' ' Cinema Romantico: Where Has All The Comedy Gone?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Where Has All The Comedy Gone?

On the 4th of July, amidst much merriment, my friend Becky informed she had just viewed the classic Billy Wilder comedy "Some Like it Hot" on the big screen. This led into a discussion regarding how amazingly brilliant said movie was and the fact that so few comedies in this day and age can compare to the old days of Hollywood. Not just "Some Like it Hot" but not much anymore compares to the satire of "Dr. Strangelove", or the wit of "Annie Hall", or the verbal complexity of "His Girl Friday". (I consider "A Fish Called Wanda" to be the finest straight-up comedy ever made and it isn't technically from the golden age. But it did come before I turned into a cinemaphile. )

But in a wonderous twist last night Daryl chose a random DVD from my collection for us to watch in order to try and recover from that same merriment of Independence Day. Lo and behold, it was "Wag the Dog". And re-watching it allowed me to recall that sometimes the filmmakers of this day and age can equal the so-called Golden Age.

"Wag the Dog" was made in the late 90's by Barry Levinson with a script from Hilary Henkin and (the one & only) Mr. David Mamet - a genius if there ever was one. The characters are well drawn and the dialogue is absolutely crackling. It sparkles. It's marvelous line after marvelous line after marvelous line after marvelous line after marvelous line after marvelous line after.......but I think you get the point.

The film is set on the eve of the Presidential election. But it seems the President has been accused of sexual harrassment. Thus, the President's advisor Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) calls in Conrad Breen (Robert DeNiro) to help distract the American public from the issue at hand. His idea? Create the "appearance" of a war with Albania. ("It's not a war. It's a pageant. Like the Oscars.") In order to stage this war they go to Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffmann) and it doesn't take him long to set the "pageant" in motion.

Midway through we get a comedy setpiece that must be ranked among the greatest of all time without argument. They travel to a movie studio to film a short scene of an "Albanian refugee" fleeing terrorists in her village. They want her fleeing with a kitten in tow but Motts doesn't like any of the kittens they have. They decide to "punch" the kitten in later using digital technology. Thus, they hand the girl posing as the refugee a bag of tortilla chips. "These are chips," says Kirsten Dunst - a line which she absolutely nails.

Motts retreats to the effects room with his team. They add "Anne Frank" sirens to the picture of the girl fleeing. They make it so she's "running over a burning bridge". Then Motts decides he wants her to be holding a calico cat. But the Anne Heche character - who has been conversing with the President the whole scene - relays the fact the President wants the calico kitten to be white.

"He wants a white one?" says Motts. "Let me talk to him."

"He's mobilizing the sixth fleet," she replies.

And in the capper of the scene Motts looks at this assistant, shakes his head and exclaims, "I hate it when they start to mettle."

Dear God, this scene is awesome. The writing, the acting, the timing, it all comes together. It just doesn't get any better than this.

Re-watching the movie it strikes me more every time just how great Dustin Hoffmann is in it and how everything he says is funny. Mamet is notorious in his scripts for finding a line he likes and letting his characters repeat it time and again. This time out Hoffmann re-assures his counterparts in each and every ridiculous situation by advising, "This is nothing." No matter what happens - the fake war ending, a plane crashing, finding out their "war hero" is acually a guy who "raped a nun" is met by "This is nothing." And he always seems right. "You think this is bad?" he asks. "Try a pitch meeting at ten in the morning coked to the gills, no sleep, and you haven't even read the treatment. This is nothing."

What also strikes me is how in the greatest comedies sometimes the funniest moments can be the most poignant. Near the end of "Annie Hall, Alvy (Woody Allen himself) is watching the play he wrote and it's a scene stolen right out of real life - Alvy attempting to woo Annie Hall back to New York. Except that in the play she decides that she will, in fact, go back with him. This scene is hilarious but you don't really even laugh because it's so meaningful and so clearly stinging to Alvy.

Likewise near the end of "Wag the Dog" Motts look out on a totally fake funeral and says earnestly, "This is the best work I've ever done because it's so honest." That line is hilarious but you don't necessarily laugh until you snort because Hoffmann sells it so much. He means it. It is the greatest work he's ever done. He roots his character in empathy. He makes us care and that's what pushes "Wag the Dog" into the realm of truly great. It's a comedy that cares about its people. Jokes are funny and physical gags can make you chuckle. But an amusing character? Now you've got something.

So if you're in the mood for a bounty of laughs - of real, solid laughs - I would suggest "Wag the Dog". Disappointment will not be the outcome.


Anonymous said...

How can you neglect Willie Nelson? He was a minor character, but so, so awesome.

Wretched Genius said...

And while Mamet may be considered a genius, always remember the evil he is capable of. Or am I the only one who watched "Hannibal?" And certainly someone else must have seen "The Edge."

Anonymous said...

"Hannibal" wasn't Mamet's fault. That one was on the source material. Of course, I haven't read the source material but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. As for "The Edge", I may be in the steep minority but I enjoyed it. It's not his greatest moment to be certain but I thought it caught more flack than was justified.