Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Comedies - William Bibbiani ""

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Favorite Underrated Comedies - William Bibbiani

William Bibbiani is the Film Channel Editor at CraveOnline, the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, the co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and sometimes a film commentator for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani. And send cash.

BASEketball (1998)
BASEketball tends to get shoved into the broad parody genre alongside forgettable crap like Scary Movie and all the other Scary Movies, but it’s actually one of the last great, original broad comedies. “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone star as a pair of losers who invent a hybrid of baseball and basketball, complete with crazy “psych outs,” to save face when they accidentally challenge some muscular jocks to a game of two-on-two. It swiftly turns into a national sensation, and comedy ensues. The “Malaka-Laka Balance Board of Trust” is probably funny enough for two whole movies, but it’s just one of dozens – if not hundreds – of classic gags in this loving satire of commercialized sports.

Booty Call (1997)
Booty Call may be the only time when condoms actually made sex more enjoyable. Well, sex comedies at any rate. “In Living Color” alumnae Tommy Davidson and Jamie Foxx are having the world’s greatest double date, but when their ladies insist on having safe sex, they wind up going out into one madcap adventure after another in search of rubbers, better rubbers and dental dam. It’s a good message, damn it, but more importantly one of the funniest sex comedies around, relying on smart set-ups and engaging character interactions instead of the usual, easy gross out gags.

Brain Donors (1992)
Brain Donors is a weirdly specific attempt to recapture the comedy dynamic of The Marx Bros. John Turturro plays the unscrupulous zinger-flinger Roland T. Flakfizer (Groucho), and along with Bob Nelson (Harpo) and Mel Smith (Chico) they take over a hoity-toity ballet for purely selfish reasons. They’d be villains if their competitors weren’t snooty assholes, but fortunately they are, so all of the trio’s crazy, dangerous and utterly sexist machinations come across as endearing instead of monstrous. And somehow, against all reasonable odds, the Marx Bros. magic actually surfaces thanks to great dialogue and unique slapstick. Well, mostly unique: the finale is an extended riff on A Night at the Opera, but it’s arguably as funny as the original. No, really.

Dirty Work (1998)
Borderline inept but funny as hell anyway (and also ending with a Night at the Opera rip-off, isn’t that weird?), Dirty Work was directed by Bob Saget, and it’s easily the funniest thing with his name on it. Norm MacDonald and Artie Lange have to raise money to pay for their father’s heart transplant, but the only thing they’re good at is sadistic revenge, so they start a “Revenge for Hire” business. The dialogue is bad, but delivered perfectly. The cinematography is bad, but never gets in the way of the perfectly off-kilter timing. And if you thought prison rape was funny before… well, you’re a monster, but Dirty Work has the world’s funniest prison rape sequence anyway.

The Freshman (1990)
Not so much “hilarious” as “delightfully droll,” this comedy from future Striptease director Andrew Bergman is a little hard to describe in a sentence. It’s about an NYU film student (Matthew Broderick) who loses everything he owns to a shyster played by Bruno Kirby, and winds up working for Carmine “Jimmy the Toucan” Sabatini, played by Marlon Brando as, essentially, the Godfather. (Francis Ford Coppola based the character on Jimmy the Toucan; at least, that’s what The Freshman claims.) That would be enough for most comedies but The Freshman adds AWOL komodo dragons just for the hell of it. A unique blend of cinematic in-jokes, genuine character drama and outright wonderful storylines, The Freshman is an old favorite at the Bibbiani household.

Johnny Stecchino (1991)
My favorite Roberto Benigni movie barely made it to the United States, but I still maintain it’s the Italian comic’s best film. Benigni just happens to look exactly like the mafia snitch Johnny Stecchino (“Johnny Toothpick”), so Stecchino convinces his girlfriend (Nicoletta Braschi) to seduce the hero and give him a makeover so the mob will murder him instead. Naturally, she falls in love with the hopeless banana-stealing sap, who’s so damned innocent that he believes every ridiculous lie she tells him to cover up Stecchino’s plans. Wonderfully comic misunderstandings and a hilarious dual performance from Benigni make Johnny Stecchino well worth seeking out.

Kill! (1968)
Kihachi Okamoto’s samurai comedy Kill! is actually based on the same story Akira Kurosawa adapted for his classic Yojimbo sequel, Sanjuro. The drama still packs a wallop, but Okamoto ramps the pacing up to a mad sprint and replaces Toshiro Mifune’s stoic hero with a wonderful odd couple: Tatsuya Nakadai (who played one of the villains in Sanjuro) is the jaded ex-samurai with a sense of humor, and Etsushi Takahashi is the enthusiastic samurai wannabe who takes himself way too seriously. Nakadai is particularly wonderful in Kill!, tossing out wisdom he knows everyone’s too willful to understand until it’s too late, and his body language alone is some of the funniest this side of a Looney Tune. It’s a great story no matter what the tone; in this case, it just happens to be a funny one.

Let It Ride (1989)
My favorite Richard Dreyfuss movie (Jaws and Close Encounters are better, I just like watching this one the more) stars Dreyfuss as gambler who, for one single day, can’t lose. Never mind why, he just can’t lose. That shouldn’t be funny – in fact, it should be the exact opposite of funny – but success comes with its own share of problems, and the crazy twists of fate necessary to keep Dreyfuss from screwing up his winning streak are impeccably conceived and timed. Whenever I have a very good day, I say it just like Richard Dreyfuss does in Let It Ride.

