Getting by in four recent American comedies

by

comment

Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine in Bernie
  • Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine in Bernie
To echo J.R. Jones's sentiments from last week, this was an exceptional year for film comedy in general and for American comedies in particular. I didn't include Bernie, Magic Mike, Moonrise Kingdom, or Silver Linings Playbook in my top-ten list, but only because I couldn't decide which one I liked best. All four movies are formally accomplished and made me laugh a lot. In addition, they're so thematically similar that I have trouble thinking about them individually.

Notwithstanding Jack Black's exceptional lead performance in Bernie, all four can be described as ensemble comedies—or, more to the point, communal comedies, as they concern the workings of close-knit groups. The groups are quirky in nature but ultimately functional—the subtext of these films is that misfits work together more successfully than "normal" people, since they realize they can't make it through life alone.

Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom
  • Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom
Of the four, Moonrise Kingdom advances this argument with the greatest technical sophistication. Wes Anderson seems to have based his direction on Benjamin Britten's symphonic music, organizing potentially contrasting elements into a unified whole. (To stress the point, he begins and ends the film with children explaining on the soundtrack how symphonic composers utilize the entire orchestra.) The neophyte kid actors and the 16-millimeter cinematography seem unrefined in contrast to Anderson's detailed compositions and the resourceful performances by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, and Frances McDormand; yet these qualities end up reinforcing one another, resulting in a harmonious portrait of a makeshift family. The final images are among the most satisfying I saw all year. Willis picks up his new foster son (Jared Gilman) from Bill Murray and McDormand's home; the kid climbs out of his girlfriend's window to meet him, and this shot reveals he's wearing the same local police uniform as Willis. With modest authority, Anderson reconciles the movie's themes—civil order and domestic life, eccentric behavior and the need for community.

Chris Tucker and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
  • Chris Tucker and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook
There's a similar sense of summation in the last scenes of Silver Linings Playbook, which also charts the commingling of charming kooks. Throughout the film, David O. Russell builds several sound, Hawksian motifs around obsessive routine—namely jogging, letter-writing, and watching football. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's final run recalls their jogs throughout the film (just as Cooper's reading a letter to Lawrence recalls the other letters he writes and reads in the film), making their declaration of love feel like the natural culmination of what's come before. In a masterstroke, Russell concludes the scene with an unstable tracking shot away from the characters, a deliberate reversal of the shaky tracks into the action the director had used to illustrate the emotional extremes of bipolar disorder. The movie could very well end there, but Russell can't resist a final scene showing the major characters united to watch a football game at the main characters' home. Unlike Moonrise Kingdom, Silver Linings trades in disunity (nearly every major character is emotionally unstable, lacking the familiar pathology of Anderson's straight-up depressives), so seeing everyone enjoy themselves at once feels like a triumph.

Neither film suggests that its characters have beaten their problems entirely—they've simply found a sympathetic group that accommodates each others' faults. Richard Linklater's Bernie may be a more radical film than either, as it implies an entire town can operate in such a manner if left to its own devices. As it appears in the movie, Carthage, Texas, isn't an especially enlightened place, but its denizens seem to put up with one another as if they were a great extended family. Other critics have remarked on how the movie treats the title character's ambiguous sexual identity as a nonissue. It's one of the cleverest moves in this ever-subtle film, as it foreshadows the townspeople's decision to stand by Bernie after they learn he's committed murder. In the eyes of the community, Bernie's ongoing value to the town (as a little-league coach, financial advisor, amateur-theater director . . . he's like a grown-up version of Anderson's Max Fischer!) outweighs any of his interpersonal failings. Linklater casts many of the real-life citizens of Carthage as themselves: coming out of their mouths, the film's subversive message sounds like plain-old common sense. Amid so much naturalism, Matthew McConaughey's comic villain (a status-seeking district attorney who puts Bernie away for life) seems even more like a caricature.

The strippers of Magic Mike
  • The strippers of Magic Mike
Magic Mike featured another terrific performance by McConaughey as an arrogant peacock, in this case the manager of an all-male strip club. The community depicted here is less supportive than those of the four films, marked by jealousy and frequent infighting. And yet Steven Soderbergh's naturalistic portrait of Recession-era Tampa confirms what the other movies imply about American society: that our culture's obsession with getting ahead makes too many people selfish or lonely. The film is elegantly structured, mirroring Channing Tatum's growing humility with Alex Pettyfer's transformation into a social-climbing monster. Like Silver Linings, it ends with the union of two lovers, Tatum's would-be entrepreneur and Cody Horn's levelheaded bureaucrat. Soderbergh holds them in one of his deadpan long takes, and one can sense a more modest, pragmatic order beginning with the two of them.

Find out how you can help

Add a comment