Beyond Words: Comedy That Sticks

Lisa Rosenberg July 7, 2009

Another summer, another cavalcade of summer comedies to grab us up, spin us around, rush the world backward and leave us tottering at the end of the ride. The best of these will graze the source of great comedy, leaving a lasting glow. But most will, by August, have slid from consciousness like so many candy wrappers trampled underfoot. So: What’s the key to comedy that sticks with us, despite perhaps an overblown story line or how lost and low-down the characters seem at the time?

Classic comedy hovers just this side of terror, setting its characters dancing on the brink, but ultimately granting them a chance to survive. It also gives us characters we want to love, despite their wildly mistaken assumptions and catastrophic decisions.

Reaching back over a decade, films such as Cookie’s Fortune (’99), Barbershop (’02), American Splendor (’03), Little Miss Sunshine (’06), Juno (’07) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (’08) offer sometimes extravagantly improbable stories and fairytale conclusions. But along the way, they make their characters work to survive, get smarter and reach for something a little better and more balanced in their lives. There’s a serious struggle at the heart of each that keeps us watching and gives these films the weight to stick with us.

Cookie’s Fortune (1999, writer Anne Rapp, director Robert Altman), an ensemble piece set in a small southern town around the suicide of a family matriarch and its subsequent cover-up, is as much about its big themes—love, death and betrayal, but most of all, the true meaning of family—as it is about its characters. Though it’s a no-holds-barred farce, it’s also rooted in the small wonders of life—the hiding of Easter eggs and the finding of true connections between seemingly disparate people. Filled with the bad, the good and many shades in between, it invites us into the stands to root noisily as the action unfurls.

Barbershop (2002, writer Mark Brown, director Tim Story), another ensemble piece, builds a simple story of Calvin, the reluctant inheritor of his father’s barbershop in an urban African American community, around an at times rickety plot and an unlikely conclusion. Calvin has bigger dreams, and would ditch the place in a hot minute if his wife weren’t so pregnant and the bills so insistent. Beneath the fast-flying insults, advice, warnings and proclamations that give us a day in the life of the shop is a rock solid core to the story and to Calvin’s journey—a tale of hoping for the best for each individual, and of discovering such precious value in community that it may be enough to trump Calvin’s earlier life plans.

American Splendor (2003, writers Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner with writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini), adapted from the semi-autobiographical comic book series written by dour, self-denigrating, underemployed Harvey Pekar, and drawn by artist R. Crumb, takes on the time-honored task of wringing humor from the ennui, humiliations and faint hopes of a man locked in struggle with everyday life. Told with a toneless irony that gives new meaning to the term, "straight man," the film manages to keep the drab action moving via its novel format, alternating animated stills, mockumentary footage and real players in Pekar’s life. But the true gravitational pull of the piece—what renders it akin to an accident unfolding that one can’t stop watching—is that Harvey’s journey is nothing less than the fight to save his battered soul.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006, writer Michael Arndt, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Fairs) introduces a startlingly mismatched collection of deluded characters as it addresses the loaded subject of high-stakes children’s beauty contests. By its set-up, the story risks descending into chaos, a frenzied circus with no center ring. However, it knows where it’s going—to explore the difficult journey to come to value one’s self in a world dazzled by superficial measures of success. Seemingly about a child—the one happy innocent in a family reeling with individual isolation and pain—it takes us on a road trip that allows the most damaged character, the father, to find the courage to grow, and traces small, gratifying journeys for many of the others.

Juno (2007, writer Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman), begins with the well-trod subject of teen pregnancy, but then allows the young lead such sharp repartee that it functions as both sword and shield. This renders the story an exercise in brash defiance and agile footwork, a refusal to succumb to the expected humiliations and sorrows that lie in wait beneath the fragile bridge she attempts to build to an acceptable resolution. Though the basic story idea is hardly new, it is the fresh spirit of her dance above the fray, and her refusal to be defined by what could be a tragedy, that captures us.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, writer/director Woody Allen) assembles an odd couple of girlfriends—Vicky, who is about to commit to a safe and predictable marriage, and Cristina, who is up for fun at any cost—and orchestrates their collision with a magnetic Spanish lothario, Juan Antonio, and his passionate, unstable, estranged wife, Maria Elena. Most memorable about this story, with its many unexpected turns, is its grace to allow the action to play in the lives of the characters without, ultimately, drawing conclusions. Vicky will seem to have found her own level, and then be suddenly submerged. Cristina will fall for Juan Antonio, but marry her intended anyway. Both will ultimately leave Barcelona changed—but more internally than overtly. It’s the ultimate summer story, delicious and tantalizing, and offering up experiences whose impact may arrive subtly as sneaker waves, tumbling the internal lives of the characters far into the future.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.