Archive for the ‘Middle Class Comedy’ Category

Parental Guidance

29 Jan

Parental Guidance – directed by Andy Fickman. Family Comedy. The grandparents babysit the weekend while the children’s parents travel to Miami, and things become raucous. 104 minutes Color 2012.
Bette Midler is a national treasure.

Is she Yellowstone? Or, I know, she’s Mount Rushmore! (She certainly isn’t Grant’s Tomb.) Would it be too much to say that she is The Smithsonian? Yes, it would.

And Billy Crystal is up there with her. For never have two such big-hearted comedians been so paired so rightly. I hope they make many more films together, for neither one has made many movies, and Our National Health does require that we see them more often. I believe we have constitutional amendment going forward on the matter.

In any case, here they are abetted by the entrancing Marisa Tomei. She’s so good. She’s so appealing. She is never wrong. So you see, we have three reasons to go to this picture.

As a comedy it is made up of the usual clumsy Hollywood plastic. Which means that audience participation in the proceedings is cut off by the failure to admit by the writers that what we are witnessing is not real. The seduction of the unreal is everything. Extreme situations and the implausible are all right, but they don’t, in and of themselves, seduce. Cling-wrap is not a crystal mirror.

Where do we fit in?

I’ll tell you where we fit in: on the only island there is: the persons and playing of Tomei, Crystal, and Midler with all this, their response to it, and their talent with dialogue.

Crystal plays a baseball announcer from a provincial California city who wants to announce for The San Francisco Giants, and his riffs are really wonderful as he does his announcer’s shtick. Tomei is the rather uptight modern mother raising her kids on the strict leash of leashlessness. When the grandparents show up, a conflict of parenting styles arises, and Midler particularly shows a robust leashlessness of a quite different order.

I had a great time with the three of them. I hope you will too. I wish they never part. They could be the Rogers and Astaire of Twenty First Century comedy.


To Rome, With Love

04 Jul

To Rome, With Love –– written and directed by Woody Allen. Farce. Four groups of people find themselves out of their depths in the Eternal City. 102 minutes Color 2012.


As the fingers of two hands folded together mesh but do not meld together, these four adventures interlace in the narrative of this film, but never coincide, except in the satisfaction their juxtaposition affords, which is the same natural satisfaction that folded hands afford. It’s farce: speed is everything, and so are doors. As each door slams on one group it breezes open unapologetically on another. The young American girl and the young Roman lawyer, engaged to be married, meet her parents, Woody Allen and Judy Davis, and their parents meet his parents, and before you know it, bingo, the father of the one is rushing the father of the other, a mortician, into a major operatic career, although the poor man is only able to sing in the shower. Jesse Eisenberg and his live-in host her trivial titillating best friend, Ellen Page, and he tumbles for the minx, although she is clearly out his class.  A young married couple arrive from the country for his interview for a big-city job, and fall foul of a lady of the afternoon, Penélope Cruz, who through force of circumstance must double as his wife at an interview with his future bosses, every one of whom is her client. All this while the young man’s wife falls into the toils of a plump movie star who offers her once-in-a-lifetime sexual possibilities. She succumbs, I am glad to say, and husband and wife come out of their escapades with useful sexual educations. A nonentity clerk, Roberto Benigni is extracted from his little family into inexplicable notoriety, which he at first resists, then embraces wildly. These four cards are played for our amusement by Allen who plays them as playful playthings. Cruz is, of course, once again hilarious in the Sophia Loren role. The movie star, played by Antonio Albanese is superbly funny as the stout sex symbol matinee idol. Ellen Page is Jim Dandy as the girl who comes to dinner and eats the host. But the entire film is stolen by Her Greatness Judy Davis from whom one cannot wrench one’s eyes. She is the actress of actresses, and Allen wisely keeps her on camera in every scene with him that he can. Her role is purely responsive to him, but you never watch him for a minute while she is there, because in never attempting to steal a scene she steals all of them, and because she is the real thing and, of course, Allen isn’t. What he is is a cartoon. Sadsack is the name of the cartoon. As an actor Allen does what he has always done, be hapless and paranoid, and he is very funny, but he is also annoying and never appealing ever, and she is. He is always appealing and so he is never appealing. His comedy as a director is not visual, but verbal and histrionic. Which means he cannot tell a story with a camera. But when a camera is on, the sound track records some very good jokes and some very telling human behavior. And that is enough for us and all we need to deserve as an audience very used to this national monument with its pigeon droppings, Woody Allen. Alec Baldwin appears as the useless sexual wisdom of the future and the past, playing Jiminy Cricket to Eisenberg’s sexual Pinocchio. He and Judy Davis define the difference between humor and Woody Allen who defines comedy. A movie can satisfy without a belly laugh because it has humor. But a comedy, with all its belly laughs, cannot satisfy if it does not have humor. To Rome, With Love has both. When it was over, we all applauded. I would send Woody Allen one perfect rose, except I think it more proper to send him a huge cellophane-wrapped basket of fresh fruit as a bon voyage gratitude to his continued voyage before us.



