Tuesday, September 2, 2008

High and Low

In today's movies one finds two approaches to comedy. On the one hand we have literate and witty characters whose banter surrounds dramatic events; the comedy is a product of character, not of plot. On the other hand we have comedy entirely driven by plot, either in the form of a genre spoof or through a series of untenable, wacky situations. This second approach features type rather than character; the comedy is produced through action or sight gag. One form is "high," descended from Woody Allen, the other is "low," descended from American Pie. Whether you prefer one or the other approach goes simply to taste. One doesn't work better than the other, in theory. Last night, I saw how drastically different the results could be in practice.

I started my comedy double-feature with Smart People, a film that had somehow garnered some decent reviews last spring. It stars Dennis Quaid as a widowed, depressed, misanthropic professor of Victorian literature; Sarah Jessica Parker as a wounded and neurotic doctor, Quaid's ex-student and love interest; Ellen Paige as Quaid's depressive, caustic, Republican daughter; and Thomas Haden Church as Quaid's "zany" brother. I wish someone had given me a call before this script was green-lighted. I could have easily explained that dumpy, overweight, arrogant, pompous, and depressed English professors are not the stuff of comedy but are instead the stuff of nightmare. A complete lack of social skills and of empathy is very hard to make funny. A love story about two people who can't communicate is not engaging. A daughter who reacts to her mother's death by withdrawing from life and becoming a perfectionist right-winger is not "zany." The film didn't succeed as a comedy, and didn't fare much better as drama, since the sum of Quaid's growth as a human was depicted as his ability to sit in the passenger seat of a car. I'm guessing that this was a big thing because his wife perished in an accident where she was a passenger, but this was one of several mysteries that were never explained.

I followed this with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Here we had no pretense to smartness, no pondering of any of life's questions. It was simply a spoof of the rock bio-pick, and it was, in parts, hysterically funny. It would be worth watching for the Dylan impersonation alone, but when you add in an animated riff on Yellow Submarine and scenes from Dewey's 70s television variety show you end up with a complete triumph of the lowbrow. If there's a lesson in all this it's that sometimes it's better to not try so hard, sometimes it's better to aim low. Sometimes, the stupid is all the more pleasurable simply on account of being stupid.

Another high/low contrast awaits me tonight, this time centered on drama: the premier of the new 90120 followed by the premier episode of the last season of The Shield. Whether 90210 will benefit from a lack of ambitions will be the question of the night.

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