My Take by Jim Carl
Jim’s Top 5 Favorite Forgotten Comedies
My editor (whose name I have never learned) asked for a list of 10 movies, but the title to this blog seemingly wrote itself, so I only picked five movies and watched Snowbeast on YouTube instead. Whatever. I did limit myself, however, to a theme: All of these comedies were considered box-office bombs. If the film was a big, juicy hit like Wedding Crashers, Big Daddy, or Meet the Fockers, I disqualified it. (Not only because those particular comedies have already received a fair share of recognition, but because they were goddamn wastes of celluloid and mentioning them in my blog lowers the quality of my prose.) I'm also disqualifying anything deemed as a "camp classic" such as Mommie Dearest and Gymkata. My purpose here is to throw a bone to a few poor, forgotten flops and convince readers to join me for the big win. Even a box-office misfire can have some terrific performances, and some of the films listed below deserve to be recognized. It's not like there's a shortage of shitty movies on Netflix.
Lastly, in no way should this list be considered a rundown of my personal favorite comedies, which is something altogether different and---when my pushy editor finally gets around to demanding that I write it---will probably get nominated by the AFI or the BFI or the SAG for some fancy award or gala. Instead, this is merely a list of films I appreciate and wish would be rediscovered. Or at least re-examined. (Ishtar took 26 years before it was finally released on Blu-ray this year and it’s slowly experiencing revisionism, but it’s not quite there yet.) Are these great comedies? Not at all, but I enjoy them. If you’re surfing though Netflix, looking for something fun, you could do a lot worse than these five gems, I’m only saying.
Whenever my doctors ask me to visit my “Happy Place”, I think about these movies.
1) THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU (1979)
The brilliance of Fiendish Plot is not apparent. It forces you to search for that brilliance. I have certain friends who believe they're smarter than me; poor, deluded souls. They test my patience by asking me to watch movies they know will make me feel stupid. And while there are many things to like about being the curator of a film series like Retro, deep thinking is not one of them. If I wanted to be a deep thinker, I'd have joined Mensa or NASA (neither of which have returned my calls or letter-writing campaigns, I'm only saying.) Sometimes, my buddies force me to watch movies like Mullholland Drive or Life of Pi, for example, just to see how I cope with them. In turn, I insist they watch Fiendish Plot, and we later compare notes to see who feels the most dumbstruck. Most never make it past Helen Mirren's rendition of "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-Wow." How else can I describe the hellish delight I experience when watching this, Peter Sellers' final film, and the one that's almost universally agreed-upon to be among his worst? From the opening image of Sellers' at the pipe organ to the out-of-left-field musical number that ends the film ("Fu Music!"), I cannot recall another comedy that brings me more joy.
2) KISS ME GOODBYE (1982)
Watch the scene where Sally Field first encounters the ghost of her dead husband (James Caan), a Broadway musical producer who died several years earlier in a freak accident. Sally's now moving back into the New York brownstone where they once lived, no matter that it’s haunted. (And considering the price of New York real estate, who can blame her?) “Well excuse me, if speaking to the ghost of my dead husband happens to upset me a little bit!” she snaps upon seeing him. On paper, this line is unremarkable. In the hands of an experienced comedic actress like Field, it’s hilarious. It’s all about the delivery. This is a sweet romantic comedy that hardly anyone remembers, and that’s a shame. Here’s Jeff Bridges in a rare thankless role as the “boyfriend”, but he’s such a trooper that he pulls through unscathed. Urban legend tells me that James Caan had such a miserable time making this movie, he quit the film business for several years. I have no idea why. I much prefer this comedy to the films he later made in the 80s such as Gardens of Stone and Alien Nation.
3) LOST IN AMERICA (1985)
Lost in America, written and directed by Albert Brooks, is a rare satire that finds its tone and stays entirely within its own universe. It's not broad and slapstick, as in the Monty Python films or the Christopher Guest movies, but exists in a world that feels real, especially if you’re a child of the 1980’s who rebelled against the Greed Generation. Brooks plays an advertising executive in his 30s who quits his job, convinces his wife to quit hers, and takes to the open road in a Winnebago to pursue the American Dream. It’s also about how that dream, little by little, falls apart for them in Las Vegas. Basically, this film defines the yuppie generation of the 1980s, and defines it lovingly, with many small details, background information, and subtle touches. Brooks takes the time to prepare for each payoff. One laugh comes after the other. If you’re a child of this generation, every joke will resonate, and sometimes that laugh will be at your own uncomfortable expense. If not, this will be an 80’s nightmare and you’re better off watching the latest Will Ferrell/Johnny Knoxville stoner flick. As much as I love Broadcast News, this is Mr. Brooks’ finest hour.
4) GUARDING TESS (1994)
Nobody plays cranky, tough old broads like Shirley MacLaine. Here, she’s a former First Lady who spends her golden years tormenting the CIA agents assigned to protect her, including poor Nicholas Cage. The movies we most remember, the ones we watch again and again, don't always have esoteric, heady themes. Sometimes they remain with us because they are insights to the types of people we wished we could be. There’s a scene near the mid-point of this film that has the emotional payoff we’ve been awaiting since the opening credits. MacLaine sits alone in her bedroom, watching old television footage of her husband’s funeral. Every few seconds, she rewinds the video, and it takes us a few moments to understand what she’s searching for. As the camera pans across the faces of everyone in the cathedral, we see Nicholas Cage as the only person who’s truly mourning. Suddenly our understanding of their relationship elevates past the odd-couple storyline we believed we were watching and becomes a tale about two lonely souls. There is true poignancy in this comedy, and it only gets stronger as the movie progresses. MacLaine has received a lot of critical acclaim throughout her career, but I consider her performance here to be a great forgotten one. Plus, it has Nicholas Cage before falling off his rocker.
5) OH GOD!, YOU DEVIL (1984)
After the first two Oh God movies, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a third outing, but certainly not the funniest, most-poignant American comedy since Tootsie. Oh God! You Devil was written by Andrew Bergman, who also penned Blazing Saddles and the Peter Falk/Alan Arkin version of The In-Laws. The story finds God having to save the soul of an aspiring musician who makes a deal with the Devil to become the world's most successful rock and roll singer. All of this sounds, I suspect, like the kind of movie you’ve seen a thousand times and could afford to miss, because a plot summary only suggests the elements of the movie, and not the persona George Burns brings to the screen. As in the first two films, this is Burns’ show. To say there is no movie here that would be worth watching without him is indeed only to point out another way in which this third film is like its predecessors. He’s delightful as God, but as the Devil, Burns shows he can also be cunning and acidic, which is a side of his personality we rarely ever get to see. Any movie where George Burns lights a cigar and says, “I love scaring the hell out of people,” is a must-see in my book.
What about you? What are some “forgotten comedies” that you wish would be rediscovered? Just remember, they must be mostly-forgotten box office flops.
Runners-Up: My Fellow Americans (1998), The In-Laws (1979), Seems Like Old Times (1980), S.O.B. (1981), Tommy Boy (1995), Back to the Beach (1987), Haunted Honeymoon (1986), Soapdish (1991), Wildcats (1985), Jocks (1985), The Devil and Max Devlin (1981) and many more.