Comedy Movie Capsule Reviews

Wrapping up my movie reviews for the year (unless I manage to sneak away from my new daughter long enough to watch The Hobbit), here are three slightly older comedies I watched on video over the past several months.


Horrible Bosses movie poster

Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses

This is one that a friend practically had to force on me. A comedy about three men with bosses so bad that they plan to murder them, the trailers expected big laughs from the reverse sexual discrimination of one of the bosses (a sex-starved Jennifer Aniston). It seemed dumb, unrealistic, and potentially minimizing real-world problems.

I was wrong, and that subplot is actually a good example of why. Horrible Bosses is an irreverent black comedy that may deserve its R rating, but puts a decent amount of effort into justifying its offensive content. Aniston’s character is a ridiculous caricature, but we do get explanations for how her subordinate got stuck in that position and why he can’t leave or turn her in. It’s still ridiculous, but it’s acceptable for a comedy.

In fact, “acceptable for a comedy” describes this whole thing, but the movie is so consistent that the whole is greater than the parts. This starts as a simple buddy comedy, then mines some humor out of three hopelessly lost men trying to plot murder. But the plot grows in complexity, the stakes rise, and its twists and turns always feel consistent with the movie’s internal logic. It’s a Coen Brothers-lite plot with a slightly warmer worldview. This never really feels like it threatens the heroes, and its grossest jokes seem carefully calculated not to actually offend sensibilities. That’s not a problem: Horrible Bosses knows what kind of comedy it wants to be, and it delivers.

(Speaking of the Aniston plot, I do suspect that it was put there to make the movie easier to sell. While the other plotlines get mixed together into a complex tangle, hers always seems separate. It works, but barely, thanks to the decision to cast Aniston against her normal type.)

Grade: B


Pineapple Express movie poster

Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express

Part of the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen series of gross-out “bromance” movies, Pineapple Express does not find the perfect mix of elements like Horrible Bosses did. It goes for a genre-mix with elements of stoner comedies and light action films, but they mix poorly. The main problem is that the frequent bloody violence feels wrong next to the low-stakes humor of the rest of the movie. I have no problem with black humor or murder (Horrible Bosses had both), but it needs to feel right. The low-budget, sadistic violence is more unpleasant than interesting, and that’s a bad quality for a comedy to have.

The plot features Seth Rogen as a disagreeable stoner who tries a new strain of pot, called “Pineapple Express”, with his (disliked) dealer. When he later witnesses a crime boss murdering a rival, Rogen flees so fast that he leaves the pot behind. Later realizing that Pineapple Express is still so rare that it could be traced back to him, both Rogen and his dealer go on the run from a criminal who wants to eliminate witnesses. Can the two man-children learn to get along, despite the fact that neither seems to deserve friends?

This could have been a stronger film if their flight was all drug-induced paranoia. They are funny on their own. But no, the ridiculous premise really does have a murderer chasing after them, and that’s where the unpleasant distractions from the humor come in. (Strangely, the unrealistic paranoia ends up as part of the drug lord’s character instead. He keeps interpreting the protagonists’ mistakes as signs of a clever organization, in a recurring theme that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s like Apatow just saw some other film where comedic misunderstandings led to a criminal’s downfall, and felt obligated to duplicate it. But just like the other elements of the movie, this never pays off.)

Painful to watch on multiple levels, Pineapple Express mixes a weak Apatow plot with ideas that just don’t work.

Grade: D+


The Gamers DVD cover

The Gamers

The Gamers

In contrast to the other movies I reviewed, this is actually a low-budget 45-minute film shot on a college campus and distributed by gaming company Paizo Publishing. Obviously, the production and acting are weak here. It works surprisingly well, though.

It’s main strength is that the creators (Dead Gentlemen Productions) captured the tone of a Dungeons & Dragons session perfectly. Jumping between a group of friends playing in a cramped room and in-game scenes, this feels like an evening-long game session somehow compressed into its short running length. The amateurish acting generally feels right for the geeks they are playing, and for the stilted high fantasy of their game world. (To see their acting skills fail them, you’ll need to watch the other shorts included on the DVD.)

The decisions about the game’s portrayal are excellent, with the characters in the game sometimes talking on their own, and sometimes holding still while their players discuss them via voice-over. When appropriate, we just see the players directly. Minor corrections to events cause the game world to rewind and change actions, and a lot of the sillier aspects of D&D are played straight. Among other things, it captures the rules-lawyering, refusal of players to role-play when they could skip to the killing, and handling of players who couldn’t show up. Sure, it’s obvious beforehand which dice rolls will lead to unexpected success or hilarious failures, but that gives the whole thing the feel of a “you won’t believe what happened!” story after-the-fact. (Except that this is a rare case of those stories being interesting for the listener.) When the characters have ridiculously cool ideas, it’s actually exciting to watch them pay off.

There are several amateur mistakes, including a lengthy self-aware monologue in the middle (“WHY would anyone want to spend time with an attractive woman instead of this?”) that betrays the honest geekiness of the rest of the film. It also starts with several minutes of awkward banter, and while there are good things to be said for the “clever” ending, I felt like it weakened the cleverness of everything leading up to it. In such a short film, those issues do eat up a lot of time. But the rest of it works well enough to make up for that.

Grade: B-

 
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