It’s A Wonderful Life

06 Dec

It’s A Wonderful Life – Directed by Frank Capra. Comedy/Drama. A home-town man teeters suicidally rather than bankrupting himself and his fellow townsfolk. 130 minutes Black and White 1946.

* * * * *

Clint Eastwood remarked how violent James Stewart was in the Anthony Mann Westerns he made in his late middle age. But they are nothing to compare with the rudeness, insolence, insult, and threat he delivers in this supposedly down-home performance of a would-be suicide learning about the life he has lived before it is too late. The insanity with which he throttles the foolish Thomas Mitchell is terrifying. He is violently mean to his children (as indeed one must be at Christmas to have a really meaningful Yule.) But the picture as a Christmas Classic probably looms as large as it does for the same reason that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol does – because of the Scrooginess of Stewart, as George Bailey, followed by the ghastly death-threat visions before he mends his ways. Jimmy Stewart is remarkable in the role, and except for the final scene of the sanctimonious, Deus ex-macchina rescue by the townsfolk of Bedford Falls, where there is something wrong with his singing and his smile, we have a great performance by a master of his craft. It is said that the film was not successful in its day, but I’m not so sure. I saw it when it came out, and I remember it vividly. And both it and Stewart and Capra were nominated for Oscars that year. Or perhaps there is not something wrong with that final smile. Perhaps what I see behind it is a hangover of his own nasty brush with the afterlife. Stewart had been away at war, one of the first big stars to enlist, and he bravely piloted more bombing missions over Europe than was good for any mortal man. Everyone was changed by The War, and what changed most in Hollywood was the virtual inability of its male stars to play comedy any more. Tyrone Power had been marvelous in light comedy; so had Henry Fonda; so had Stewart; George Stevens never directed another one, and screwball comedy never really returned. They came back from The War changed men. Solutions now weren’t so easy as they once were in Capra’s great, good-hearted comedies of the 30s. Capra never made a convincing comedy after World War II, and his career petered out. Here however he is in the last chapter of his topmost form. Every scene is beautifully written, every scene is perfectly begun, played, ended, and edited. Like Normal Rockwell’s paintings, what is illustrated here – and It’s A Wonderful Life is essentially a genre painting and an illustration – is the value of the truth of American community, which is that we must get along with people quite different from ourselves in personal style, race, and national derivation, and that to do so is to survive by the only means possible for survival: love. Love is what needs to survive. And love is what survives us. To make the illustration clear Capra does exactly what Rockwell does: he makes his humans almost caricatures. Like Rockwell, Capra’s characters live in gawky motion, and their gesture is strategized in the direction of endearing folly. All this is still true of America and Americans. Forgetting love’s survival through cooperation and public service and remembering it again is our national drama. This is what makes It’s A Wonderful Life the one film of Capra’s that will not date. To force the illustration, Capra has cast the story perfectly: first with Lionel Barrymore, the perennial Scrooge of radio in those days, as the meanie Mr. Potts, and he eats the role alive. Then with Ward Bond as the cop, Beulah Bondi as the mom, Donna Reed as the feisty wife, Gloria Graham as the town gal of questionable morals, Henry Travers as The Angel Clarence, Frank Faylen as the cabbie, Sheldon Leonard as the bartender, and a huge heterogeneous cast of townsfolk. It’s A Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie.


The Major And The Minor

02 Jul

The Major And The Minor – Directed by Billy Wilder — Comedy. A military man meets a hometown girl posing, unbeknownst to him, as a twelve-year old, and takes her to the boys school where he teaches. 100 minutes Black and White 1942.

