One slender plus in all this corona-crisis-ing has been the extent to which friends and strangers alike have gone to amuse each other long-distance, whether in creating videos or simply trading digital quips. But there’s always room for more levity, so below we have part one of a highly subjective recommendation list of movie comedies that should be pretty easy to find via the usual free or paid streaming sources.
While these are all back-catalog picks, needless to say the entertainment industry is continuing to crank out new funny films, some of which had intended to open in theaters before fate intervened. Among them is writer-director Tyler Cornack’s unappetizingly named Butt Boy, in which he plays a listlessly unexciting husband, father, and corporate IT guy who nonetheless discovers a terribly exciting, compulsive, dangerous… er, hobby? As local disappearances mount, he starts being suspected of involvement by the hardboiled police dick (Tyler Rice) he’s assigned to as an AA sponsor.
Shot and scored like a poker-faced thriller, Butt Boy is an impressive stunt that manages to sustain a one-joke premise by taking the most deadpan possible approach to the most juvenile concept imaginable. Available on VOD April 14 (and on DVD/BluRay at month’s end), it’s an improbably smart execution of a willfully stoopid idea—and hence may well tickle the funnybone of those whose automatic response might be “That sounds like the worst Adam Sandler movie ever.”
But let’s look backward at some celluloid classics, and a few movies that might one day qualify as such:
My Man Godfrey
Everyone has their favorite screwball comedy—the 1930s form that officially kicked off with 1934’s It Happened One Night, which itself holds up very well. Mine is definitely this 1936 gem from director Gregory La Cava, a drinking buddy of W.C. Fields’ and an inspired talent of the era whose career barely outlasted it.
The peerless Carole Lombard plays a Manhattan debutante who cheerfully picks up a “forgotten man” (i.e. unemployed victim of the Great Depression) at a homeless encampment as part of a society-ball scavenger hunt, then hires him as butler. Once ensconced in her mansion, Godfrey (William Powell) is amused and appalled to discover that everyone in Irene’s wealthy family is as crazy and oblivious as she is. Its social commentary still bitingly relevant today, this perfect bauble of art deco absurdism remains a joy.
OSS 117: Lost in Rio
Before they created an Oscar upset with 2011’s nouvelle silent film The Artist, director-writer Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin made two spoofs of the innumerable 1960s European spy-intrigue knockoffs that tried to steal some of 007’s thunder. (There actually was an original series of B-grade OSS 117 films from that era, which like the James Bonds were adapted from a pulp novel franchise.)
Both are hilarious, but we slightly prefer this 2009 sequel over 2006’s OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies for its greater retro-swinging-’60s extravagance—and for possibly the funniest orgy sequence in cinematic history. Dujardin again plays the debonair yet thick-witted French secret agent whose caveman mentality is forever coughing up furballs of whopping misogyny and racism. In bed or in peril (or both), the joke is forever on him, and it’s a great joke whose humor aims several notches higher than the not-dissimilar Austin Powers movies.
“Stranger than fiction” doesn’t begin to cover the jaw-dropping impact of this 2015 documentary about a notorious case you may have once heard something about—but believe me, the details are more spectacular than you could imagine. In 2004, the dissolute son of a wealthy North Carolina family lost his leg (and his father) in a small plane crash.
Outfitted with a prosthetic replacement, he somehow lost track of the original limb—which wound up, in mummified form, in the hands of a local low-rent hustler and would-be reality TV star eager to use this grisly find to promote his own “brand.” The resulting grotesque legal tussle made incredulous headlines worldwide. With its over-the-top characters and parade of shameless behaviors, this is a real-life trainwreck of true hilarity that (like the current streaming favorite Tiger King) does not lack a certain tragic pathos.
The Kid Brother
For decades no silent comic was held in higher regard than Charlie Chaplin; nowadays we tend to prefer the less sentimental, more deadpan antics of Buster Keaton. But of the top three 1920s celluloid comedians, probably no one delivered more laughs than Harold Lloyd, whose more workmanlike features still hold up very well today. Probably his most famous remains 1925’s campus romp The Freshman, while his signature sequence is the perilous stunt hanging from a clocktower in 1923’s Safety Last!
