Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Comedies - Jon Abrams ""

Friday, June 7, 2013

Favorite Underrated Comedies - Jon Abrams

Jon Abrams is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac who has written for television, comics, and various internet venues, most often these days on Daily Grindhouse. The rest of his work and credits can be found at his personal website, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter, as @jonnyabomb.

The DOGVILLE Shorts (1929-1931, available from Warner Archive!)
Pardon me for pooping on a party, but I’m pretty firmly against the idea of putting animals in clothes. It’s a bit of an affront to nature. I mean, if they wanted to put clothes on, they’d have done it on their own already, right? It should be a prosecutable crime to put clothes on animals. And the more information I dig up about the Dogville shorts of the early sound era, the more it seems there were some legitimately shady practices in place to get these poor animals to act. It bothers me to think about.
But still.
I can’t help it. It’s awful how funny these things are to me. The idea was to spoof popular movies and storytelling tropes of the time using dogs in silly costumes, with human beings doing the voice acting. The films have names like SO QUIET ON THE CANINE FRONT, THE BIG DOG HOUSE, and LOVE TAILS OF MOROCCO. The gags are pitched at about that stunted level of sophistication, although the tone is a bit raunchier than you might expect, especially since these features played for audiences of all ages. I mean, one of them (WHO KILLED ROVER?) is a murder mystery with actual character deaths in it, if I remember correctly – and that’s before factoring in all the smoking, drinking, and abundance of unsubtle single-entendres.
Apparently some of the behind-the-scenes figures later worked on the Three Stooges shorts, which makes a lot of sense. It’s the same brand of raucous, innocent/not-so-innocent, totally stupid humor that hits me right where all my laughing gets done. I hate myself for cracking up so much at these live-action cartoons, but if I’m going to hate myself it may as well be for good reason.

Believe it or not, I studied closely under the same brilliant film professor who taught Joss Whedon and Michael Bay. Unfortunately, me being who I am, rather than delve into conversations about Kurosawa and Hawks, one of the major burning questions I repeatedly posed to that amazing brain concerned the Laurel & Hardy storybook musical, BABES IN TOYLAND. These were the days before Wikipedia, mind you. Even before that, I watched this movie every Christmas on WPIX. It had a hushed, almost mythic stature in my house, and not for any of the right reasons.
BABES IN TOYLAND (which goes by many names, my friend( stars Laurel & Hardy as Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, shoe-dwelling fairytale heroes who face off against the nefarious Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon from THE SEARCHERS and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) when he tries to steal Little Bo Peep away from her true love, and abducts one of the Three Little Pigs. This is for kids. This is a who’s-who menagerie of famous storybook characters. This is a high-spirited, sometimes colorized, old-Hollywood romp with a spritely soul, and maybe also a hellacious life-stealing phantom in it.
Take a minute to watch this clip please:
Okay. So. I figured that the Three Little Pigs were little people in costumes. (Sometimes puppets.) The cat is definitely a guy in a cat suit. BUT WHAT ON GOD’S GREEN EARTH IS INSIDE THAT MOUSE COSTUME?
Is it a puppet on a string? Is it a mechanized doll? Is it a little person in a suit? Like a smaller-than-average one? Less Weng Weng or Warwick Davis, more Verne Troyer or even Nelson De La Rosa? Only severely drunk? It can drive you mad trying to decide!
Looking at it now, it’s pretty clear to me that it’s a monkey in a dead-eyed Mickey Mouse knockoff outfit. A monkey which, hilariously, is following almost none of the commands being issued it by the humans on the far side of the camera.
But again, in the days before YouTube, there was little opportunity to pore over the footage of this film to decipher its meaning. Every year at the same time, my cousins and I would gather to laugh at everything else and be thoroughly mystified by the odd, jerking, non-compliant motions of that thing in the mouse costume. It was eerier at the time than anything David Lynch ever conjured up, and that’s saying plenty. Its pure inexplicability (even consulting the experts led to no conclusive answers) made it bizarrely hysterical. Even know, being reasonably sure of what I’m looking at, I’m still reduced to hysterics even thinking about it. Maybe I’m crazy. Or maybe you will agree.

