Was 2021 the end of comedies?
In Slate’s Annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails other critics — this year, Bilge Ebiri, Alison Willmore, and Odie Henderson — about the year at the movies. Below, entry 11.
Dana, Odie, Alison—
How can I track this? There is no way I can (or should) match Odie’s musical styles. I still get night sweats sometimes when I remember the time Amy Nicholson asked me to write a poem for The Movie Club, even though I ended up responding with a poem about the Clint Eastwood movie. The mule. (The mule! Remember The mule? Done during the time when Clint was a spirited and courageous 88 year old man.)
I’m not good at inventing music and lyrics, but I a m good at coming up with completely random, silly thoughts that drift from one insane, unlikely place to another, and so Alison’s list of great 2021 movie scenes got me thinking. First of all, I was intrigued by how many scenes she cited were musical scenes in non-musical movies (CODA, Bergman Island, Belfast, Barb and Star go to Vista del Mar), which perhaps says something about this very musical year. But it also reminded me of Jamie Dornan and how charming he was Barb and star. And then I thought more about Barb and star, which I’ve now seen something like four times and probably should have been somewhere in my Top 20.
And then, because I was already thinking about The mule, I started to think of another Eastwood movie, Richard jewell. (I promise it’s going somewhere.) Which then reminded me of Our King, Paul Walter Hauser, who gave one of the really great performances in a not so good movie with his turn. Bowling This year. And then I thought, um … Bowling. Barb and star. One was good, the other was not so good. The two had hilarious, stage-stealing performances. Both were… what word am I looking for here? It’s like… a movie… with funny scenes in it… and do you laugh? The Elders had a word for it, I think I remember. Maybe I should consult a history book.
Guess what I’m getting at is, was 2021 the year the motion picture finally passed away?
Last year, Alison and I engaged in a conversation with our fellow Vulture Jesse David Fox, one of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the world when it comes to humor, about the fate of the theatrical comedy movie. . Of course, that was at the very start of the pandemic (which is bittersweet to say now, because it was August, and if at the time you told someone that August 2020 would count as “the first days of the pandemic” they would have shot you out of a cannon), then some of us were wondering if we could never see a movie in theaters, let alone a comedy. But still, it seemed like comedies in particular had struggled even before the pandemic – and the pandemic had only accelerated their demise.
But last year we actually have had real comedy films, although often forced by circumstances to be released in streaming or on demand: Palm springs, Eurovision, An american pickle, The King of Staten Island, Irresistible, Lovebirds, Hubie Halloween, Borat 2. Not all of them were good, that’s for sure. But they were definitely comedies. A practical cornucopia, compared to the fallow land that 2021 was.
This year, what have we had? We had a few animated movies (and let me just say, thank goodness for The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Encanto, and The SpongeBob SquarePants movie: the runaway sponge), and we had a lot of very serious (and often meaningful) humorous speeches. But real, pure and simple comedies that make you laugh were surprisingly rare. Most films were more interested in being big adventure blockbusters than Jumanji (Jungle cruise) or were reboots / sequels to beloved / better classics. I haven’t seen the new one ghost hunters (because I was worried that I would have to have an opinion on this, and besides, how could this or any movie fit into the greatness of Ghost hunters 2?) but I saw Coming 2 America, which was slightly funny. The suicide squad was sometimes funny. Red rocket was often quite funny. The French dispatch should have been funnier, but at least he tried.
However, you know the types of movies I’m talking about, the kind of movies that we really don’t have anymore. Barb and star was great, but it seemed designed for cult movie status: I suspect it alienated as many viewers as it enchanted. During this time I always come back to Bowling, which (aside from Our King, Paul Walter Hauser, and a very playful Vince Vaughn) looked like a fuzzy palimpsest of the kind of movie that would have stunned them in the Before Times. Looking back, I want to see him again, because it feels like an ending, the last member of an endangered species. Maybe I’ll buy the Blu-ray and put it in an air-conditioned room, where he can quietly live out his last days of solitude in peace and comfort.
What really struck me this year about the comedy shortage was how people who should have known better seemed to have abandoned it. I want to say, Being the Ricardos is a film about two real people who created one of the greatest comedies of all time, and… did I laugh once? I get it, it’s supposed to be a serious (really bad) movie, but still, would that have killed Aaron Sorkin to make it a funny movie as well? Meanwhile the shrill, scattered, scolding, scornful Do not seek is a movie directed by someone who until a few years ago I would have called one of the greatest comedic minds of our time (and until Vice, I hadn’t seen a single Adam McKay movie that I didn’t love) but now seems to have forgotten the first thing about being funny.
OKAY, it is not quite fair: there are about 20-30 hilarious minutes quite early in Don’t look up right after Leo and JLaw make their first TV appearance and she goes viral as a crazy screaming banshee and he goes viral as a hot astronomer daddy the internet wants to fuck who has me had stitches, and didn’t accidentally serve as the kind of scathing social critic the movie was trying to be. It also reminded me of how much better and more effective the rest of the movie would have been if it had been, you know, funny. I keep thinking about the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels, about a comedy director who desperately wants to make a serious and important film about serious and important subjects, but who learns in his travels that making people laugh can do more to heal the world than any social drama he wants to do.
Elsewhere I loved it Last night in Soho, which is certainly not a comedy, but I think Edgar Wright is one of the great comedy directors of our time and I would like him to come back to that one day. (I’ve reviewed my Cornetto Trilogy Blu-rays like three times this year. Let me reiterate here that the end of the world is one of the greatest movies ever to be made.)
Hope to be too negative. Maybe there is a backlog of comedies just waiting to meet audiences in 2022. At least we get a new one. Donkey movie. Apparently we’ll see Jack Black onscreen again in the New Year. And maybe Adam Sandler will realize that the Oscar he so aspires to win will one day be awarded to him for a comedy, in the same way that Clint Eastwood got his first Oscar for a western. But I really feel like when we lose the ability to laugh out loud together – and I mean actually laugh, not just typing “LOL” and laughing quietly: weird and terrible things are happening to us. The world becomes a little more lifeless and cruel when you lose the ability to laugh out loud. It becomes… well, kind of like the world we live in now.
Tell a joke, save a life
Read the previous entry.