By Preston Wilder
Comedy is hard, both to make and to measure reliably. It doesn’t translate in the way of horror, or big-budget action. Scary is scary, after all, and spectacular is spectacular – you can be impressed by expensive effects, even when they do nothing for you – but funny is entirely subjective, and nothing breeds contempt like a joke that doesn’t land. All three new releases at the multiplex are joke-fests this week, which is unprecedented and highly unusual: Hollywood studios have cut down on comedies, precisely because humour varies from person to person and culture to culture (hint: China) – which is actually fine because Hollywood tends to be useless at comedies, the latest exhibit being The House, a relentlessly crude and lazy movie. Then again – this being comedy – that’s only, like, my opinion, man.
The plot, in a nutshell: bumbling sitcom dad Will Ferrell and slightly sharper mum Amy Poehler – parents of the most sheltered and obliging teenage girl in creation – are in desperate need of cash to send said sheltered ninny to college, so they open an illegal casino in the home of messily-divorcing friend Jason Mantzoukas, catering to frustrated middle-class neighbours in the small community of Fox Meadow. The joke is the “rage bubbling just below the surface” of trim suburbia (the Fox Meadow council will fine you if your hedge is too tall) – and the other joke is the ugly face of capitalism, with our decent heroes growing increasingly unscrupulous as the money starts rolling in. “We’re gonna bet on our friends fighting?” asks worried Will as an argument between punters threatens to get physical. “Hell, yeah! We’re a casino!” comes the reply.
There are actually two fights, first between men, then between women – and the one between women is uglier and bloodier, because women fighting is funny (right?). That obnoxious detail is typical of the movie, which falls back on crude and sensational humour whenever possible. Not only does the council decide to fund a swimming pool over the daughter’s scholarship, but Will also affirms that he’s “gonna take a hate-crap in that pool”. Sex and drugs get the lion’s share of the jokes, with walk-on roles for vomit and farting, then it’s geysers of blood as Will and Amy turn into De Niro and Stone in Casino (Jeremy Renner has a rather desultory cameo as a local gangster). By the time we get to the inevitable swearing grandma – “F**k the police!” – it’s clear that The House is an empty film using shock tactics to disguise its emptiness. If this were a horror movie it would just be a series of jump-scares and ‘boo!’ moments – but the catch, as already mentioned, is that scary is scary (fear is instinctive; we jump even when we know it’s all nonsense) whereas making us laugh is a form of seduction. The cruder it gets, the more it starts to look desperate.
There’s no style in The House, unless one counts the cut from a man about to throw up to a close-up of a man eating food (classy, no?). There’s no heart, no wit, no clever plotting. In the end, the film’s sole redeeming feature lies not in its jokes, which are mostly unfunny – unless of course you find them incredibly funny, which, this being comedy, is entirely possible – but its time-capsule value.
Comedies make excellent time capsules, humour being a channel for society’s obsessions and insecurities – and someday, years in the future, casual viewers will know that 2017 was a time (at least in America) when teenage girls debated the difference between rape and date rape; when families bonded over a gruesome TV show (The Walking Dead); when money was a constant worry, even for middle-class professionals; when people had no savings, couldn’t get a pay rise and fretted about losing their homes; when marijuana had seeped into the mainstream, and in fact was lauded precisely for its narcotic properties. “Weed is so great. When I smoke it, I feel nothing; it’s like emotional armour,” says Poehler without irony – though she also becomes addicted, the film skewing surprisingly conservative in many ways (its demographic is more parents than kids, which would also explain why the daughter is so passive). At one point, the town cop waves his gun about and Ferrell freaks out, much to the cop’s annoyance: “People being afraid of guns is silly, and I’m sick of it!” snaps the cop – and you wait for the punchline, but apparently there isn’t one. Seriously, guys?
Another big issue of 2017, of course, is gender parity – and Hollywood is by no means immune, with much talk of getting more female directors on big-studio movies. The question is political, hence probably irrelevant; something like The Hangover, say, was always designed to be gross and outrageous – that was its hook – irrespective of the gender of the person behind the camera. Then again, we now have Rough Night, a tale of things going wrong at a hen party in Miami (a film, in other words, that looks very much like a female Hangover with a woman director) – and it does seem subtly … different, even beyond the talk of vibrators and tampons. It’s not always funny (or maybe you’ll find it extremely funny, because comedy, etc) but it’s warmer than expected, and more character-based.
