A Shot in the Dark

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Star Wars, Apatow, and the Death of Classic Comedy

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My wife and I recently watched I Love You Again, a 1940 comedy starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The film’s setup is preposterous: Powell plays a small-town stuffed shirt who, conked on the head at sea, develops an amnesia that reverts him to his former self — a smooth-talking con artist with no recollection of the tedious man he’d become. When his ship returns to harbor, Loy, his bored and long-suffering wife, is there with divorce papers — but she soon becomes intrigued by this magnetic version of her husband.

Complications ensue, and as is generally the case with Powell and Loy, the movie glides along on a draft of high-toned pleasure. Though its running time is roughly an hour and a half, it felt like forty minutes. And as the credits rolled, my wife and I asked what we always ask when such comedies — not just those of Powell and Loy, but of Grant, Stewart, Katherine Hepburn and the rest — come to an end: Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?

The question isn’t rhetorical, but neither do we need it answered; the reason seems fairly clear. Films like I Love You Again, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story aren’t made anymore because they’re simply out of style, like short ties or fedoras or Chicken à la King.

This explanation, though, does not satisfy. Unlike adventure movies or “issue films” of similar vintage — the Oscar-winning but now-excruciating Gentleman’s Agreement comes to mind — those old comedies haven’t aged. Both Holiday and Judy Holliday remain sharp and smart; decades later, they still do what they were meant to do — extract our laughter — as efficiently as anything made today. To watch a Cukor or Thin Man film is to take a Packard for a spin and find, to your shock, that it outdrives current models.

So why don’t they make such Packards anymore? A recent New York Times Magazine essay, “‘The Hangover’ and the Age of The Jokeless Comedy,” touched on an answer as it outlined the movement from joke-a-minute comedies to The Hangover, Part II — which it called a “Saw-style torture-porn movie with a laugh track.” But the piece, for all its passion, didn’t say much about a possible root cause for the change: modern audiences’ overall sophistication, which has paradoxically rendered comedy less sophisticated.

There was a time when sci-fi directors could hang planets from strings and Dr. Zaius could speak through laughably stiff ape-lips. Audiences understood that effects had limitations, and could tolerate hand-painted backgrounds and monsters in rubber suits. But in 1977, Star Wars slashed a light saber through that tolerance. George Lucas’ exacting visual sense, aided by his own technology, instantly made his antecedents look baldly ludicrous. Godzilla was trounced by a nerd with a pompadour.

As he and Steven Spielberg bulldozed through the ‘80s, audiences came to expect no visual seams at all — and in the process, lost the willingness to do some of the work themselves. This expectation — that movies, whether set in space or in a Temple of Doom, should be effortless to watch — bled into comedy. The genre, dependent on setup and dialogue rather than effects, did more of the work by becoming more believable. The biggest comedies of the pre-Star Wars ‘60s and ‘70s — A Shot in the Dark, What’s Up, Doc?, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, M*A*S*H — felt no need to put us at narrative ease. Much like their screwball forerunners, they burst from the gate at a sprint and didn’t slow for stragglers.

Through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, however — as film technology advanced, culminating with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park — comedy grounded itself, its setups and settings becoming fully mundane: two Illinois losers do public-access TV and sing along to Queen. Texas teenagers get high and drive around. Clerks crack wise at work. Even hits of the era that in retrospect seem outlandish — Mrs. Doubtfire, Liar Liar, The Santa Clause — took ample time to explain their premises lest audiences squirm. Tim Allen couldn’t just be Santa Claus; we had to have the details — as well as a side-story about divorce, insanity, and visitation rights.

In recent years Judd Apatow and friends, with their hyper-familiar brand of hairy-assed humor, have issued a crushing blow to the suspension of disbelief — and made the gap between old comedy and new unbridgeable: William Powell’s amnesiac con man is now Bradley Cooper’s rohypnoled best man. My Favorite Wife was set into motion when Irene Dunne returned from a desert island; Forgetting Sarah Marshall begins when Jason Segel gets dumped and flies to Hawaii to sulk. The comedies of today must make us feel as if these things could happen to us: events like getting drunk, dumped, and knocked up are, rather than minor elements, now the meat of the thing. Seth Rogen, rumpled and unshaven, doesn’t look like a movie star, and that’s exactly the point. We’ve become unable to laugh along with anyone but ourselves.

All this has turned comedy — once a genre of experimentation — into cinema’s narrowest style. 1976 saw the release of the following comedies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Love and Death, The Sunshine Boys, Shampoo, Smile, The Return of the Pink Panther, Let’s Do It Again, Cooley High, and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. There is no clear through-line here; it was a year of satire, farce, screwball, and silliness. By contrast, this year’s comedies have been The Hangover Part II, Bad Teacher, Bridesmaids, Hall Pass, Take Me Home Tonight, and No Strings Attached — all featuring People Sort Of Like Us doing Naughty Things. Even The Change-Up dulled its body-switch setup with crap joke after crap joke. Individually, these may be funny movies; as a whole, the effect is smothering.

So this is not a heady time for fans of an older, less common comedy; Powell and Loy, breezing through nonsense plots, have never seemed more distant. Yet even now, there is hope from an unlikely source (and it’s not Johnny Depp, driver of a dreaded Thin Man remake). Woody Allen, once a specialist of just-go-with-it comedy — Bananas, Sleeper, Stardust Memories — has a legitimate hit with his Midnight in Paris. In it, Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender time-travels to the Paris of the past, getting his novel reviewed by Gertrude Stein and hanging with Dalí. He falls for a beautiful girl even though she might not exist. The film’s time-travel mechanics are never explained; Gil just hops into a limousine and gets out in the ‘20s. As vague and irrational as the device is, it works because it allows us to fill the blank spaces ourselves. Midnight in Paris proves that a sense of familiarity is an unnecessary cinematic crutch. One might say that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

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