What's Streaming: Flawed But Still Very Very Funny

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A New Leaf

With the slightest excuse, I can go on and on about how Some Like It Hot is truly the perfect comedy if not the perfect movie. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's script has a perfect symmetry -- every setup is paid off, every gag is repeated bigger, better and often with a kind of lyricism ("we have the same type blood, type O"). The timing of the maracas scene is breathtakingly brilliant. People like to gossip about director Wilder's difficulty in working with Marilyn Monroe but you see none of that onscreen. Most importantly, I've seen the movie countless times but it's still funny, every single time.

Recently I've been interested in -- and vastly entertained by -- comedies that aren't perfect, and that don't quite work for one reason or another. The thin, ridiculous plot is just an excuse for strings and strings of gags. You can see the joins where the movie was recut for one reason or another. Casting choices threw the movie out of balance. You get the idea. And yet they are still marvelous in many ways.

For example, a few years after Some Like It Hot, Wilder directed Kiss Me, Stupid, a film that provided a sharp and smutty contrast to the pastel-colored "sophisticated comedies" of the time. Instead of Rock Hudson and Doris Day flirting on gorgeous sets, you get Ray Walston and Kim Novak in harsh black-and-white, bargaining in a quote-roadhouse-unquote.

The movie doesn't work -- part of the problem is that Walston replaced Peter Sellers, changing the role entirely -- but I love watching it. It's funny as hell, especially now that we can see Wilder's original "Polly's trailer scene," on which the whole story pivots, instead of the version he was required to reshoot for the American release. I have a whole theory about Novak's character and the Gnostic Sophia that I'll spare you because otherwise I'll never get done.

(Kiss Me, Stupid is available on Amazon Instant but I don't know which version of the trailer scene it includes, and I'm too cheap to pay and find out when I already own a DVD. If someone knows, please post a comment.)

At any rate, here's are a few hilarious comedy "failures" that aren't, really, and that are available online for you to watch and judge for yourself. And if you don't like them, you can watch Some Like It Hot, which is on Amazon Instant.

What's Up, Doc?

I didn't like this movie at all the first time I watched it straight through, because it was the second half of a Paramount double-bill with the flawless Bringing Up Baby, and comparisons were inevitable. I thought it was a cheap ripoff of a flawless film -- which it kind of is, but you can't enjoy it if you think about it that way. I did somewhat better with a second viewing at Austin Film Festival 1997 when Buck Henry, who added many of the gags to the script, chatted about the film beforehand. And finally I saw it again last year for no reason at all except that it was available streaming at no extra cost, and ended up watching it twice and buying the Blu-ray.

It's an odd movie with contrivances that don't make sense. Four people with identical suitcases turn up at a San Francisco hotel, and the suitcases inevitably get mixed up. At the middle of everything we have Judy (Barbra Streisand), aka Eris, the goddess of Chaos, who reigns supreme. Which probably makes Eunice, Madeline Kahn's character, the goddess of order -- Eumonia -- I could do an entire essay, maybe an entire book, on comedy heroines who are goddesses/forces of nature in disguise, but I'd really never get done.

What's Up Doc

At any rate, you don't watch What's Up, Doc? for the plot or the G-rated love scenes or Streisand's singing, you watch it for the gags. They just keep coming, again and again and again, and if one doesn't work you don't have to wait long for the next. Many are sight gags, some  are expertly delivered by character actors such as Kahn, Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, Sorrell Booke, Mabel Albertson and John Hillerman. None of the gags are new -- there's even a pie fight -- and many are rather Looney Tunes, as the title suggests ... but when two guys are walking across the street with a big pane of glass it's never not funny, especially if you tune that gag expertly.

My two favorite sequences are the dinner-table sequence, where everyone ends up under the table at one point (including Randy Quaid, who turns up briefly as a professor), and the chase sequence around San Francisco, which is one crazy sight gag stacked on another and it doesn't matter that you can see some of them coming. I haven't even mentioned the scene with Liam Dunn, which leaves me breathless from laughing.

The trailer for What's Up, Doc? is extremely odd (and long). Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was just coming off The Last Picture Show and the conceit of the trailer (I think) is that he is an up-and-coming auteur who's artistically presenting an innovative, upscale comedy. I suppose it's spoilery in the sense that it grabs a bunch of clips from the chase scene, but this is not a movie you can spoil. Watch this:

Now I want to stop writing and go watch the whole movie again. This may be a dangerous column for me to write if I want to get anything else done today. (Amazon Instant)

Idiocracy

I included this movie because I felt I ought to have one Austin film in this month's column. It fits the theme nicely but it's cheaper to buy the DVD than to watch it streaming, so it's kind of a cheat.

