Comedy, In Theory: The Good, Bad and Pitiable

112006 article sarris Comedy, In Theory:  The Good, Bad and PitiableIn the comedian’s famous last words, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” In movie terms, comedy is considered simply as a work that makes people laugh—and heaven knows, that’s hard enough. But to make people laugh while providing them with profound insights into human nature and the world around them is sheer hell. That is why I generally go easy on failed comedies, no matter how tedious they become in their strenuously misguided efforts to make me laugh.

Some years ago, I divided comedy into two categories, “comedy ha ha” and “comedy/not tragedy.” This latter category encompasses authors like Molière, Chekhov, Pirandello and, who knows, perhaps even Dante. This is not to say that I can’t admire a comedy that doesn’t make me laugh if it makes me think, or that I can’t despise a comedy that makes other people guffaw.

Then again, people who have known me over the years tell me that I am one of the easiest laughers they’ve ever encountered. Movie publicists have accused me of insincerity when I panned movies that had me in stitches at a screening. Nonetheless, a stand-up comic once jokingly asked me to accompany him on all his tours so I could sit in the front row, or at a ringside table, and set off the rest of the audience to wild gales of laughter.

Lately, however, I find it hard to laugh uproariously at anything, though I carefully record the reactions of the people around me. Also, there has been a steady stream of articles on movie comedy, perhaps inspired by the almost simultaneous release of three recent comedies, or at least would-be comedies: Stranger Than Fiction, which I liked; Borat, which I loathed; and For Your Consideration, which I sadly pitied. To explain why, I have to discuss each film individually, and let the theoretical chips fall where they may.

Less Is More … Funny

Marc Forster has directed Stranger Than Fiction, from a culturally ambitious screenplay by Zach Helm, who presumes to put the words “comedy” and “tragedy” in the same sentence for English professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to deliver with throwaway casualness. Professor Hilbert has been consulted by I.R.S. auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), who hears a woman’s voice in his head describing every action he has just taken, almost as if he were a character in a novel—which he in fact is. What has brought Harold to Professor Hilbert’s door with such life-and-death urgency is that he’s overheard the author’s voice musing about how she can kill him off to end her novel on a poetic, if not technically tragic, note.

At first, the professor advises Harold to go into seclusion and talk to no one on the telephone, so that the novelist can’t make any progress with her narrative and thus will have to let Harold off the hook. Meanwhile—and there are many meanwhiles in this fantastic story—Harold falls in love with an anarchist baker, Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whom he is auditing for her deliberate and politically provocative refusal to pay a certain portion of her taxes. This sudden and uncharacteristic burst of passion in Harold lends a greater emotional urgency to his attempts to find his “inner” author, whom Professor Hilbert has identified as a British writer named Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson). We’ve already met the knowingly invasive novelist as she struggles to finish her novel, with the helpful companionship of a publisher’s emissary named Penny Escher (Queen Latifah).

The big news about Stranger Than Fiction is that its star, Mr. Ferrell, has switched type after achieving big-bucks stardom with his explosive spasms of slapstick in a string of zany successes, beginning with the sleeper hit Elf (2003), and continuing with Old School (2003), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006). Indeed, Mr. Ferrell never falters in his in-depth depiction of a 9-to-5 drudge, refusing to give even the slightest hint of his previous comic persona with a raised eyebrow here or a nudge there. The unrelenting seriousness of his performance is matched by the rest of the film’s cast, none of whom are strangers to farce. Hence, the impossibly fantastic narrative offers no escape hatch of humor; the story has a core of emotional conviction without the slightest trace of facetiousness.

The tremulous disbelief in Ms. Gyllenhaal’s voice when she delivers the line “Everybody loves cookies,” after Harold has solemnly declared that he doesn’t like to eat cookies, rings like a clarion call for Harold to awaken finally from his long emotional slumber. You have to see the movie to appreciate the vibrations that tingle one’s spine during moments like this.

The characters played by Mr. Hoffman and Queen Latifah would almost seem to have been clumsily inserted into the script to keep Harold and Kay from talking about themselves, were it not for the self-sufficient existence that they project with their own unrelenting seriousness. The fact that Ms. Gyllenhaal’s Ana has no confidence only underscores the lonely vulnerability that drives her to throw herself into Harold’s arms while he is playing a plaintive love song on his new guitar with eyes closed.

In this strangely unconventional movie, writing a novel, baking cookies and discovering the love of one’s life are treated with almost insanely equal seriousness. Only death isn’t given the awesome respect that it deserves, and this proves to be one of the most questionable aspects of the film, if not its major flaw. But the masterly restraint displayed by Mr. Ferrell and the rest of the cast—despite a howler-laden narrative that seems to scream for double takes and quizzical expressions—makes Stranger Than Fiction a film well worth seeing and savoring. As for the theory of comedy it illustrates, I would say that it’s “Less laughter equals more feeling.”