When Eddie Murphy was on Saturday Night Live, he did a terrific sketch about going undercover as a white man, only to find that when you’re white, you’re in, you don’t even need to know the secret handshake, everything’s free and life’s a party. This is that premise, in reverse, flipped, and dipped in hallucinogenics. Godfrey Cambridge, a black comedian (at one time as famous as Bill Cosby), plays Jeff Gerber, a white bigot, who one morning wakes up and finds he’s gone black. It’s his greatest, most Kafka-esque nightmare.
This is the movie Melvin Van Peebles made right before his paean to righteous indignation, SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG, and as funny as this movie is, there’s a palpable (and justifiable) anger to it. Just as there was, I think, when Eddie Murphy did it, and later on, when Dave Chappelle played with the notion on his classic show of the 2000s. It’s so profoundly messed up that the difference between a man being seen and treated like a prince or a criminal is just a couple shades of darkness away, but that’s America, baby. It rang true in the 1970s and it rang true in the 1980s and in the 2000s and it would probably still work the same today.
It’s amazing to realize that this was released by a major studio (Columbia) and to find out that it was a hit, since the filmmaking style has such a jittery, avant-garde feel to it. The music (by Van Peebles) jars against the choppiness of the scenes. There are jump cuts and flashes and fast-forwards and all kinds of crazy stuff. The style is almost abrasive at times, purposefully so, and it’s matched and even overpowered by Cambridge’s hysterical (in every sense of the term) performance. Even now, over forty years later, there’s an electricity to WATERMELON MAN that is simultaneously elating and disturbing. This is confrontational comedy, of the boldest and most heroic sort. There’s no laugh track to reassure you that you’re laughing at the right things. You might feel very wrong to laugh at a lot of what’s here, in fact. But it’s the oldest comedy truth in the book, you have to laugh to keep from crying.

This isn’t only an underrated comedy. In my opinion, it may just be the most underrated American film of all time.
MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was written by Tom Mankiewicz, who worked on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, DRAGNET, and three James Bond movies. It was directed by Peter Yates, maybe best known for classic tough-guy movies such as BULLITT and THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. One of the producers on MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is Joseph Barbera, that’s right, one half of the insanely prolific Hanna-Barbera cartoon team.
The story concerns an independent ambulance company competing against rival services in addition to the proper channels. They’re barely-legal L.A. outlaws, riding into life or death situations. Most of them do it for the kicks.
The veteran driver is nicknamed “Mother” and that’s how he’s known. He likes getting massages from pretty ladies, keeping a fully-stocked cooler in the rig, and “buzzing” gaggles of nuns with his siren as they’re crossing the street.
That’s Bill Cosby.
The new guy is Tony Malatesta, a former police detective nicknamed “Speed” due to bogus drug allegations. That’s Harvey Keitel.
And the knockout receptionist with larger ambitions is nicknamed “Jugs” (which she hates, by the way.) That’s Raquel Welch.
Those are three very different stars, which means that the movie is a collection of very different tones. This movie brims with raucous comedy and sober tragedy, on a scene-to-scene basis. Somehow it all hangs together cohesively – credit to the sure hand of Peter Yates. But even with that said, it’s probably still not what you’re expecting. Cosby’s got a potty-mouth, for one thing! His performance here is way more HICKEY & BOGGS than GHOST DAD. There’s a real depth to his acting that fans of his comedy may be shocked by. Meanwhile, Keitel was best known for his work with Scorsese at the time – he appeared in TAXI DRIVER the same year – but even though he’s cast as the straight man here, he’s totally down to play. And Raquel Welch, a sexual revolution in human form, is easily their equal and occasionally their better. It’s one of her best roles.
Add to that a supporting cast that includes L.Q. Jones, Bruce Davison, Dick Butkus, Larry Hagman in brilliant bastardy form, and the sorely-underappreciated character-actor great Allen Garfield as the low-rent boss of the gang, and you have one of the most fun movies of the 1970s, and arguably one of the most unheralded. Name another great movie from that year – ROCKY, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NETWORK – and then ask me if I’d rather watch MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED.

