Tag Archives: Comedy

This Is 40

This Is 40

This Is 40 (2012)

Universal Pictures

Director: Judd Apatow

Main Cast: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Megan Fox, Jason Segel


Judd Apatow’s movies are very much within the mainstream cultural sphere, but within the necessary constraints of Hollywood, his films often explore the limits of doing what you love and how his characters can’t (or choose not to) enjoy themselves.  Put another way, the characters go through this process of trying to change their desires, to go from being, essentially, adolescent young adults, to mature adults.  C.G. Jung termed this “individuation”, the kind of “second puberty” that happens at age 35-40 (if it happens at all) where the individual is (re)integrated into a social collective — illustrated by Goethe‘s Conversations of German Refugees: Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years or The Renunciants.  (Goethe was a huge influence on Jung, inspiring many of the latter’s theories of analytic psychology).

Reviewer Onethink summarized the film this way in a review:

“Debbie and Pete (Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd) live in the American dream: they have a luxurious house, flash cars, two daughters who go to a nice middle class school, they own their own businesses – and the businesses are hip and trendy: she runs a chic fashion outlet, he runs a record company. But not everything is rosy. The businesses are failing. Debbie has deep anxieties about growing old – so she lies about her age and has a personal trainer and begins faddy eating regimes: all the things middle class Americans should do. And, typically for a male Apatow character, Pete has certain maturity issues: is his record company not so much a business as a strategy to still feel young and hip? As parents they go from the lenient to the draconian. And their fathers bring a couple of variations: both are monstrous, one clinging and dependent, a nightmare image of a ‘failed’ adult, the other aloof and distant, a nightmare image of a ‘successful’ adult.”

The parts about work are interesting.  Miya Tokumitsu wrote the most popular article ever on a magazine’s web site, and later expanded that article into a book, about the trouble with the injunction to “do what you love” for work/career.  Making much the same point more generally, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek frequently states that the injunction of contemporary ruling society is to “enjoy,” that the superego perversely demands that we enjoy that which is really our duty, traumatically and painfully depriving us of free will to choose what we enjoy at the very point a choice is seemingly offered, stigmatizing us.  The characters in This Is 40 seem to have the jobs/businesses they want, or are supposed to want.  But they are forced to make money to support an upper middle class lifestyle.  Is it that they want these jobs, specifically, or want these jobs to support the lifestyle that they really want?  Or do they want a different lifestyle altogether?  Is it that everyone around them wants them to have their lifestyle, forcing it on them?  Is it possible for them to want something apart from what those around them want them to want?

If the central parts of the film are politicized — and why not look at the film that way? — then the conservative view is to dislike the main characters Debbie and Pete, the centrist-liberal view is to sympathize with them, and the leftist view is to appreciate them as unreliable narrators of sorts.  The conservative view would be that these failing entrepreneurs are properly subject to market forces, and any of their failings in the market are their personal failings.  The film is wrong then, in a sense, in sympathizing with the ambitions of the failed businesspeople, who fail because they should — they are failures.  And the characters are unsympathetic because they turn against “traditional values.”  The centrist-liberal view is to value the many varied people in the film, to each their own (a multicultural, identity politics paradise), and the conflict of the characters not fulfilling their promise and expectations needs to be resolved.  The film is correct, therefore, to sympathize with its characters.  Everyone deserves to be happy.  The left view, however, sees the main characters as not particularly likeable, or at least as Onethink says, monstrous in their way.  These are just a bunch of stupid people, as stupid as any, and the challenge is how to educate them to accept responsibility for creating meaning in their lives — even their professed desires may be unreliable or stupid.  This reads the film to the left of the film’s ostensibly “professional” Hollywood perspective, which is centrist-liberal, by saying the main characters aren’t really as likable as they are presented to be.  While Apatow doesn’t go as far in rehabilitating antiheroes as, say, Pasolini with Accatone or Korine with Gummo, then he at least takes a Hollywood movie and cracks open the possibility for this perspective from within it (and he does so with a bit more finesse than, say, The Company Men or just about any “little” Hollywood side-project film with big-name actors but little marketing).

The film has very realistic main characters, and the acting is generally excellent.  Really, there are great, subtle moments from Mann and Rudd all over, helped by very strong screenwriting.  The very dull moments actually help that along — the quirks of hiding from family members in a shared house, obsessions with material things, resort to therapy/counseling techniques.  Some of the peripheral characters are a bit thin and one-dimensional, or implausibly exaggerated.  But these minor characters are mostly present to add humor to the film, setting up jokes and gags.  But this is a comedy, and it probably wouldn’t succeed as being one without those set-ups, however artificial.  And there are mostly white people in this closed universe — not to say that there is something inherently wrong with that, but the restricted experiences of white people form implicit boundaries around the film’s ambitions and perspective.  Give this credit though for a fairly balanced mix of male and female characters with substantive parts, and not just of a romantic type — these female characters engage each other without any males present.

