in the Napoleonic Wars, Boris has to be dragged off, meanwhile pining for childhood love Sonja (Diane Keaton, natch). Eventually the two of them seek to assassinate the French emperor for the sake of Mother Russia.
Spoofing everything from military STD-preventative propaganda to the cinema of Eisenstein and Ingmar Bergman, this sprawling goof was not a personal favorite for its maker—apparently its European production was fraught with logistical problems. But uneven as it can be, it’s also frequently inspired, with the writer-director’s serious interest in philosophical issues and High Art finding an ideal satirical outlet here. Keaton has rarely been funnier. While mixed feelings (at best) towards Allen are the norm these days, Love and Death vividly recalls a time when a new movie from him was an occasion for uncomplicated joy.
Black Dynamite (2009)
In 1975 the blaxploitation movie vogue was ebbing, after a brief but healthy run that had drawn large audiences hardly overlapping at all with Woody Allen’s. While best-remembered original examples like Shaft and Superfly were fairly polished major-studio productions, most of the genre’s entries were cheap cash-ins that substituted ample violence, T&A, off-the-rack sartorial splendor, and funky soundtracks for the pricier advantages of upscale production values or fine-tuned scripts. Their tropes were amply spoofed later on by the likes of the Wayans Brothers (in 1988’s I’m Gonna Get You Sucka). But arguably the best blaxploitation sendup came with this pet project for brawny actor turned writer-producer Michael Jai White.
His titular Vietnam veteran and ex-CIA agent is a baaaad mofo committed to saving his inner-city community from a nefarious plot to chemically emasculate African-American men. Naturally, this task necessitates much kung fu, and eventually takes him all the way to the White House. Ridiculing the absurdly convoluted narratives, colorful support characters (including Arsenio Hall here as “Tasty Freeze”) and dated aesthetics of its Me Decade inspirations, Black Dynamite is a pitch-perfect homage to the bad but beloved action non-classics of yesteryear. It acquired enough of a cult following to spawn a Cartoon Network animated series spinoff a couple years later.
Die, Mommie, Die! (2003)
Likewise turning the clock back to recreate a guilty-pleasure genre, this adaptation of star Charles Busch’s stage play is a pretty hilarious tribute to the aging-diva cinema of the 1960s in which ladies like Lana Turner and Bette Davis suffered amidst plush big-screen soap operatics—when they weren’t going histrionically insane Baby Jane-style.
His middle-aged heroine Angela Arden is a former lounge singer who gave up her career for the film-director husband (Philip Baker Hall) she now despises, and vice versa. Her children are variably dysfunctional, with daughter Natasha Lyonne a bitchy “daddy’s girl,” while son Stark Sands is busy setting the closet aflame. Nearly everybody ends up sleeping with a well-hung tennis instructor (90210’s Jason Priestley) who makes himself all too useful. Poisons both lethal and psychedelic figure in the deliberately near-senseless plot, which also involves identical twins (one of whom was presumed dead, but…surprise!) because why not. Mark Rucker’s film has many pleasures, but the overwhelming one is Busch’s virtuoso display of grande dame emotions, each one more flamboyantly artificial than the last.
Paddington 2 (2017)
This list hasn’t had much that’s suitable for younger viewers, a situation easily remedied with one of the most delightful movies in recent years. The first feature film (excluding various TV adaptations) based on the Paddington Bear children’s books passed me by, as it was well-received but there was little indication it was anything that adults really needed to see. A few years later, however, its sequel landed on a lot of 2018 “best” lists, so attention was paid, and crow duly eaten. If you, like me, assume there won’t be much more than lame cuteness to be gotten from a mostly-live-action adventure about a talking animated teddy bear, be informed: You are wrong.
This time Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) gets caught up in criminal intrigues involving book theft, a prison stint, and the highly suspicious activities of a ham actor (Hugh Grant, who seems to be having the time of his life in a role that calls for many disguises). Needless to say, all ends well, though you may not see the extravagantly campy closing-credits production number coming. With its Harry Potter-grade all star British cast (Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Bonneville, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Joanna Lumley, et al.), Tati-like visual humor and extraordinary production design, Paddington 2 is the best possible marriage between gentle whimsy, rambunctious slapstick, sophisticated wit, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet-esque fantastical extravagance.
Because it’s insane that we haven’t touched on Buster Keaton or the Marx Brothers yet, among other things, we’ll be back later this week with at least one more selection of comedy favorites for your streaming enjoyment.