THE VILLAIN is a comedy-Western directed by country-fried auteur Hal Needham (SMOKEY & THE BANDIT, THE CANNONBALL RUN) and treated like a live-action Tex Avery cartoon, complete with an impossibly eye-popping redhead. Kirk Douglas, of all people, stars as the Wile E. Coyote of the piece, the black-hatted bandit of a title character, Cactus Jack (which is sometimes the title of the movie in some markets). Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the well-intentioned but dopey hero, Handsome Stranger. This is PUMPING IRON-era Arnold. A bunch of muscles with a voice. In this movie, Arnold wears a periwinkle cowboy suit which is at least three sizes too small for him, and makes no apparent effort to mask that thick Austrian accent. (This is before he went to that vocal coach and developed the erudite diction for which he’s known for today.)
Paul Lynde has a very funny extended cameo as Indian chief Nervous Elk, and Western-movie veteran Strother Martin plays the excellently-named Parody Jones. Most importantly, Ann-Margret is at her all-time most luscious as Parody’s daughter, Charming Jones, who keeps making passes at the oblivious Handsome Stranger while Cactus Jack schemes against both of them. Look guys, I’m not gonna argue that this is a great movie in the classical sense, but goddamn does it make me laugh. And I really shouldn’t have twice glossed over just how attractive Ann-Margaret is in the movie. It’s quite possibly just about as good as a person can humanly look. That ain't nothing.

If you read Richard Pryor’s autobiography, PRYOR CONVICTIONS AND OTHER LIFE SENTENCES, it’s hard not to see his only film as writer and director as similarly autobiographical. Apparently Pryor denied that JO JO DANCER was autobiography, but that must have been a dodge, or even a joke. Richard Pryor is one of the most famous comedians of all time and probably the single most influential of them all. The circumstances of his personal life are widely known, both due to his richly descriptive stand-up and due to his eventual fame. Pretty much everybody who knows who Richard Pryor is, also knows about the terrible incident in 1980 where he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.
That incident is the centerpiece of JO JO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING. Pryor plays the titular character, Jo Jo Dancer, a comic who rises up from extreme poverty to become a huge show-business success on the level of, well, Richard Pryor. But he is not a happy man. In a scene unique to film comedy, to say the least, he attempts to self-immolate himself. While laid up in a full body cast in the hospital, Jo Jo is visited by a version of himself (also played by Pryor) who takes him on a tour of the major events of his life. Basically, what we’re looking at is Richard Pryor’s version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
Pryor plays himself from youth (growing up in a brothel) to adulthood. It’s interesting what scenes from his life he chooses to focus upon. The most memorable (and best) sequences deal with his coming up as a nightclub comic, being mentored by a star-attraction stripper (Paula Kelly, very appealing) and at one point, performing a comical striptease in her bustier and garters. The movie features a great group of character actors, including Michael Ironside, Art Evans, Dennis Farina, Wings Hauser, Ken Foree, and jazz bandleader Billy Eckstine. There’s a lot of good going on. I don’t know that JO JO DANCER is the funniest of all underrated Richard Pryor movies (in my experience that’d probably be WHICH WAY IS UP?), but it’s certainly an intriguing Rosetta stone to look at in the context of one of the great American comedy careers.