The film’s ending is archetypical Apatow: it is a “Hollywood” ending, complete with facile, happy resolution of the major plot points and conflict, and yet, it actually is not entirely that at all.  The film ends with a bit of a “fuck it all!” attitude, but without any guilt about it.  The two main characters, at least, tentatively accept that there is no one (or no thing) that will provide meaning for their lives, or their relationship.  As their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow) loom larger in the second half of the film, the two main characters Debbie and Pete recognize that their parents can’t be faulted for failing to provide meaning for them — nothing and no one can do that.  Even the angst about selling their upscale house to make ends meet is an admission that having that particular material possession won’t validate their existence.  But rather than wallowing in existential dread, they reform and reassert their couple relationship, and their family structure.  This is what philosopher Alain Badiou calls a “two scene”: the positive existential project to see the world from the point of view of difference rather than identity, “to construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.”  This is basically a specific type of individuation.  The ending isn’t the film’s strongest section, but it manages to make a compromise with the happy ending in a way most Hollywood films can’t (think about how As Good As It Gets sets up a premise for an inevitable downer ending, then winds up with the usual happy one anyway).  The small kernel of radicalness in this film is that even though the married couple chooses to stay together at the end, they get there through free will.  They don’t just resign themselves to social dictates.  Instead they overcome the injunction to enjoy what they are demanded to do, and instead make their own choice, which happens to be to maintain a stable nuclear family, even if they aren’t strictly happy as a result — they end up with a space where they don’t have to enjoy their social duties.  This is in contrast to, say, the rather one-dimensional character Desi, who is totally confined to play a particular role, without free will (note how Debbie declines that lifestyle in the film).  Returning to Zizek, he says, “The problem today is not how to get rid of your inhibitions and to be able to spontaneously enjoy. The problem is how to get rid of this injunction to enjoy.”  If there is danger in seeing the film’s ending as radical (think of the questions raised about asserting that a woman shopping is a feminist act), then at least the film as a whole provides enough to make the ending a kind of vector rather than a static point, it occupies the same space as that static point but it points somewhere, from where it was to where it is going.

This is 40 is a much better and deeper film that it seems.  Definitely Apatow at his best.

Baskets

Baskets

Baskets (2015- )

FX

Director: Jonathan Krisel

Main Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Martha Kelly, Louie Anderson


Situated between the films of Wes Anderson — sentimental tales of oddballs who fail to live up to their promise — and Louis C.K.‘s TV show Louie — eccentric, philosophical “dramedy” drawing from disparate elements of tenderness and cruelty — plus drawing on the past work of star Zack Galifianakis — full of sudden and futile yet endearingly harmless rage.  Louis C.K. (co-creator, co-executive producer and a writer of the show) seems especially prominent in influencing the way the show emphasizes the grandeur in the sheer range of opposites in human emotions and relationships.  It is the idea that sadness, heartbreak, anger and frustration are as valuable as satisfaction, joy and serenity.  Much of Baskets revolves around a particularly compelling vision of friendship and family, one that sees deeper value in people choosing again and again to stick together through fights, failures and temptations than in one-dimensional portrayals that are all smiles, hand-holding and shared values.  Pushing this a bit further, the point is that incongruous, even antithetical sentiments coexist in juxtaposition with each other without either merging into some kind of unified hybrid or one set of happy/good values victoriously dissolving an opposite set of values.  Many of the best qualities of the various relationships between characters emerge only after the worst qualities come out, and only because of that coupling.  The main characters stick together through often painful hurdles.  It is a paradoxical sort of triumph that embraces its own messiness.  Don’t wait for transcendence in this series.

The main character Chip Baskets is a “classically trained” clown (really a French mime) who moves back home to Bakersfield, California and takes a job as a rodeo clown.  He transitions from being “Renoir” the clown to “Baskets” the clown.  Flying in the face of the role of a rodeo clown — protecting rodeo riders from bulls — he performs pretentiously unhelpful artistic routines in the face of complete audience indifference, if not outright hostility, as the bulls run him down.  Galifianakis is forced to come to terms with one humiliation after another — often entirely self-inflicted — and with his life being seen as a total failure by most of the world outside a meager handful of companions.  He is hopelessly naïve.  Time and again he takes foolish pride in absurd rituals, inconsequential achievements and ridiculous demands — like going to a fast-food restaurant drive-through window and trying to order from a long list of obscure drinks such a place would never have, mentoring a fellow rodeo clown into the normalcy of a low-wage fast food job, or watching a short demo video that came with a new television set over and over again to marvel at the picture quality.  Despite his narrow pursuit of “classical” clowning he has almost no sense of social norms or how to earn a conventional living.  At least, he seems to avoid succumbing to the dictates of norms and conventions.  The show clearly has sympathy for him anyway, or maybe because of that intuitive, ersatz defiance.