* * * *

Delightful improbability. Why do we accept it? Why don’t we just say, ‘Oh, it’s too improbable,” and turn it off? Why doesn’t delightful improbability turn us off? We accept Ginger Rogers at the railway station at the end, even though it would have taken her too long to get out of the previous rig, pack, make up, secure that hat on her head, and get to the platform. Because? Because delight sheds a smile’s light around the matter, and in that light the improbability is enjoyed as such. And that smile? It does not come from belly laughs. In this film there are none of them. Or from wit or from jokes. In this film there are few of them. It comes from the sense of humor of the director, and maybe one of the actors. In this case Billy Wilder, whose first Hollywood direction this was, and from Ray Milland, whose happy innocence spreads forgiveness for any possible flaw. He’s so lively and good and good looking. He has such a sunny smile. And he is completely convinced of the script as offered. Which is that he recognizes that Rogers is  11 years old. Rogers was at the peak of her powers at this time, and took Wilder aside for an hour to see if she believed he could direct this. She loved his and Charles Brackett’s script, and she was one of the few big stars in Hollywood who would agree to looking quite foolish on screen, so she is in Dorothy pigtails for a lot of it. And she’s an ace actress. She plays opposite Rita Johnson, so watch how Johnson throws a bucket of acid when she speaks when all she need do is flick a drop, while, in their confrontation scene after the ball, with Rogers a drop devastates. And take in the lighting and filming of that scene by Leo Tover. Beautiful. Take a look also at Rogers’ trim figure, so like those of the women actresses of her day, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman, Dorothy McGuire, Claudette Colbert. Joan Crawford, all narrow hipped and slender. The film endures its longeurs when our Ginger has to endure the dating of the cadets, but it comes alive whenever Diana Lynn is on screen with her, and also when that famous stage mother, Lela Rogers appears in this her first film, as Rogers’ mother. Built just like her daughter and looks like her too. A delightful improbability in a picture of delightful improbabilities.







Father’s Little Dividend

11 Apr

Father’s Little Dividend – Directed by Vincent Minnelli. Family Comedy. A young married couple gets pregnant and the to-be grandfather struggles with the responsibility. 81 minutes Black and White 1951

* * * * *

We grew up with this beautiful girl, now dead in old age. One saw her entire life on screen. When she appeared in children’s films, I was a child. And here is an example of the girl when she was still the girl next door whom one might fall in love with, a teenager, here playing a young married woman in a light comedy. Light comedy was a genre Elizabeth Taylor did not appear in after she, still a teenager, became a mother, but her touch is deft and masterful, and the result endearing and touching. She was a skilled actress from the start. The picture is a sequel to Father Of The Bride and might better have been called The Grandfather Of The Bride. Once again filmed by the talented John Alton who would concurrently do the ballet sequences for Minnelli in American In Paris. Joan Bennett not only has Taylor’s coloring (and in fact once played Taylor’s part in Little Women), but she is swift and easy and right on the money with Spencer Tracy whose picture this is and who commands it without seeming to. It’s hard to analyze Tracy’s talent. It seems to find its foundation in a certain immigrant toughness, here at ease with the lowly tasks of realistic middle-class comedy. Tracy always plays a character without neuroses. Hepburn called him an Irish potato, and it’s as good a likeness as any for the humor of a person who always plays the difficult, painful, sometimes undignified yet necessary position of someone useful. His comedy seems to arise out of a natural grudge, and the comic situation to develop around that grudge,  irony being the last resort of the situation his character itself has created. None of what I am saying here does justice to his gift. Like some great screen humorists, the comedy arises not from what he does, so much as from his doing what he is, and he is not so much funny in himself as he is someone around whom humor naturally arises. There ought to be a word to describe this skill. Comedian doesn’t do it. Humoran is awkward. But that’s what it is, and why this film and its prequel were such enormous hits and are still worth our time.




04 Feb

Our Very Own

03 Feb

Our Very Own — directed by Cameron Watson. Comedy. Five Teenagers await the return of a movie star to their small town, while their parents’ marriages go off a cliff. 106 minutes Color 2005.

* * * *

I watched this to see the redoubtable Allison Janney, and I was not disappointed. She plays her scenes full-out and yet somehow manages to stay within the confines of the role in the situation perfectly. I don’t understand how she does it. I guess every young actor should steal from this masterful actor, but I suppose such things cannot be learned but only given as gifts from God. She certain was given the ability to memorize lines on sight, and this frees her to her depths to apply herself to the scene. She is an actor with a happy heart. I hope Oscars come teeming towards her in the days to come. Otherwise, I thought the piece beautifully acted by everyone else as well, except for Keith Carradine who really cannot hold the screen and never has been able to. But I don’t mind him; he has not much to do here, except be not present when he is needed. He is Janney’s drunkard husband, in full denial of the disaster he has brought upon his wife, his home, his children, and his community. The subplot involving their kids is sappy, but the sense of a real place in the real South rings true, and the five youngsters who are chums are very good each in their own way. Jason Ritter is simple and appealing and good looking and not too interested, thank goodness, in projecting a charm which the director might mistake for anything more than the calculation of youth. And Autumn Reeser opposite him is lovely and convincing in everything she does. The picture is home-made blueberry pie, unlike How To Deal, another teen-flick in which Janney plays a housewife with a husband in dereliction of duty. That one is gummy. This one is yummy.