Bill Murray is a national treasure. That ought to be a given now, but it hasn’t always been. In fact I’ll bet there are still plenty of people who haven’t seen QUICK CHANGE. Don’t you love Bill Murray? Aren’t you interested in what kind of movie he might direct? This is that very thing. Co-directed by Howard Franklin, who later directed Murray in the elephant caper LARGER THAN LIFE, QUICK CHANGE started out as a crime novel by sportswriter Jay Cronley. It’s the story of three bank robbers who just want to get out of New York City. It’s why they robbed the bank in the first place, but it becomes even more difficult afterwards. Their escape plan is hopelessly roadblocked at every turn, in a near-existentialist nightmare of gridlock and happenstance.
Bill Murray plays Grimm, the would-be mastermind. The opening sequence of the film shows him robbing a bank while dressed as a clown. It is perhaps the ultimate Bill Murray scene, the distilled essence of everything he has given movies over the years. It could be argued that the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to the perfection of those first ten minutes, but that would be churlish. How much perfection can one movie bear? Besides, the rest of the movie is pretty wonderful.
The supporting cast includes Geena Davis as Grimm’s supportive girlfriend and Randy Quaid as his child-like childhood friend – these are his accomplices. In pursuit is the venerable Jason Robards, one of the great screen actors of all time. There are memorable comic turns from Bob Elliott, Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, stage actor Phillip Bosco, ROBOCOP’s Kurtwood Smith, Scorsese regular Victor Argo, and the legendary Phil Hartman. QUICK CHANGE is subtly film-literate: There’s a mock-horror scene referencing Kazan’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (much as Murray and Franklin spoofed FORT APACHE in LARGER THAN LIFE.) The cinematography is by Michael Chapman, who knows how to shoot New York, having previously shot TAXI DRIVER, THE WANDERERS, RAGING BULL, and with Murray, SCROOGED and GHOSTBUSTERS 2.
As a New Yorker, I’m willing to call QUICK CHANGE one of the best New York movies ever made. Bill Murray is Chicago born and bred but he’s a hero to New Yorkers too, and this movie shows that he gets New York in all its existentialist glory. It’s the single greatest city in the world, a sparkling jewel of civilization and a pan-cultural orchestra of human personality, yet also a goddamn fucking headache to get around in and occasionally a relief to leave.
CB4 (1993)
CB4 is a sorely-underappreciated comedy, one of the funniest of the 1990s. It’s a viciously smart and completely hysterical send-up of hip-hop culture. Chris Rock stars as Albert, a kid with dreams of hip-hop stardom. He takes his nom-de-gangsta, MC Gusto, from a local criminal (Charlie Murphy) and starts a group called “CB4” with his buddies Euripides and Otis, who come to be known by the (brilliant) aliases of Dead Mike and Stabmaster Arson. It’s a pitch-perfect parody of NWA (with Rock as Gusto strongly resembling Eazy-E, who cameos in the film), among many other groups and stars of the time, but made by people who genuinely love music. Chris Rock wrote it with the brilliant cultural critic Nelson George, and the director, Tamra Davis (BILLY MADISON, HALF BAKED) made plenty of music videos for big names (NWA included) — not to mention she married Mike D from the Beastie Boys. So this isn’t the kind of SCARY MOVIE junk spoof that favors pratfalls and easy jokes over sharp satire and legitimate affection — the parody in CB4 is so effective because it comes from familiarity with its targets. It’s the kind of movie that kids with love. This was Chris Rock’s first starring role, and he and his team managed to score an incredible cast which includes Chris Elliott, Khandi Alexander, Richard Gant, Art Evans, Theresa Randle, Rachel True, Tommy Davidson, Halle Berry, Isaac Hayes, and the great Phil Hartman as a right-wing politician out to stop the child-corrupting evil of CB4.
The funniest part about CB4 is that it has turned out to be not just timely satire for 1993 but prophecy for 2003 and 2013. 2003 was the height of rap superstar 50 Cent’s fame, having been achieved with a tough-guy backstory (nine bullets!) and a name taken from a real-life criminal – if you have time, Google the name “Kelvin Martin.” In 2013, the biggest rapper in the game (literally) is Rick Ross, ironically a former corrections officer who took his stage name from bigtime drug trafficker “Freeway” Ricky Ross. Chris Rock has cited these examples in answer to repeated requests for a CB4 sequel: When real life becomes more ridiculous than imagined satire, it gets a whole lot harder to be in the business of satire.