Martha Kelly and Louie Anderson are fantastic in supporting roles.  The show (most of the way through the first season at least) never falls short on great performances.  The show comes close to a Felliniesque parade of grotesque characters, with a slant toward the pathetic.

This is one of the most arty and elusive shows on American TV.  At the moment it is also one of the best.

“Weird Al” Yankovic – The Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic

The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic

“Weird Al” YankovicThe Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic Legacy 88697-58543-2 (2009)


Weird Al has forged a career much longer than anyone would have guessed when he first started making parody songs in conjunction with the Dr. Demento radio show.  The essential character of his music has been to appeal to individuals, mostly young men, whose aspirations and expectations extend beyond their realistic chances for social advancement in life.  He appeals to people with more time and (pop) cultural interests than money, whose lives tend to be dominated by people and forces outside their control — his career tracks pretty closely a time when a gap expanded between worker productivity and real compensation and his popularity came when the gap proved to be a real long-term trend (plus his biggest commercial successes were after the 2007-08 financial crash around the time this collection was released).  His humor tends to play on an awareness of the base and trifling nature of consumer pop culture.  It kind of stops there though.  He winks with his audience in making fun of trashy mass media artifacts, all the while resigning himself to the dictates of that mass media and all its whims.  Al’s music kind of resigns itself to the pop culture ghetto, and in many respects breeds dependency on it.

He performed parody songs but also wrote original comedy songs.  Those who like Weird Al best always express a fondness for his originals.  Some of this songs are more medleys of popular songs, done in a novelty manner.  Take “Polka on 45”  (from his second album In 3D).  He does a medley of mostly pop/rock songs played as polkas with his accordion.  This sort of mashup of the “hip”, contemporary pop with passé and all-to-ethnic polka might be compared to some of Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photography, or other such “high” art, but no one does.  Al gets a laugh from the incongruity of throwing the different styles together that normally appeal to mutually exclusive audiences who listen to certain genres of music to separate themselves from the other genres, obliterating those attempts at social distinction.  “One More Minute” (from his third, and maybe best album Dare to Be Stupid) is a retro rock/doo-wop romantic put-down tune in the style of The Mothers of Invention (like “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” from Freak Out!), but pushed to absurdist extremes in its lyrical exaggerations.

Over time, Al kind of got formulaic.  That isn’t to say his music ever got bad.  But the early material was something a little new.  There were no guarantees that it would be popular, any more than a passing fad.  Al’s kind of self-aware musical irony was a way to normalize and humanize the vacuousness of pop culture.  Over time, that seemed less daring and more of a favor to the institutions of the music industry.  There are many stories of celebrity musicians being proud that Weird Al parodied one of their songs.  That sort of confirms Al’s insider status.  This was the same problem the pop/punk band DEVO faced.

Weird Al is kind of a great musician for kids to listen to, because his self-awareness provides good lessons for young people.  Yet adults should, in theory, kind of move on to deeper, more informed critiques of pop culture.  That isn’t to say this music can’t be enjoyed by grown-ups.  It can.  This collection, which was selected by Al himself, if nothing else proves how good Al’s band was, how astute his awareness of the nuances of pop culture was (including which songs were worth parodying), and how his broad humor managed to avoid quickly dated jokes based on easily-forgotten current events.  This particular collection isn’t exhaustive, and it omits multiple albums.  But it still makes a decent introduction to his career.

“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun

Mandatory Fun

“Weird Al” YankovicMandatory Fun RCA 88843-09375-2 (2014)


“Weird Al” Yankovic is kind of a cheerleader for capitalism.  The cover and liner notes of Mandatory Fun utilize communist kitsch imagery, but that is only to underscore that Al puts himself on the side of the capitalists.  In a way, the title “Mandatory Fun” implies authoritarianism — long associated with communist regimes during the cold war (when Al grew up) — though (perhaps unintentionally) it now connotes both the command to “enjoy” at the heart of modern times in the capitalist world and the competitive imperative to have a faculty with pop culture to seem aware and cultured.  Al himself even noted that the title refers to “an oxymoron that I’ve always been amused by. It’s used a lot in corporate retreats and, I’m told, in the military.”  References to business, corporate and marketing jargon reach a pinnacle in “Mission Statement” (recalling the frankly superior satire on the 1998 episode “Joshua” of the defunct TV show “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” with a tune reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash folk-rock).  But you might notice the absence of any parodies of socialist realist music on the album — Al doesn’t seem familiar with that music or the cultural forces behind it.

