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Good comedies take work, and Hollywood has stopped trying

Fri., May 24, 2013, midnight

Ken Jeong returns as Mr. Chow in “The Hangover Part III.”
Ken Jeong returns as Mr. Chow in “The Hangover Part III.”

Comedies just aren’t that funny anymore.

It seems like it’s been years since I’ve sat in a theater and laughed at a movie from beginning to end. And I’m not talking about the occasional chuckle; I mean full-on, gut-busting, eye-watering laughter.

  But what do I know? Comedy films, especially adult-oriented ones, are at their financial height right now. In the last few years, R-rated comedies like “21 Jump Street,” “Bridesmaids,” “Ted” and “The Hangover” have become unlikely blockbusters, scoring decent reviews from critics and racking up box office totals well beyond the $200 million mark.

 “The Hangover” (2009) was the first of these recent runaway successes, a modestly budgeted film with no major stars (at the time) that quickly became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time (it was just recently surpassed by “Ted”). It was an energetic throwback to the raucous National Lampoon’s comedies of the ’70s and ’80s, and it reveled in its own bad behavior the same way “Animal House” did.

Audiences ate it up, so a “Hangover” sequel was unavoidable. “The Hangover Part II” cost twice as much as its predecessor and was essentially its carbon copy – it basically transposed the first film’s events from Las Vegas to Bangkok – which would have been fine if it had been even the slightest bit funny.

 Not only did it not make me laugh, it made me especially angry. It was such a cynical exercise, a listless cash-in on a surprise success that didn’t even bother to try anything original. On top of that, it’s an aggressively unpleasant film: For a comedy, “The Hangover Part II” is bleak, violent and ugly, rubbing our noses in drugs, murder and dismemberment without finding a unique comic spin on the material.

 Just because something is outrageous or disgusting doesn’t automatically make it funny – that’s confusing basic vulgarity for comedy. It’s all about context, and the circumstances surrounding a situation and the way they logically devolve into chaos is what separates comedy from juvenile grotesquerie.

I’m not trying to be a prude or a buzzkill. I’ve loved a lot of recent crude comedies, like “Borat” and “Team America.” I even have a certain depraved admiration for the Farrelly brothers’ early films, like “Dumb and Dumber” or “There’s Something About Mary”– those movies developed beyond mere vulgarity, and their humor came from how the characters got themselves out of their compromising positions.

 That’s the formula for great screen comedy: setting up a problematic situation and letting it play out to its logical conclusion. That seems to be a lost art.

 Comedy comes not from what, but from how. The great “Some Like It Hot,” for instance, isn’t funny because Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon disguise themselves as women; it’s funny because of the absurd lengths they must go to in order to remain disguised as women.

This is all incredibly subjective, of course, and comedy can be almost impossible to argue: Laughter is such a knee-jerk response that it often can’t be explained or analyzed beyond the fact that, hey, it made me laugh.

But the genre continues to get the short shrift when it comes to quality, and it’s as if filmmakers have forgotten how much sophistication and craft great farce requires. There are funnier shows on television, where the jokes are more frequent and fly at a faster pace, than anything you’ll see in your neighborhood multiplex.

Now I shudder at the thought of having to sit through “The Hangover Part III,” which opened nationwide on Thursday. If history repeats itself (which is an inevitability in Hollywood), it will likely be a monotonous barrage of simple-minded, half-baked gags, upping the gross-out ante in hopes of shocking the audience into disbelief. It’s gotten tiresome.

Maybe it’s time for Hollywood to go back to Comedy School: God knows a simple pratfall or a pie in the face would be infinitely funnier than anything it’s producing now.

Nathan Weinbender is a Spokesman-Review correspondent and movie critic for Spokane Public Radio.

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