Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Comedies - Paul Corupe ""

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Favorite Underrated Comedies - Paul Corupe

Paul Corupe is a longtime, dare I say 'veteran', contributor here. He writes for RUE MORGUE magazine, Fantasia Festival's official webzine SPECTACULAR OPTICAL and his own spectacular site, CANUXPLOITATION. All his writing is recommended reading. He is a man of many varied likes as far as film goes. He has turned me onto many fine and less than fine films all of which have brought me great enjoyment. Let him do the same for you with this round of underrated comedies!

Smile (1975)
"Isn't she lovely? Aren't they all lovely? Isn't everyone lovely?" Long before the term "mockumentary" entered the lexicon, Michael Ritchie's Smile gleefully dismantled the American dream one pearly white at a time with this devastating dark comedy about the unbreachable gap between our desires and reality. The film revolves around a beauty pageant for teen girls dubbed "Young American Miss", but the actual competition doesn't feature prominently in the story, which instead follows the suffering adults trying to prop up the glossy dreams of this ritual (and a few other questionable activities)-- defeated used car salesman Big Bob (Bruce Dern), ex-pageant queen and dissatisfied director (Barbara Feldon) and her suicidal alcoholic husband (Nicholas Pryor). As I've noted in before, Ritchie ranks among my favourite American directors and this caustic, but affectionate, satire lets the laughable grotesquery of the townspeople play out without pushing the humour into caricature or mockery; there are few false notes. In previous films like The Bad News Bears, The Candidate and Semi-Tough, Ritchie explored the American preoccupation with "winning at all costs" but in this true ensemble piece, he lets the greed spread beyond just a central figure to infect a town full of desperate people that need so badly to believe in their own importance.

Up! (1976)
It's rare that a filmmaker extracts humour primarily via their technical approach, but Russ Meyer is one of the few directors who regularly makes me laugh with inventive cuts, inserts or juxtapositions rather than the witiness of the script itself. And yet few consider Meyer a comedy filmmaker--a situation that could be corrected with more frequent screenings of Up!, Meyer's anarcho-comic masterpiece that captures the noted anatomy connoisseur at the peak of his infatuation with candy-coloured, cartoonishly endowed American values. Scripted by the recently deceased Roger Ebert, this messy but slickly assembled whodunnit about the murder of Adolph Hitler isn't particularly interested in figuring out who put the piranha in the Fuhrer’s bubble bath. Instead, the story follows a more traditional Meyer path, in which a young woman (in this case, Raven De La Croix’s Margo Winchester) who comes to town and uses her overflowing sex appeal to transform and liberate everything that she comes in contract with. Margo gets a job at a backwoods cafe owned by Sweet Li'l Alice (Janet Wood), and quickly gets romantically entangled with Alice's husband (Robert McLane), a corrupt cop (Monty Bane), and a horny lumberjack (Bob Schott). The whole thing pulses with a manic, perverted energy that makes sex look like winning the lottery while riding a rollercoaster made of ice cream—Meyer’s squeaky clean smut propels the thing to its bizarre conclusion. From Hitler getting his goofy kinks satisfied, a naked, “buxotic” Kitten Natividad as an unusually verbose Greek chorus, Meyer's penchant for inserting glimpses of sleek cars and flashy advertising logos between hyper-idealized sex scenes, and even a zipper-cam shot, Up! often has me shaking my head in pure amusement, even moreso than Meyer's other work.