Borat the Bully

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was directed by Larry Charles, from a screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer, based on a story by Mr. Baron Cohen, Mr. Baynham, Mr. Hines and Todd Phillips, and a character created by Mr. Baron Cohen. I must confess that I was prepared to loathe Borat even before I saw it because of my previous exposure to the seemingly bumbling media star and provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G—supposedly the scourge of stuffed shirts on both sides of the Atlantic. Besides, so many details of Borat had been given away beforehand by the voluminous writings on this alleged new phenomenon that there was little left to discover for myself—which still doesn’t explain why I hate the very idea of Borat. I would be even angrier if the recent American elections hadn’t gone so well. Why? Because I would’ve had a harder time arguing convincingly that the people in the great American heartland aren’t as stupid as Borat insists they are, or as some (if not most) of his admirers imagine they are. Of course, I don’t consider myself provincial—though there are some people who consider New Yorkers to be the most provincial of all Americans. No matter: Borat is not really aiming at us, whoever or whatever we are, but at them out there—at least that small portion of them who didn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor for not signing their release form with Borat’s producer.

Oh, yes, Borat has a producer of some sort, and a camera crew as well. And we all know that there are people out there who are ready to eat worms just to get on television—or even just on camera. I’m not talking necessarily of the frat boy who is suing Mr. Baron Cohen or his backers for making him look like a drunken jackass (to invoke the title of another movie that confirms America’s camera-mania).

Also, Mr. Baron Cohen is a very big if not exactly hulking man who can be an intimidating presence to people when he makes insinuating remarks. He gets off the hook with us with his casual remarks about shooting Jews because Mr. Baron Cohen is a certified Jew with a degree from Cambridge or some place like that. But say that you happen to be on the scene in flyover country when this hulking foreigner walks up to you. If you’re small or even of normal height, you might hesitate to call him a bigot or an anti-Semite, even if you were so inclined. He might hit you. And if you were a woman of a certain age and he described you as ugly to your face, what could you do before the camera pulled away? Meanwhile, we sophisticates back in Manhattan cackle with merriment over Borat’s disdain for feminist political correctness. It’s a double joke—on both the American outback and all the backward countries in the world represented by Borat’s imaginary Kazakhstan.

As for all the gross-out spectacles involving excrement and the penises of male nude wrestlers: Ho, ho, ho, it is all harmless satire. Pardon me, but I forgot to laugh, and I’m not sure why anyone else did. The theory of comedy here is that you can get away with almost anything if you manage to make your target audience feel superior to the human beings being mocked on the screen.

Tired Shtick

Finally, Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration, from a screenplay by Mr. Guest and Eugene Levy, sadly misfires as either satire or farce, simply because it has taken a contemporary subject—the world of supposedly independent film—and bombarded it with old Hollywood jokes. First of all, Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy trot out some Jewish gags for the laughably “independent” project, Home for Purim, a period drama of an old Jewish family living in the South in the mid-1940’s, complete with a dying matriarch, played in the “film” by the faded movie star Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), and a lesbian daughter, played by failed stand-up performer Callie Webb (Parker Posey). The project is being financed by ditzy Whitney Taylor Brown (Jennifer Coolidge), heiress to the Brown Diaper Service fortune. Of course, the film’s producers successfully get the title changed to Home for Thanksgiving to broaden its appeal, much to the dismay of the co-writers, played by Bob Balaban and Lane Iverson.

If all this rings false from the outset (or oy-tset!), it’s because few if any independent films have the time or the money to play around with changing the original concept to make it more commercial when their main target has to be the comparatively elitist film festivals, where big-studio subsidiaries and small art-house distributors assemble to pick up movie bargains that are the subject of advance critical raves. I can’t imagine Sundance doing cartwheels over a period drama about Southern Jews called Home for Purim, much less a more wholesome variation called Home for Thanksgiving.

Mr. Guest, Mr. Levy and their large talented ensemble have been around for a while with pleasant entertainments like Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003), and many in the cast go back to the 80’s and 90’s, with Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon and SCTV—and sorry, folks, but it shows in this youth-crazed age, when even the studio C.E.O.’s have just graduated from Harvard Business School. (Now that would be something to satirize.) I guess I’ll have to pass on For Your Consideration. It brings to mind Norma Shearer playing Marie Antoinette in 1938 and Kirsten Dunst playing her now: The theory of comedy that applies here is that even the most talented people in the world cannot turn back the clock on an outdated concept.