In Hollywood’s reboot frenzy, the movie industry has increasingly turned to reviving classic comedies, only to find that few things are harder to rekindle than the elusive elements — Bill Murray’s timing, John Belushi’s eyebrows— that make up a great comedy. The distance between original and remake is usually as vast as it is between “Caddyshack” and “Caddyshack II.”
The latest attempt is “Vacation,” a new try at the classic National Lampoon series that first emanated from John Hughes’ short story “Vacation ’58” and was launched with the 1983 Chevy Chase original. Chase makes a cameo in the latest “Vacation,” but he has ceded the driver’s seat to his son, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms).
In some quarters, the movie has not been anticipated warmly. In a column for the Hollywood Reporter, former National Lampoon editor P.J. O’Rourke judged the film from its trailer “post-humoristic” and “a summer cineplex dump-fill featuring the ‘Hangover’ wimp dentist as leading man.”
Whether screwball or satire, comedy only works when it feels bracingly alive. Most remakes, though, tend to feel like they’ve been brought back from the dead, only with all the really good jokes left back in the cemetery.
Hollywood is devoted to getting it right, though. The biggest test will come next July when Paul Feig releases his big-budget “Ghostbusters.” Feig, at least, has had the good sense to try an entirely different track, recasting the leads as female, including Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig.
But there are many others in various stages of quixotic development, including remakes of “Meatballs,” “Fletch,” “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Police Academy.”
With that in mind, here are a few lessons to draw from an often dubious tradition.
Just stay away
More often than not, the best advice is just put down the script and walk away. Such was the case for Shawn Levy’s “The Pink Panther,” which somehow managed to earn a 2009 sequel. Steve Martin is a tremendous performer, but no one should be attempting to follow in the clumsy footsteps of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. (Martin has been a curiously frequent remake star, including two “Father of the Bride” films and the somewhat better “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which came from the Marlon Brando, David Niven 1964 original.)
Even the Coens can’t do it
It’s a testament to the difficulty of the task if even Joel and Ethan Coen whiff it. The comedies produced by London’s Ealing Studios in the 1940s and ’50s are comedy royalty that few would have the courage to tackle. But the Coens tried it with “The Ladykillers” in 2004, attempting a broader comedy that traded Tom Hanks and Mississippi for Alec Guinness and London. It’s among the Coen brothers’ weaker films, though they can argue that they fell into directing it. They were first signed up just to write the script, but took over directing for Barry Sonnenfeld when he dropped out. Worth noting, though, is that by staying true to the Charles Portis novel, the Coens did give us easily the best “True Grit.”
Russell Brand is not Dudley Moore
And Adam Sandler isn’t Burt Reynolds. Brand and Sandler both have their particular talents, but neither were well suited heirs to their remakes of “Arthur” — the 2011 version of Moore’s 1981 film — and “The Longest Yard,” which had Sandler sliding in for Reynolds in the 2005 prison football comedy. Both originals, like many comedies, drew considerably from the distinct personas of their stars, making for an out of whack chemistry in the remakes. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick had an even higher bar to meet in taking over for Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel in the 2005 film “The Producers.” If only someone had thought to try it as a Broadway musical instead.
It’s not impossible
An unavoidable fact is that a few of the very best comedies ever made were remakes. The zippy brilliance of Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” (1940) came nine years after the play it was based on, “The Front Page,” had been turned into a film. It would be tried again, too, in 1974 by Billy Wilder with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and in 1988 — a lamentable swap of TV news for the newspaper biz starring Reynolds.
And Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot,” that majestically madcap 1959 comedy, was based on a 1935 French film called “Fanfares of Love.” When the screenplay couldn’t be found, producer Walter Mirisch tracked down a German remake of it for Wilder to write from. In the movies, originality can be a mangled, many-authored thing. Nobody’s perfect.
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