This music tries to use rapport building to win over its audience.  Take Al’s use of the accordion.  He plays the instrument precisely because it is considered passé in dominant culture.  So he plays it anyway, ironically.  This way the audience gets to be in on the joke, so-to-speak.  They are privileged to know that it is not the accepted instrumentation in an era of guitars (still) and electronics.  They can enjoy transgressing the silent injunction regarding the “proper” instrumentation for pop music.

Yankovic’s early work is fantastic, at its best.  It still holds up decades later.  And through the years he has continually proven to be an astute and dedicated observer of popular culture, translating those observations into ironically witty musical comedy songs.  Many of his songs are parodies, but some are originals.  Sometimes the originals are the best ones, like “Sports Song” here, which skewers the vapid, substanceless “us vs. them” hoopla around the big business of sports.  His vocals are set against the sorts of marching band “fight song” music today reserved for collegiate football (and sometimes basketball) games.  Al’s take on sports seems implicitly centered around (American) football, though the way he approaches the mainstream sports culture it hardly seems different from pro wrestling “sports entertainment” with aggressively flamboyant announcers and good guys vs. heels in the ring.

In an episode of the cable TV show “The Big Interview” featuring Yankovic, host Dan Rather commented that Al’s music (and associated comedy) is very good-natured.  This is an easy position to adopt because Al is not really opposed to the status quo.  He jests about the nature of present society, but he never challenges it.  The way he goes about that appeals to the least successful participants in the rat race.  It’s a bid for knowing moral superiority for people who probably aren’t succeeding on other — especially economic and political — terms.  He caters to an underclass that doesn’t want to admit it is an underclass.  With the decline of the power of working people in an age of austerity politics it kind of makes sense that Al’s career has only grown through the years.  Mandatory Fun was the best-selling album of his long career, earning critical praise and awards as well.

Frankly, this isn’t Al’s best.  Much of its commercial success comes from timing.  Yet it’s not a bad album either.  It has always helped that his longtime backing band is pretty great.  Plus when Al parodies songs that are pretty good to start with (like the “Tacky” parody of Pharrell‘s “Happy”) you get most of the benefits of the original song.  But Al has not expanded his palette much in decades.

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading (2008)

Focus Features

Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Main Cast: Frances McDormandJohn Malkovich, George ClooneyTilda Swinton, Brad Pitt


Admittedly, the only Cohen Brothers movie that I’ve ever liked is The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).  But I came to Burn After Reading not realizing it was a Cohen Brothers movie.  Anyway, the plot here is one part expanded love triangle (akin to Sartre’s No Exit) and the other part zany spy comedy.  Unsurprisingly, the characters are caricatures, and the audience is supposed to smugly view themselves above them.  Each runs about chasing after an image of themselves they want others to adopt, be it Makovich’s uncompromising intellectual, Clooney’s athletic lothario, or McDormand’s youthful striver, yet they all find no one really interested (much like Jason Alexander‘s character George Costanza can’t find anyone to adopt his desired nickname “T-Bone” in an episode of TV’s Seinfeld).  The film wants to be kind of like a Kafka novel, probing the emptiness of formal law and order, but it stumbles as it mocks pretty much all of the central characters.  Nobody in the film ever sublimates their venal greed and desires.  Brad Pitt’s character is about the only one the filmmakers can’t mock effectively, because they never really present him as having any ambitions beyond exercising and being a dope.  Put this next to Orson Welles‘ Kafka adaptation of The Trial (1962) and it seems a bit weak.  Sure, there is some good acting and a few funny gags.  But the film sort of preys upon “simple” folks as targets for ridicule.  It would be a far more subversive film if it included some of the CIA bigwigs or other peripheral yet powerful characters in the film and also held up their stupid desires and dreams for ridicule (perhaps like early Miloš Forman films).  As it stands, Burn After Reading is about halfway to a good film.  But only halfway.

Drunk History

Drunk History Comedy Central (2013- )


There is a silly television show called “Drunk History” on a cable network in which comedians consume alcohol to the point of drunkenness and then re-tell the story of some historical incident or personality.  Well-known actors reenact the story and lip-sync to the narration of the drunken storyteller, with absolutely meticulous fidelity to the words of the storyteller, belches and all.  There is a hidden secret as to what makes the premise of the show intriguing.  The reenactments are not faithful to “historical fact”.  Instead, they are faithful to the inebriated ramblings of the storyteller.  The historical accounts are like myths.  The drunk storytellers clearly have some sort of script in hand, and have done some amount of research beforehand.  But they act (or maybe really are) too drunk to tell the story in an articulate and nuanced manner.  So the show dramatizes the myth in a way that makes the act of mythologization evident–that’s the funny part.  This is like the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  It also makes the show a “pragmatic reflective history,” according the G.W.F. Hegel in Reason in History (1837), because it “nullifies the past and makes the event present.”