Is that because of all the estrogen coursing through its veins? Not exactly – but there may be a connection, insofar as Lucia Aniello who directed and co-wrote (with a man, Paul W Downs) must’ve known the movie would be scrutinised for gender-related reasons, and took care to make it coherent. This is a film where a seemingly random mention of a mum with Alzheimer’s 20 minutes in gets a calculated payoff 20 minutes from the end (even if this particular payoff doesn’t really seem worth the trouble). It’s a film where a seemingly gratuitous gag – our heroines lining up for the human “friend-i-pede”, modelled after the infamous centipede – is actually used to further the story. Someone sat down and worked things out here.
It’s also a film that’s alive to the various emotional currents between its protagonists. Thus for instance Jillian Bell’s needy hanger-on, clinging to memories of college, refusing to let go of her very special friendship with sensible Scarlett Johansson even though they’ve now drifted apart (Jillian is a teacher; Scarlett is running for senator), or Zoe Kravitz as the elegant rich girl going through a secret divorce, possibly caused by the fact – speaking of very special friendships – that she’s more into girls. The hen party (‘bachelorette’ in American) unites Zoe with her old college lover Ilana Glazer, now a fiery activist, and adds Kate McKinnon as a kooky Aussie whose private bond with Scarlett unnerves unhappy Jillian. All studio comedies have a character dynamic, of course – but most of them (including The Hangover) use it for easy laughs early on, then allow the plot to take over. Rough Night keeps hitting character notes all the way through, up to and including the surprisingly punchy truth-telling climax.
Along the way, the film also turns into farce, with the accidental death of a male stripper sending the coked-up girls into a tizzy – and meanwhile Scarlett’s insecure fiancé is driving to Miami to find her, clad in adult diapers (don’t ask) and knocking back Russian amphetamines. Men are treated with affectionate disdain in Rough Night (at least I hope it’s affectionate), the deceased stripper identifiable only by his penis – the noble member also turns up in penis-nose glasses and penis-shaped pasta – and manhandled almost to the point of necrophilia. (“Mansploitation!” cries Ilana gleefully.) All in all, Rough Night clicks quite enjoyably; the ‘outrageous’ aspect doesn’t feel too forced and the humour is slick and verbal, often based on non sequitur and misunderstanding. “I can’t go to jail! I couldn’t even make it through the first episode of Orange is the New Black.” “Neither can I!” “I know, it’s really soapy, right?”
Is that funny? Who knows? It’d be unhelpful to say I found Rough Night more amusing than The House (though I did) – but it’s surely possible to say that it’s more minutely-crafted, more inventive, less lazy. (For one thing, unlike 90 per cent of Hollywood comedies, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and indeed gets better as it goes along.) The question of funny is probably better left alone – especially since the funniest thing I saw this week was undoubtedly the Minions singing Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’, in Minion-ese.
That was in Despicable Me 3, of course, a kids’ cartoon which also includes little Agnes interrogating a barkeep who runs ‘The Tipsy Unicorn’ and may have intel on actual fluffy unicorns (“My little brain is about to explode!”); grumpy hero Gru – now reunited with twin brother Dru – complaining in his Dr Evil accent of having been “keecked to the carb”; frequent mention of Freedonia, which of course was Rufus T Firefly’s domain in Duck Soup; plus a former-80s-child-star-turned-supervillain challenging Gru to a “dance fight” to the strains of ‘Sussudio’. Alas, all these incidental pleasures aren’t enough to keep this amiable comedy from sagging quite badly, at least if you’re over 10 years old; then again, just when the film threatens to collapse into the terminally inconsequential, it gets rescued by Minions. Minions as DJs. Minions as hardened jailbirds. Minions as tourists, toting Polaroids. Minions on an airship (for some reason). Like Scrat in Ice Age, the cheerful yellow fire-hydrants have been shunted off to a separate sub-plot, but their clunky joie de vivre – and utter lack of interest in social issues – saves Despicable Me from that airless mechanical Disney feel. Are the Minions a gimmick? I suppose so. Are the Minions funny, on a scale from one to Minion? Let’s not go there.
THE HOUSE *
DIRECTED BY Andrew Jay Cohen
STARRING Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas
US 2017 88 mins
ROUGH NIGHT *
DIRECTED BY Lucia Aniello
STARRING Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell
US 2017 101 mins
DESPICABLE ME 3 **
DIRECTED BY Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda
WITH THE VOICES OF Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker
US 2017 90 mins