Mike Judge's films never seem to quite work in terms of a consistent story -- recall the plot of Office Space if you can -- but that doesn't mean they're not terribly funny. If you haven't seen Idiocracy yet, it's set in the 25th century. Luke Wilson plays the 20th-century slacker who volunteers to be cryogenically frozen for a few years but is forgotten and wakes up to a whole new world in which he is the smartest person by far. He's accompanied by a hooker, played by Maya Rudolph. Dax Shepard helps them escape police and eventually they end up assisting the President of the United States, which was my first exposure to the wonderful Terry Crews.

Nothing in the above plot is inherently funny -- the laughs stem from the way Judge has presented the future. Corporate logos are everywhere -- people are even paid to utter companies' catch-phrases, Brawndo sports drink ("it's got electrolytes!") has supplanted all beverages including water, and everything is a reality show. You will never be able to look at Starbucks in the same way again, especially "hot latte." And I won't mention what happens with Fuddrucker's.

Idiocracy

The only joke that I think fails in Idiocracy is the language of the time, which features a few words that in 2015, are offensive and difficult to hear without wincing (aka "the r word"). Judge has a knack for writing memorable and endlessly quotable lines, which is why I can't see a store greeter anymore without hearing "Welcome to Costco, I love you." Austinites may get extra enjoyment out of spotting locations like the Austin Convention Center and seeing how the then-unfinished I-35/45 overpasses are used to good effect.

Idiocracy is barely held together by voiceover narration and parts of it were reshot after test screenings. It was released in Sept. 2006 in only a few smaller cities (including Austin) with no marketing campaign. The DVD was bare-bones, and 20th Century Fox still seems to be pretending the movie doesn't exist. It's too bad, because I would love to see a tenth anniversary release Blu-ray ... this year, in the spirit of the movie itself. (Amazon Instant to buy only ... get the DVD instead)

A New Leaf

It could be successfully argued that I wrote this column just to go on and on about A New Leaf, a movie I hadn't seen until 2013. I caught it at Austin Film Festival, mostly so I could hear the Q&A with Elaine May afterward. I fell hard for this movie. I saw it again on Amazon Instant about a week later, and then I bought the DVD and fight an urge to watch it again and again. It is the funniest movie I've seen in years and years. If you say "Carbon on the valves" to me it'll trigger a giggling fit.

Walter Matthau seems like he should be miscast as a rich playboy -- well, he thought he was rich, but finds out as the movie begins that he's flat broke. ("I'm poor ... I'm poor" -- excuse me while I have another giggling fit.) But I cannot imagine any other actor being so successful in this role throughout the entire movie.  His character Henry finally realizes the best solution for regaining a fortune is to marry into one, and in pursuit of this goal, he meets Henrietta (Elaine May) at an afternoon tea. (Oh, dear God, the bit with the carpet ... excuse me again.) Their subsequent relationship is indescribable.

Writer-director May intended A New Leaf to be more along the lines of an Ealing comedy, and her cut of the film included a subplot involving more blackmail and murder. The studio cut her film and despite her having final cut legally, she was unable to have it restored. The movie is maybe a half-hour shorter than intended, at least one storyline has no real resolution and a bit of the missing footage appears in an odd dream sequence.

The footage that was cut seems to no longer exist (I keep hoping it'll turn up in someone's attic along with the Peter Sellers footage from Kiss Me, Stupid) so there's no way to tell whether the longer, darker version would have been even better. As it stands, the movie works very well as more of a romantic comedy. Much of the humor comes from Matthau's performance, especially his reactions to May (the nightgown! oh, Lord ... more giggles). May's klutziness makes me look like a ballet dancer in comparison. And I must mention George Rose as Henry's valet, and James Coco as Henry's uncle (the pepper mill!).

And coming full circle, the ending of A New Leaf reminds me greatly of the final scene of Bringing Up Baby -- no, there's no dinosaur, but see the movie and you can tell me whether you agree.

Speaking of bizarre trailers, the one below for A New Leaf takes the cake. The movie isn't even mentioned until more than halfway through the two-minute trailer, and it includes absolutely no shots or scenes whatsoever from the actual film. Check this out:

I was planning to write about several more movies, but I am still grinning and giggling over A New Leaf and you'll excuse me while I go hunt down my Blu-ray. Maybe just the first 10 minutes ... won't you put it on streaming and join me? (Amazon Instant Prime)