By James David Patrick
In the 21st century, comedy has become a tough sell. The genre doesn’t translate to the international marketplace, where an ever increasing percentage of dollars are made, and domestic audiences are justifiably skeptical. Laughs have been largely co-opted by the spectacle films. Obviously, comedies still get released. There will always be a market for light entertainment – but how many truly great comedies have you seen in the last ten years? Twenty years? The R-rated comedy has gone almost entirely extinct and the genre’s quality, overall, has been in steady decline.
Due to wary audiences and mishandled Hollywood marketing, many wonderfully comic movies often fly under the radar. Some become cult hits through home video and streaming, but others just disappear entirely. I’ve set out to highlight 10 comedies released between 2000 and 2009, one for each year – that you might possibly have missed. I’m not aiming for hugely deep cuts or widely derided movies that just got a bum rap. Otherwise, you’d be reading an attempt to sell you on Monkeybone (yes, really), Keeping the Faith, Youth in Revolt, The Goods, Igby Goes Down, Heartbreakers, and You Kill Me. Maybe rent those while you’re at it. Since there’s such a dearth, we need to do a better job of celebrating the great comedies that do get made. You can never have enough funny.
Betty (Renee Zellweger), a small-town waitress and soap opera fanatic, falls in love with a character on her favorite television show, “A Reason to Love.” After a personal trauma, she conflates the real world with the soap opera. Zellweger hangs the film on her charming performance and the interaction between Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock as would be hit men lends the film an overt edge we’ve come to expect from Neil LaBute. Some of the filler feels more like a sitcom than a feature film, but the overall package combines unsettling blend of black humor and dark psychosis laced with sugary surface levity.
Few post-2000 comedies were as instantly quotable or singularly unique as Wet Hot American Summer. Taking place over a single day at a summer camp in the 1980s, the brainchild of The State alums David Wain and Michael Showalter should be instantly relatable to anyone who lived through those mosquito-infested Bacchanals. You’d be challenged to find an effective comedy that’s as narratively and structurally weird as Wet Hot.
It’s still a mystery to me that this Barry Sonnenfeld comedy was met with such indifference in 2002. Sure, it’s slapsticky, overly broad and features the most garish hallucinogenic frog that’s ever graced the silver screen, but Robert Ramsay’s script based on the Dave Barry novel features quotable lines and a manic screwball energy that’s rarely seen this side of 1950. Whenever my wife and I drive into the airport, we can’t help but say “We’re arriving, but we’re departing…” The cast alone should pique some interest. Tim Allen, Rene Russo, Patrick Warburton, Ben Foster, Zooey Deschanel, Stanley Tucci, Tom Sizemore, Johnny Knoxville, Dennis Farina, Janeane Garofalo, Heavy D, Omar Epps. Jason Lee, Andy Richter, Sofia Vergara… all involved in a plot about a nuclear suitcase pulling the aforementioned ensemble into indecipherable Florida-based hijinks.
From the director that brought you Ant-Man! Ewan MacGregor and Rene Zellweger star in this post-modern homage to the Doris Day-Rock Hudson 1960s sex comedies. It’s fun and colorful and maybe leans too hard on the nudge nudge wink wink, but I’ll never complain too vociferously about a slightly stray tone when a filmmaker tries to stick the landing on something as audacious as this. It doesn’t hurt to have a deep love for 60’s aesthetics, but anyone should be able to step in and enjoy Down With Love. (When I first started this list, I never thought I’d include two Rene Zellweger films.)
Emile Hirsch falls in love with his 19-year-old neighbor Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), but soon learns she’s a porn star. His naïve reaction causes a rift between the couple. He discovers he’ll do just about anything to get her back – even if it means going toe-to-toe against her ex-boyfriend, a menacing porn producer played by Timothy Olyphant. The marketing for this film, oddly, didn’t seem to know how to sell it. Allow me to help 15 years after the fact. The Girl Next Door is the best 1980s teen sex comedy made outside the 80s. Some have tried to lump this in with other raunchy comedies, but it’s not aiming for letchy – it’s funny and heartfelt but brutally serious when it needs to be. By the final reel, The Girl Next Door actually fancies itself something of a heartwarming movie. It’s not entirely wrong.
The life of Danny, a traveling salesman (Greg Kinnear in full Jack Lemmon workaday-schlep mode), takes a complicated turn when he wanders into a Mexican bar and meets a mysterious stranger named Julian – who may or may not be a contract killer. As Julian, Pierce Brosnan embraces an anti-Bond persona and gives his mustachioed eccentric real pathos and depth of character. As Danny becomes further entangled in Julian’s orbit, The Matador explores what it means to embrace life when life seems stacked against you. Brosnan gives a career best performance, and Hope Davis shines (as always) as Danny’s hyper-enthusiastic wife.
Before Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and director Michael Hazanavicious brought us The Artist (that Oscar-winning ode to silent film), they first served up this pitch-perfect parody/homage to the OSS 117 spy films from the 1950s-60s. Dujardin’s Buster Keaton physicality brings a slapstick quality to the manic action sequences, but it’s often just the simple, timely tilt of an eyebrow that elicits the biggest response. There will never be a better chicken-based comedic set-piece in the history of cinema.
A quirky and surreal story about 11-year-old Will Proudfoot, a boy sheltered by his religious mother and who isn’t allowed to watch television. Will meets Lee Carter, a spoiled rich kid without boundaries who introduces him to – not just television – but Rambo: First Blood. The iconic Sylvester Stallone character becomes Will’s guide through the forest of childhood and Will and Lee set out to make a movie on their home camcorder called “Son of Rambow.” This charmingly eccentric film celebrates the boundless imagination of youth and the power of cinema itself. The child actors, Bill Milner and Will Poulter, give smart, nuanced performances that remind us what it’s like to dream big and without fear.
Failed actor turned high school drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) spends his days trying to please a disinterested wife and the editor of the high school paper who’s always ragging on his plays. When the school threatens to shutter the drama department, Dana goes all in on his own original creation – a musical sequel to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Spoofing the well-trodden “inspiring teacher” genre (see: Dead Poets Society, Lean On Me, Dangerous Minds, etc.) the movie’s gags don’t always land, but Hamlet 2’s musical sequences, like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” make up for its other shortcomings. Steve Coogan shepherds the movie in wonderful, bizarre directions and the supporting cast of Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Amy Poehler, and Elisabeth Shue just seem to enjoy the bumpy ride.
Dark-ish political humor for fans that enjoy a subtle twist of phrase. British and American operatives, advisers, aides and arbitrary talking heads debate whether or not to go to war. The spirit of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove lives within. Fans of Iannucci’s HBO TV series, Veep, will recognize the familiar banter. You’ll smile along with the clever turns of phrase as In the Loop builds to full-blown laugh-out-loud chuckles. The cyclical arguments and layered posturing provide the perfect playground for running gags and escalating political hyperbole that doesn’t actually seem all that surreal anymore.
James David Patrick is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a movie-watching problem. He has a degree in Film Studies from Emory University that gives him license to discuss Russian Shakespeare adaptations at cocktail parties. You’ll find him crate diving at local record shops. James blogs about movies, music and 80’s nostalgia at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.