She Wouldn’t Say Yes and My Sister Eileen

02 Feb

She Wouldn’t Say Yes  — directed by Alexander Hall – Romantic Comedy. A society bitch is wooed by a GI.  97 minutes black and white 1944


My Sister Eileen – directed by Alexander Hall – Comedy. Two country girls  land in Greenwich Village. 96 minutes black and white 1942

* * * * *

With the wonderful hauteur of her hands, Rosalind Russell ruled high comedy in her era, a throne she shared with Katharine Hepburn. Kay Francis and a few others held the outlying territory, but Rosalind Russell was the dame. Watch her here negotiate a cigarette.  At one point, all the time conducting a complicated bedroom scene with Lee Bowman, without looking and by braille, she picks a cigarette out of a box and even finds the matches, and lights it. Was there ever such aplomb! Her rich inner humor brings glad tidings to us all. Her sensual mouth and huge lovely eyes and gorgeous black hair, her bearing, and her inner stance gave us a frame for wit. She Wouldn’t Say Yes is a piece written and produced by Virginia Von Epp, who did the same for Irene Dunne’s Together Again — and a skilled job she does, too. These comedies are all about the same thing; a dish of cold fish meets a master chef. Sometimes the cold fish is a female, as in Philadelphia Story and here, and sometimes it’s a male as in Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve. This particular version is a little masterwork. We don’t expect a comedy by Shakespeare or Congreve to look like a modern comedy and we don’t expect these black and white comedies of the Thirties and Forties to look like them either, so no one asks them to be. On the same DVD, Russell also plays the My in My Sister Eileen, a piece she did on Broadway later as a Leonard Bernstein musical, Wonderful Town with Edie Adams. As I recall, she sang in a hoarse voice, and was beloved by all who heard her ask, when the sisters are broke and reduced to eating lettuce and other roughage, “I’d like a little smoothage to help the roughage down — like a steak.”  Today we have the great Allison Janney as the only modern compeer of this peerless comedienne, but Janney is not given principal parts in movies, alas. We would all go if she were. As it is, we treat ourselves here to the incomparable Rosalind Russell.



Running Mates

02 Dec

Running Mates – directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg – political comedy in which his outspoken fiancée almost saws down a presidential timber – 88 minutes color 1992.

* * * * *

Yes, of course you know it’s going to turn out well. All you’re supposed to care about is the cleverness of the array of obstacles to that. Diane Keaton is perfectly cast as the dame from whose tongue gaffes fall trippingly. No one has achieved flusterdom on the screen with such brilliance and daring since Jean Arthur. With Keaton, of course, you cannot do anything but veer toward comedy. She’s never going to play Euripides’ Clytemnestra. Her touch is too light. But she’s an actor of genius. She looks like she is making everything up, stumbling along, not knowing which way to turn, and blurting out her lines this way and that. But the fact is every word she utters is strictly scripted. And every move musically right. The same was true of Bing Crosby whom she resembles in nonchalance and aplomb. He never adlibbed anything. Keaton is 46 here and looks 36, which is the age she is playing, opposite Ed Harris who is butch but with dimples. They are very good in their scenes together, but of course it is her you watch. She draws focus even when she doesn’t, because you expect her to, so you look to her for it. The picture is a good Hollywood political comedy along the lines of State Of The Union with Hepburn and Tracy, middle-class comedy, well-mounted in all departments. Keaton won her Oscar for Annie Hall which she made when she was 31. The shelf life of actresses is usually not of the duration hers has proven to be. Thank goodness she has never abandoned ship. Thirty-five years later she is still before us, and we are blessed to be able to watch her ply her craft, one of the great skills ever to appear before us on screen. A full body craft. Watch how she makes her exits, if you want to know how an actor of genius gets it done.



