Three protean comedies dropped in our fair state last weekend. One is an absolute gem the, best comedy of the year (if it’s dethroned by another film later this year I’d be very surprised). The other two exist on two opposite sides of a wide spectrum (kind of like Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable): a micro-budgeted, mostly improvised and handheld take on male relationships and a macro-budgeted, sort-of improvised and beautifully shot piece of the Hollywood machine that thinks it’s about male relationships.
From Britain comes In the Loop, a scathing political satire that is so on the money and realistic I was able to forgive its biggest flaw. The film is shot in the handheld, zoom-intensive documentary style we’ve all grown overly familiar with. Think The Office, except there is no acknowledgement of the camera here so it’s more like a fly-on-the-wall approach to the material. This film, now playing exclusively at the Uptown Theatre, is hilarious with a capital “H.” The jokes, one-liners, and visual gags spew forth at the audience at a rapid rate.
Like those strobe-heavy anime cartoons that have been known to induce epileptic seizures, so does In the Loop with guffaws. An endless barrage of pop culture references (I recall nods to The Shining, The Omen, Eraserhead, The Crying Game, Harry Potter, and many more I missed while in hysterical bouts of laughter) and a ridiculously high joke quotient is reminiscent of the excellent Airplane! but with a realistic story.
The official plot synopsis reads: A bumbling British government minister (Tom Hollander) makes a verbal snafu during a TV interview, inadvertently backing a U.S. war in the Middle East. The Prime Minister’s venomous communications chief (Peter Capaldi) attempts damage control as tensions quickly escalate on both sides of the pond. Soon the Brits are in Washington, where a U.S. General (James Gandolfini) thinks war is a crazy idea and the beleaguered U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy (Mimi Kennedy) scrambles to infiltrate the elusive and very hawkish War Committee. Meanwhile, the hapless minister responsible for the mess fuels more flames by attempting to gatecrash various corridors of power while his well-connected young spin doctor (Chris Addison) sleeps his way into diplomatic high jinks with a sexy young intern (Anna Chlumsky), culminating in a feverish United National Security Council vote that makes war seem as “unforeseeable” as the slip of the tongue that ignites this crackling, fast-talking political satire showcasing some of the most rollicking wordplay since the heyday of screwball comedy.
Sound familiar? While In the Loop is apocryphal, it’s impossible to not draw comparisons to political events of this decade. We don’t see the highest government officials, we see the people who work behind the scenes where everyone is looking to gain an edge for their next career hurdle. Semantics is everything in this world. This is a sapid, smart, dark, and mean-spirited comedy in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s comedy masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, with an ending that feels almost as apocalyptic—at least for the characters. Further proof of the film’s Kubrickian style is evident in Loop’s trailer as well, using the sped-up version of the William Tell Overture in a direct homage to A Clockwork Orange.
Writer and director Armando Iannucci loosely based the film off his BBC television series The Thick of It, which ran for six half-hour episodes and two specials from 2005 to 2007. For In the Loop he kept only one character from the show, and as they say in the UK, he’s a real belter. Malcolm Tucker, as played by the brilliant Peter Capaldi (Local Hero) with such aplomb you’d swear he was this guy in real life, is a fantastic satirical creation. Every character he comes across falls in his wake of mean-spirited barbs. The rest of the cast is top-notch as well. It would be wrong to not mention the wonderful work by Gondolfini, Hollander, Addison, Chlumsky (from My Girl, weird), Mimi Kennedy, and David Rasche. All of them create fully-realized characters, and more importantly, avoid any semblance of caricature, which would’ve happened in the hands of less-capable filmmakers.
Director Lynn Shelton’s third feature, Humpday, falls in the oft-maligned indie genre, or movement, known as “mumblecore.” Films such as The Puffy Chair, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Frownland, and Baghead are but a few of the titles done in this style. That is, cheaply-made films noticeably shot on digital video, talky, highly improvised scripts, casts of late-20s to early-30-somethings who are usually friends who play characters adrift in the world unable to articulate their feelings. Some of these films are very good, and in some ways inspiring to wannabe filmmakers. The idea of simply picking up a camera and making a movie is nothing new. John Cassavetes did it. The spirit of the French New Wave of the 60s was built on this principle.
Regardless of how you want to classify Humpday, the film is a solid, truthful, and insightful look at modern male friendships. Since college, Ben (Mark Duplass, half of the brother duo responsible for Puffy Chair and Baghead) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard, of Blair Witch Project fame) have drifted apart. Ben is married to Anna (Alycia Delmore) and settled in a good job with a house. Andrew is the free spirit, traveling around the world but never settling or finishing anything he starts. The movie opens when Andrew shows up unannounced. They go to a party one night and after a few drinks, come up with the idea to make a porn film with each other, the idea being that no one has ever made a porn film with two straight men having sex. Why do they decide this? Because they want to submit the film to Humpfest, a real-life Seattle film festival showing amateur sex tapes.
A revealing look at male friendships, and a good number of laughs, ensue. The characters are believable, and the humor derives from them. It also contains one of the more satisfying endings to a film in some time; I’d say it is the perfect way to end the film. Humpday is now playing exclusively at the Lagoon Cinema, and I bet it won’t stay there long so hurry and see this one.
Lastly is Judd Apatow’s Funny People. I’m going to keep this one brief for two reasons:
1.) You probably know already whether you want to see this film, it being the newest Apatow film after the mega-hits Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin and featuring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen as stand-up comedians.
2.) The film is very, very, very long. Much longer than reading this review will take, so if your interest in the film is minimal, you can thank me for saving you nearly 2 hours and 30 minutes of a sometimes funny, but often meandering movie. Watching the film is an exercise in butt-numbing seat adjustment. However…
I’d also argue that the film’s length is an example of Apatow’s fearlessness. That or he’s possibly made the most self-indulgent mainstream comedy of all time. Rarely do we see a comedy clock in over 90 minutes, but Apatow is known for his long running times in his directed films, so this isn’t a huge surprise. Here, though, I think he cashed in on a series of hits he’s been a part of. He obviously has enough power in Hollywood to make whatever he wants, and he took advantage of that with Funny People.
Adam Sandler actually acts here, and quite well at that (but not as good as his masterful turn in Punch-Drunk Love, a film I love immensely). Seth Rogen is good too, as are Apatow regulars Jonah Hill and Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife) and non-Apatow regulars Jason Schwartzman and Eric Bana (who was a comedian in Australia before he became a serious actor). Sandler’s performance stands out, though. He’s brave here, playing a jerk version of himself who doesn’t really learn anything from a near-fatal disease.
What I like best are the behind-the-scenes look at stand-up comedians and their lives, the personal nature of the film for Apatow, and the cinematography by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski. In fact, when was the last time a mainstream Hollywood comedy was so beautifully photographed and worthy of admiration? I don’t know. Though I certainly don’t hate Funny People, it’s more a film the makers will love than the audience, I imagine. Given that it’s something totally unique compared to the average comedy, I have to credit Apatow for making the film. But I don’t have to like it, either.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.
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