As an undergraduate, I wrote a seventeen-page paper on GROSSE POINTE BLANK, so convinced was I about how great it is. I still love it, but I’ll try to be more brief here. GROSSE POINTE BLANK has a brilliant one-liner comedy concept – contract killer accepts invitation to high school reunion due to its proximity to his latest contract – and a brilliant fit of a leading man in John Cusack. Cusack and his co-writers fine-tuned Tom Jankewicz’s original script and got the movie made under the direction of George Armitage, a filmmaker who works way too infrequently, having made the underrated MIAMI BLUES and the even more underrated HIT MAN with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier. Armitage nails the unusual tone of GROSSE POINTE BLANK, a very dark comedy about a paid murderer who is lovable mostly because he’s played by that guy who everyone loved in BETTER OFF DEAD and SAY ANYTHING.
The score is by Joe Strummer of The Clash. Pretty epic. The soundtrack is stacked with killer songs from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The supporting cast is deadly – Dan Aykroyd deftly playing against type as an insane hitman and rival of Cusack’s Martin Blank. Alan Arkin as Blank’s traumatized psychologist, who begs him to stop coming back. Joan Cusack as Blank’s secretary, equally traumatized. MAGNUM FORCE’s Mitch Ryan as the dad of Blank’s high school sweetheart (Minnie Driver). Jeremy Piven’s original hairline in an extended cameo. And many more.
In retrospect, GROSSE POINTE BLANK is less successful in its action-movie moments as it is anytime it’s being a hyper-verbal, deep dark and truly bizarre character study. But boy, it’s not like we ever get too many of those. I mean, technically this is a romantic comedy where plenty of people get shot dead.  My kind of movie entirely.  And in case you were ever wondering where the name of my site DEMON’S RESUME came from, now you know!

Danny Boyle is one of the world’s great directors, and while he seems to have been better recognized as such recently, what with the awards for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and 127 HOURS and the Olympics gig, his back catalog still has some lesser-parsed zones. A LIFE LESS ORDINARY is probably Danny Boyle’s least loved movie. I remember all the way back in 1997, a local New York critic (pretty sure it was Marshall Fine) callously dismissed the movie with the easiest possible dig: “LIFELESS, ORDINARY.” That’s not just a cheap shot – it’s objectively wrong.
A janitor (Ewan McGregor) is replaced at his job by a robot, and in a moment of impulsive revenge, he takes the heiress daughter (Cameron Diaz) of the company’s owner (Ian Holm) hostage. But she hates her father more than he does, and takes over her own kidnapping. Meanwhile, Holly Hunter and DelroyLindo play an odd couple of bounty hunters who chase the duo across country – although they’re not just hired guns, they’re really angels from Heaven sent to get the two fugitives to fall – and stay – in love.
The cinematography and the editing in this movie are as colorful and as snappy as anything Boyle’s ever done, which is saying a lot. In fact, if he hadn’t made this movie first, it’s unlikely SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE or 127 HOURS would have been as good as they are. Its anything-goes musicality and love-it-or-don’t sincerity predated movies like MOULIN ROUGE (also starring Ewan McGregor). The two leads are as likable as they’ve ever been, and they are supported by a wide cast of character acting greats including Dan Hedaya, Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Maury Chaykin, and (very briefly) Timothy Olyphant. The soundtrack collection is clever, buoyant, and vintage Boyle: Bobby Darin, Underworld, The Supremes, Orbital, The Shirelles, Beck, Elvis, REM, and Gladys Knight (among others). The movie is bold, swift, and heart-on-sleeve sincere.
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY is a whole lot of things and all of them at once, but “lifeless” and “ordinary” are just about the only two things it isn’t. If this movie strikes you as lifeless and ordinary, then you may be high on cocaine, with a heart about to explode and not from love. It may be a little too much for some people but my GOD would I rather have something unique and adventurous and daring like this than any thousand remakes or routine rom-coms. I like a movie who really means it.

And there is claymation at the end. Victory.

1 comment:

SteveQ said...

Great choices! I had a chance to see CB4 yesterday and passed - next time, I'll be sure to watch.

My fave thing about Babes in Toyland is that it was the 2nd film with Angelo Rossitto, whose first film was Freaks and last was Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (his IMDB filmography is amazing).

Try watching The Villain alongside Evil Roy Slade sometime!