Bad Manners (1984)
Everyone seems to have forgotten about this madcap, cyncial '80s New World comedy about juvenile delinquents that was reportedly intended as a pioneering cult movie for kids, kind of like low brow Paul Bartel for the junior high set. Certainly any youngsters who saw it in the 1980s on VHS would have been entranced by the film's firmly anti-authoritarian approach, as an upwardly mobile couple played by Martin Mull and Karen Black adopt Mouse (Michael Hentz), a troubled youth from a repressive Catholic orphanage. Four of his friends won’t stand for this, and escape themselves to spring their friend from his suburban hell through typically chaotic misadventure. The film's wacky, Mad Magazine-inspired buffoonery includes food fights, cattle-prod wielding ex-Nazis on the orphanage staff and all the pretentious yuppie excess you might expect from this kind of overly-broad satire. Featuring songs by ‘80s soundtrack faves Sparks (and a cameo by Meyer’s ex-wife Edy Williams), Bad Manners’ jokes doesn't reach the absurdist heights of say, Oddballs, but the over-the-top humour (such as Mouse's new, samurai-obsessed brother and a beer-fuelled taxi ride) are nicely spaced out amongst more grounded scenes as Mouse wreaks havoc on his adoptive parents lives until his friends show up to help him start a new life free of narcissistic and domineering adults.

Cold Turkey (1971)
I would find it hard to believe that Ritchie’s Smile wasn't at least partially influenced by this high-premise ensemble comedy by Norman Lear. Just as Smile pointed out the pathetic power struggles of small town life, Cold Turkey sees a community falling apart as the eccentric citizens try to quit smoking for 30 days to win a $25 million dollar prize offered by a cigarette company sure of the addictiveness of their product. As the townfolks try to kick the habit and keep their neighbours in check (even establishing a militia force), civility self-destructs and they are thrown into the national spotlight. Helping to push this into "classic" territory are performances by some of the finest comedic actors of the era, including Dick Van Dyke, Tom Poston and Jean Stapleton, with show-stealing turns by Bob Newhart as a slimy tobacco exec and Bernard Hughes as the hopeless nicotine fiend town doctor. Best known for '70s TV staple All in the Family, Lear never made another film but this shows him as one of the most underrated satirists of his time, presenting this near-brilliant dissection of human greed and frailty that's less subtle than Smile yet just as devastatingly funny.

The Wrong Box (1966)
This pitch black British comedy is perhaps the only humorous film ever conceived around the concept of a tontine—a lottery of sorts by which several entrants pay money into a pool that all goes to the entrant who lives longest. Based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Wrong Box is perhaps unsurpassed when it comes to gallows humour; like Arsenic and Old Lace with a sharper satiric edge. In Victorian England, the two remaining beneficiaries of a tontine are the elderly Finsbury brothers. Hungry for the proceeds, their respective families are torn between helping their annoying relatives live to get the money and letting them die to get them out of their hair. But in a case of mistaken identity, nephews Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Moore) believe their impoverished Uncle Joseph (Ralph Richardson) has died, and attempt to cover up the purported death until they can claim the money—which can only be theirs after long-suffering Michael (Michael Caine) reports the death of Joseph's brother, Masterman (John Mills). With plot twists-aplenty and a cameo by Peter Sellers as a cat-obsessed doctor asked to forge a death certificate, the whole thing eventually devolves into slapstick silliness. But at its best, The Wrong Box does what most of the comedies I've included on this list excel at—exposing humankind’s ugliness and pride with keenly observed character work.


Ned Merrill said...

I dig SMILE so I'll have to have a look at COLD TURKEY.

Joe Martino said...

What a great list. COLD TURKEY was the first film I saw as a kid 4times!! I couldn't get enough of it. It was also the first time I ever saw the great Bob & Ray...who almost steal the show.

el cornichon said...

THE WRONG BOX has been a favorite of mine for ages! Peter Sellers is brilliant in a scant few minutes onscreen, and Sir Ralph Richardson is unexpectedly hilarious as a "collector of facts" who just won't shut up.

Squonk said...

"Smile" is a great film. Bruce Dern is fantastic in it!

laird said...

So happy to see someone else give a nod to BAD MANNERS. Its inclusion on this list means I'm now going to watch all of the rest of these (of which I haven't seen a single one) sooner than later. Superb as always, Mr.Corupe.