But you could make a case for this 1927 comedy western as his finest hour. He plays a milquetoast in hick town (literally named Hickoryville) who’s forever being shamed by the burly masculinity of his sheriff father and siblings. But once some actual bad hombres come to town, naturally Harold gets a chance to prove himself. More than just a series of gags, this is a beautifully engineered piece that both parodies the western genre and sweetly milks its stock pleasures.
In part a hymn to the slapstick masters of yesteryear, partly a political critique—whether of Communism or capitalism, you decide—Vera Chytilova’s 1966 Czech New Wave classic is an anarchic delight. Two young women (Jitka Cerhova, Ivana Karbanova) of no visible employment or other means drift through life in a restless yet indolent daze. These manic pixies are like a perverse living embodiment of the “to create, you must destroy” principle, gluttonously devouring everything (from food to fun) in sight, creating an outrageous spectacle while doing so.
The director abets their antic Dionysian frenzy with great cinematic invention that encompasses op-art image manipulation, collage, animation, and so forth. Originally well-received at home, Daisies was just a year later proclaimed decadent (for “depicting the wanton”) and banned by ever-fickle government minders after 1967’s Soviet clampdown on the liberations of Prague Spring. But that did nothing to slow down its development as a worldwide, proto-riot-grrl cult fave.
Phil the Alien and Evil Aliens
If you prefer your humor to be of the interplanetary rather than international kind, these two overlooked indie comedies are worth a look. Rob Stefaniuk’s 2004 Canadian feature Phil the Alien has him as a sort of dimwit humanoid E.T. who lands in the Great White North and tries to fit in—by drinking a lot of beer, saying “ay,” joining a Christian rock band, talking to beavers, and so forth. Either you’ll get the joke or you won’t (Canadian humor is definitely its own specialized realm), but this amiably ridiculous low-budget goof is endearing in its self-deprecating, laid-back, non-rat’s-ass-giving way.
The next year’s U.K. Evil Aliens, on the other hand, goes out of its way to be as rambunctiously rude as possible. A jaded film crew traipses off to a remote Welsh farmstead to investigate a probably-bogus UFO sighting for their trashy tabloid TV show. Unfortunately for them, the invasion turns out to be quite real. Cheerful, tasteless and fast-paced, this splatstick comedy does not exactly appeal to one’s more sophisticated viewing instincts, but it is funny. When it premiered at SF’s own Another Hole in the Head festival, extra screenings had to be added—and many of the attendees were already repeat viewers.
Occupying narrative terra more firma is writer-director Eric Schaeffer’s 2001 romantic comedy starring San Francisco-born “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor and the late, great Jill Clayburgh. They’re pushing-60 Manhattan singles who’ve separately sworn they’ll never brave the relationship waters again, until…well, you know. Uneven but extremely well-acted, and sometimes startlingly frank about its characters’ less-than-flawless humanity, this is a movie about love in later life that has some big laughs, but also real depth. One friend of mine was so impressed he actually gave a DVD copy to his ex-wife.
She Done Him Wrong
Sexual insecurity had no place in the universe of Mae West, an infamous success of outrageous stage innuendo who was almost too hot for the movies. In fact, the outcry at her “lewdness” was such that many considered her chiefly to blame for the censorious Production Code which made Hollywood product much tamer after mid-1934. For a brief moment, however, she was allowed relatively free rein. After a support turn that stole the show in 1932’s Night After Night, she got her first starring vehicle in this 1933 classic, which barely runs past an hour but is packed thick with risque content.
Mae plays Lady Lou, a nightclub singer—or, er, something—who’s the living illustration of her motto “When women go wrong, men go right after ‘em.” In a pinch, she might be willing to turn “respectable” for the sake of temperance-league official Cary Grant. But if so, she makes perfectly clear, it’ll be on her own terms. Set in the “Gay Nineties” (if only because its fashions suited West’s hourglass figure—she was literally sewn into her costumes), this cheeky underworld melodrama is entirely dominated by the wit and will of a woman whose swaggering sexual self-determinacy remains awe-inspiring.