The Brits know comedy better than anyone else in the world, that much has become abundantly clear to me over the past few weeks as I’ve slowly made my way through a long list of comedy movies set in the UK and directed by Brits. But what exactly is it that sets these movies apart, and why do mainstream American comedies pale in comparison?
I believe the answer lies in the very nature of the British comedic form. It is highly situational, arising from seemingly random events. The characters are left to deal with the consequences of something that they had little to no effect over in the first place. The Full Monty illustrates this point rather well. Sheffield, as seen in the movie, is a broken place. A city that was once an industrial hub has reached its expiration date and its inhabitants are left searching for work and dealing with the psychological effects of long-term poverty and unemployment. That’s the undertone of the movie, it permeates the atmosphere and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. But this is never the focus of the movie. It exists as a set up for things to come, as the characters find ridiculous ways to make some money on the side while searching for employment. The Full Monty feels like a look into someone’s life, someone who we can even trick ourselves into identifying with, despite the occasional over-the-top moments of hilarity. The protagonists, Gaz and Dave, have remarkable depth, they’re not cardboard cut-outs waiting to recite their next line of dialogue. The moments of humor come about naturally, we see the most hilarious scenes forming, as the characters build up towards them and set the tone by just being themselves and, more importantly, being real people.
And this is where I feel compelled to voice one of my main complaints when it comes to the US style of comedy, and that’s the way the script plays out and how the jokes are relayed. TJ Miller is, I feel, the very personification of modern American humor in film, his role in Deadpool being an especially egregious example of poor joke conception and delivery. He stands still, center frame, stares right at the character opposite him (in this case Ryan Reynolds’s Wade Wilson) and comments on his looks. What’s funny about that, you might ask, and the answer would be the ridiculous comparisons made by Miller in order to describe what he thinks Wilson looks like, along with a bunch of childish metaphors and gratuitous swearing. This could work, of course, but it rarely does. It never feels earned, there is no progression or build up, movies like Deadpool simply exist as a series of random outbursts of creative playground insults and frankly cringe-worthy scenes that are supposed to shock the viewer and send him or her into a laughing fit, borne not so much out of the quality of the scene but out of how misplaced and nonsensical it feels. It’s incredibly lazy. What’s more, it’s insulting to the audience’s intelligence, dumbing everything down and turning the genre of comedy into a cesspool of slapstick punchlines and insult trading. That isn’t to say Hollywood can’t get comedy right. Films like 50/50, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Groundhog Day and Dr. Strangelove have shown just how good American humor can be and just how well it can be translated into film. But you look at these films and you see a common theme, one that runs through the majority of good British comedy as well – there’s always something below the surface, something more profound than the exterior lets on. It’s this versatility that makes a good film, not just one in the comedy genre. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding a movie that can be enjoyed superficially while standing up to deeper analytical scrutiny at the same time. By this I do not mean to posit that every movie, or indeed every comedy movie, should have strong philosophical undercurrents. Depth could refer to many things, and comedy lends itself best to the exploration of certain aspects of our nature as a species and our response to certain external stimuli. The World’s End is a brilliant look into the life of man whose glory days are behind him but he is unable to let go of them and move on. The Full Monty shows us how important meaningful and rewarding work is to a man and how worthless and directionless we feel when left to face the crushing reality of unemployment. And so on. Of course, this too is not a recipe for success and there are plenty of films that are light-hearted to the bone yet still provide brilliant visual and conversational comedy (see Baby Driver, some of the Monty Python movies or Snatch for examples of this very phenomenon). But these are films that are incredibly stylish and well thought out, conceived by people with a clear vision of how they want their movie to look and how they want it to play out. There’s an actual plot to follow, characters to meet and get to know. American comedies skimp on all that and go for complete satirization of everything and everyone, turning themselves into parodies first and foremost while omitting the whole ‘movie’ part and becoming a boring slog to get through, as is the case with the recent Hitman’s Bodyguard.
Acting is another point I’d like to touch on. British comedy is very physical. This very aspect of it greatly enhances the effectiveness of the script, partly because it gives the writer more to work with. The Cornetto Trilogy is brilliant because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are amazing actors who are more than willing to go the extra mile in order to make the most out of every scene. Passivity in moderation is fine. That is to say that a single character being the equivalent of a vending machine for jokes can be quite amusing and can be a great asset, given the right context. But having all your characters mope around and move at a snail’s pace, without having any sort of physical reaction to whatever is happening around them could potentially make for an incredibly dull experience. Likability is also important, though much more subjective. There’s just something that clicks with Pegg and Frost or Carlyle and Addy, a sort of chemistry that makes the viewer privy to their friendly relations, both inside the movie and out. This could just as easily be my bias making its presence known, though.
In the end, it comes down to the one thing that I’ve advocated for in almost every one of my posts here at Total Misfire and that is for film makers to put more thought into their movies. I don’t mind blockbusters. I don’t mind commercial ventures. I just want to see some passion, I want to see flair. There is no humor to be found in any of the Avengers movies. It’s not because it’s impossible, it’s because superheroes have been turned into a corporate cash cow and artistic integrity has taken a backseat to the business expertise of men with linear programming and minimax solutions in their minds. The audience isn’t comprised of imbeciles, we know when a movie is good and we turn out to watch it, and I will most certainly praise any film that shows respect and love for the medium and reaches for something that is at least slightly interesting.