Man of the Century (1999)
Briefly lauded, and then instantly forgotten, this independent comedy stars Gibson Frazier as “Johnny Twennies,” a newspaper reporter who – against the landscape of a cynical, modern day New York City – lives his life exactly like it’s the 1920s. Man of the Century never suggests that Frazier is mad. In fact, he’s not even the only character who acts like they’re in a Phil Ogden Stewart play. The anachronistic contrast is Man of the Century’s “go to” joke, and it’s a damned funny one, but this black & white indie gem has something wonderful to say about the power of optimism. It’s kind of like a “Dr. Who” episode without any of the sci-fi.

My Blue Heaven (1990)
My favorite Steve Martin comedy – and incidentally one of my favorite films period – is this wonderfully witty adaptation of the real-life Henry Hill story. You know, that guy from Goodfellas? This is the de facto sequel, even though it came out a month before Scorsese’s classic crime saga. Martin plays Vincent Antonelli, a middle management Mafioso who enters witness protection and brings the organized crime lifestyle to milquetoast suburbia. Rick Moranis plays the FBI agent responsible for keeping Vinnie in line (good luck), and Joan Cusack plays the hardboiled D.A. who keeps arresting Vinnie for robbing the city blind. His excuses alone would make My Blue Heaven a comedy classic. Why does Vinnie have twenty copies of a single book in the trunk of his car, right after a robbery at B. Dalton’s? “In case… I wanna read it… more than once?” Oh, and you’ll be doing the meringue for years.

Sgt. Bilko (1996)
I may be going to Film Critic Hell for this, but damn it, the 1996 movie version of Sgt. Bilko is funny. It’s a formulaic story, no one cares about that, all that matters is that Steve Martin is note-perfect as a lovable con artist making a mockery of the army and repeatedly jilting Glenne Headly at the altar. The supporting cast gets a good gag now and then, but Sgt. Bilko coasts almost entirely on Steve Martin’s charm, and he’s rarely been this charming. Pity the rest of the movie wasn’t as good as Martin’s performance, or Sgt. Bilko could have been a bona fide comedy classic. Instead, he just elevates this clich├ęd material into something enjoyable and goofy.

The Spirit of ’76 (1990)
The entire history of the world has been erased in a magnetic storm, so future scientists David Cassidy, Olivia D’Abo and Geof Hoyle go back in time to 1776 to rescue a copy of the U.S. Constitution. (It was actually adopted in 1787, but they didn’t know that; history has been erased, remember?) The thing is, they accidentally wind up in 1976 instead, leading to more 1970s nostalgia jokes than you could possibly catalogue in a single review. The Hustle is done, Pintos explode, and Sofia Coppola did the perfectly awful (emphasis on “perfect”) costumes. Roman Coppola co-wrote the screenplay too. Great cameos by Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner, Devo and Redd Kross punctuate this one-joke comedy that actually gets by on just one joke, because it’s a very funny one.

The Talk of the Town (1942)
I couldn’t think of too many classic comedies to include, since by my estimation they’re all “classics” (and thus hardly underrated), but nobody ever seems to talk about The Talk of the Town. Cary Grant stars as an escaped prisoner who hides out with his old flame, Jean Arthur, screwing up her romance with a fusty college professor played by Ronald Colman. Misunderstandings and webs of wacky lies ensue, and Grant and Arthur have a truly fantastic on-screen chemistry. Of course, Grant is always great, and in The Talk of the Town makes the most of his narcissistic bravado. He happily stands in front of his own wanted poster, declaring, “Nobody would recognize me from that. It doesn’t capture the spirit!”

Incidentally, The Talk of the Town is basically the same movie as the (also funny) Neil Simon comedy Seems Like Old Times, which stars Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Charles Grodin in the Grant, Arthur and Colman roles. There’s no credit given to the original George Stevens comedy classic in Seems Like Old Times. I always wondered what the deal was with that. I’m not making any accusations. It’s just really, really weird.

Young Einstein (1988)
The best film from Australian comedian Yahoo Serious (read: the only good one) is a wonderfully inventive piece of historical revisionism, and probably years ahead of its time. Nobody batted an eye when Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter came out (not that anyone paid to see it), so maybe Young Einstein would be better appreciated today. Serious plays Albert Einstein, an Australian (!) entrepreneur whose formula E=MC2 – pronounced “Emc!” – puts bubbles into beer for the very first time. Serious translates Einstein’s theories into practical, anachronistic inventions (the first electric guitar, for example), but the actor’s charm and the story’s freewheeling spirit and impressive production design keeps Young Einstein feeling plucky and fun long after that joke gets old. Brimming with imagination, and good-natured to the final frame, Young Einstein definitely deserves a second look.


Robert M. Lindsey said...

The Freshman, My Blue Heaven and Young Einstein are all great. We watched Young Einstein several times in college.

Ned Merrill said...

Saw an advance screening of MAN OF THE CENTURY when I was in college, where I was friendly with the director's sister. Not sure why the film disappeared so promptly or why writer / director Adam Abraham never got another shot.