Last Chance Harvey

27 Oct

Last Chance Harvey –– directed by Joel Hopkins –– comedy: two losers win. 93 minutes color 2008

* * * * *

This film has a certain winsomeness in its removal from passion, as love finds its way into the affections of its two characters. Both these folks are over 50, so you are in for a very pleasant journey indeed, one more comical and charming than the Deborah Kerr/Cary Grant An Affair To Remember, which it in some ways resembles, this time with the man as the invalid. Kathy Bates has a grand small scene as the former wife of Hoffman, and Richard Schiff and Eileen Atkins carry their parts as far their parts allow them. What we are faced with is the two leads, and no two individuals could be more disparate. Dustin Hoffman is a squirt, and this is “used” consciously by the actor, who is shorter than Thompson. It is at one with the highly controlled sort of acting he always done; his “method”. There is much talk about his “detail” and his “preparation,” but I never see the results on the screen. What I see is banal, shallow, and routine. Besides which, I suppose he is one of the most unpleasant movie stars I have ever seen. His face is uninteresting, but setting that aside, he is an actor who often smiles, but perfunctorily always; he smiles but he never smiles. His voice has an excellent timbre, but it monotonizes everything he says. But what is worst, it and his entire physical manifestation exude self-pity. The note of its pitch is in every noise he makes. It is a bid for a sympathy he does not have the gift or the grace to naturally inspire. And one does feel sorry for him for that. Only once does he appear real: towards the end of the film there is a shot of him in which he looks very very old, and it occurred to me that he has always been old and that that was his forte. Opposite him is the infallible Emma Thompson, and how it comes about that these two play together so well, or are able at least to perform their own roles with separate excellence is a mystery to me. She has true wit, openness, smarts, readiness, openness, grace, womanliness, openness. Anyhow, I recommend the piece. It is a film for grown-ups, the story of older people who, not supposing they ever could, do begin to love someone again.



A Yank In The RAF

24 Oct

A Yank In The RAF – directed by Henry King – a WW II romantic adventure story in which an American joins up in England, competes for a pretty dame, and saves the day on a bombing mission in Europe. 98 minutes black and white 1941.

* * * *

The power of the personalities of Betty Grable and Tyrone Power makes for romantic suspense and super entertainment. He plays a rogue with a roving eye, and she plays, as she often did in films, the lady of talent who is a sucker for a cad. They’re both up against Bruce Cabot the actor whose eyes are as evil as his moustaches. Because it was made during the war and is a bit of a hodgepodge, the picture is endearing and fun. Betty Grable was the star I most identified with at the time. Like me, she was open, blond, big hearted, hard working, and not loved as much as she deserved. Power is especially fine as the gum-chewing flirt, a different take for the actor who in that era was the most beautiful male in films. Here he’s a rascal who never takes it back. Usually cast in romance, action-adventure, or drama, he’s up for the necessary finesses and impenitence of light comedy. I wish he had done more of them.



Play The Game

12 Oct

Play The Game — directed by Mark Feinberg — a comedy in which a gentleman in his 9th decade is coached by his lady-killer grandson to date again.

105 minutes color 2008.

* * * * *

A sex comedy in order to work must depend not upon sex but upon wit. The comedies of Ernst Lubitsch shine forth at this moment to illustrate this truth. And this piece is quite good as an execution of cinema wit, by which I mean a wit that  can only be rendered in moving pictures, rather than repartee or physical comedy or routines or situation, all of which this story also has its own fair supply of. Here the story is told as a split screen without the split — first the lady-killer’s pick-ups which operate with the same craftiness as he so successfully sells new cars –and the second in which his grandfather, with reduced sexual resources, embarks upon a tutorial in mashing. Andy Griffith is a sweet old peanut as gramps, and he is careful to play the sexual scenes with the innocence and pleased surprise of a vestal virgin at an orgy. Griffith began his career as Dusty Rhodes, a Southern-fried demagog in Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd, ruthlessly sexual from beginning to end, so no one should be surprised at his ending up as an octogenarian lady’s man. Only the sexual scenes themselves lack wit. All we should see is Griffith’s face as he experiences for the first time — whatever. We should never know in any way what is actually going on. His female mentor is the titanically sexy Liz Sheridan, and she is something to behold. On the other side, so is Paul Campbell as the grandson. Set against Ken Howard perfectly cast as a remarkably ugly-natured father, he has no role model. When he meets his mate, well, the only thing that is missing is the fact that he has fallen for a person less beautiful than he is, a fact that is made nothing of by the director or by the actor who plays her. Campbell is an adept light comedy performer, with smug dimples, and one hopes these and his other gifts take him far. The picture, it will be remembered, resembles the Warren Beatty produced The Pick-Up Artist an early of Robert Downey Junior as the player and Mildred Dunnock as the grandmother, but this one is well worth one’s viewing on its own.


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