“The Best Comedy of the Year!” 1990s
As I indicated in my previous post and in the comments section that came with it, I went into this project fully expecting to prefer the film comedies I would have to choose from as I moved back into my younger days. Is this a bias based on personal tastes? Is it a generational bias that we would see repeated reliably if we polled thousands of people of different ages? Or are there really certain eras for different art forms that are simply of a higher quality than others?
As we roll back into my young adulthood in the 1990s, my guess is that it’s a little bit of all of the above.
1990 – Joe Versus the Volcano
Here I’ve gone and spouted off about how much better comedies were in my youth, and my first choice for best comedy of the year is kind of weak. I like Joe Versus the Volcano, but it’s more in the line of having genuine affection for it than any belief that it is either brilliantly made or fall down funny. It definitely has its moments. “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?” “Brain cloud…” and of course any appearance by Abe Vigoda that’s not in a film like The Godfather has intrinsic comedic value. Meg Ryan gives a charming and versatile performance in multiple roles. Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks. It’s a magically goofy movie.
Other 1990 comedies: There were actually plenty of good comedies in 1990, and on another day I might have chosen any one of them to represent the year. I Love You to Death, The Freshman, and Quick Change all have their own qualities which make them worthy for a lazy look if you run across them on a rainy day. Unfortunately, not one of them really crosses over into greatness.
1991 – Soapdish
Soapdish, on the other hand, is worth a look every time I see that it is on. A good college friend of mine was very turned off by the self-involved characters, but I’ve gotta say that I laugh out loud at it consistently. The pure wacky genius of the script and unfettered performances are exactly what I want from a comedy sometimes. It trods the line so finely between reality and over-the-top silliness. The fact that so many of these actors are just as versed in drama is also very appealing to me. Sally Field and Kevin Kline star as former soap opera co-stars and lovers who are brought back together by a scheming suit (Robert Downey Jr) who wants the popular leading lady off his show. Downey and Kline in particular give wonderfully well-timed and unhinged turns and are supported well by Elisabeth Shue, Cathy Moriarty, and Whoopi Goldberg. Then Garry Marshall shows up just to put the cherry on the sundae. One favorite sight gag: The neon sign outside the place where Kline’s character is performing in Death of a Salesman that alternately flashes – “Steakhouse”-“Playhouse”-“Steakhouse”-“Playhouse.” Also, Kline’s adept character analysis: “He’s seen things…European things…Maybe an accent!”
Other 1991 comedies: I had a hard time picking Soapdish over Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep in Defending Your Life, but when it came down to it, I laugh more during Soapdish. City Slickers, What About Bob? and L.A. Story are all also appealing comedies. Look what a good year 1991 was!
1992 – My Cousin Vinny
My Cousin Vinny is a comedy which has gained steadily over the years. I saw it in the movie theater when it came out and enjoyed it, but didn’t really think it was anything special. Follow-up viewings, however, have succeeded in making it a real favorite. Joe Pesci stars as the title character, a Yankee lawyer with little experience who needed several attempts before he finally passed the bar. On top of learning the ropes as a trial lawyer on the fly, he’s a pretty severe fish out of water in the small Southern town where his cousin (Ralph Macchio) and friend have been accused of murder. He rolls into town with his equally ostentatious fiancée, played by Marisa Tomei in the role that won her an Oscar. The fact that we know Macchio and friend are innocent and that Vinny, while rough around the edges, is no dummy and is actually trying to succeed serve to invest us in how he fares, and it is great fun to see him outsmart his tormentors and gradually learn the stuff that every first-time trial lawyer has to figure out. They honestly do not teach most of this stuff in law school.
Other 1992 comedies: Wayne’s World & Noises Off. This was a pretty easy victory for Vinny.
1993 – Groundhog Day
This is another of those movie comedies that runs quite a lot on cable and continues to reward repeat watching. The great Bill Murray is at his smarmy best early on and reaches nihilistic heights as his character’s plight progresses. The script’s concept and construction makes ample use of the comedic tool of repetition, bringing laughs as small changes sneak into familiar situations. You see, Murray’s character is trapped in some kind of time warp which leaves him repeating the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over and over again, with nobody else around him remembering the dozens of previous tries they’ve had at it. Every morning the alarm goes off in his hotel room and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” annoys him to consciousness. No matter what he does, he ends up back in that bed listening to Sonny and Cher and it’s February 2nd. The solution to the problem is a little namby-pamby and not as funny as the set-up, but by then it really doesn’t matter much. The movie as a whole has been such a pleasure that we swallow it happily. Apparently, director Harold Ramis also considered Tom Hanks and Steve Martin for the main role, but thought that both were “too nice.” For example:
Other 1993 comedies: So I Married an Axe Murderer and Dave are both good comedies, but this is another easy win.
1994 – Bullets Over Broadway
Perhaps due in part to some off-camera difficulties which would have hit too close to home with the material here, Woody Allen demured from appearing in Bullets Over Broadway, and I think the film was better for it. A piece about the blurry line between art and ethics did not need Woody Allen’s face on it at that moment. The film boasts an impressive cast anyway, with John Cusack and Rob Reiner taking the two “Woody” roles, and Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Jack Warden, Jennifer Tilly, Tracey Ullman and Jim Broadbent fleshing out 1920’s era New York. I know I’m in the minority here, but I think Bullets Over Broadway is every bit as good as any of Allen’s “classic” comedies. He has made no secret of the fact that he is a big fan of the period and location, but he never leans on these obsessions, delivering a tight, sharp, and funny script with no inappropriate fat on it. While the “Don’t speak” moment got overplayed, there are gobs of great lines and scenes. “Gene O’Niell is here. He’s heard your play is morbid and depressing and he’s Dying to meet you!” “The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina.” “I don’t think her spinal cord touches her brain.” and..
“Olive, I think you should know this…You’re a horrible actress.” >BANG< (SPLASH)
Other 1994 comedies: Ed Wood, Dumb & Dumber, Clerks, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The parade of idiots appears to have started in 1994. Of the films listed here, I far prefer Ed Wood.
1995 – Get Shorty
Although Quentin Tarantino’s films are often very funny, most people would never call many of them comedies. For those people, there is 1995’s Get Shorty, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard (a hard-boiled genre writer championed by Tarantino) and starring John Travolta, who made a big comeback in Pulp Fiction the previous year. It’s hard to imagine this movie getting made just a few years earlier. The film follows a traditional fish out of water theme, with Travolta’s gangster “Chili” Palmer becoming a power player in Hollywood using the same tactics which had served him well in the criminal underground. Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, and Bette Midler all give enjoyable turns, but Gene Hackman gives what is probably the funniest performance of his career. His B-movie producer was widely rumored to be based on a couple of real life Hollywood power brokers. If it wasn’t, then it was a particularly clever and risky characterization. But then Hackman has never been accused of being timid.
Other 1995 comedies: To Die For & While You Were Sleeping
1996 – The Birdcage
The very next year, Hackman returned again to comedy, this time in the Hollywood version of the classic French play and film La Cage aux Folles. The Birdcage stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a homosexual couple whose son Val brings home his new fiancée and her right-wing parents as played by Hackman and Dianne Wiest. The two act structure is no surprise, given the story’s origin on stage, and it serves this film version well. The tension created by Val’s announcement and preparations for the coming in-laws to be explodes into a wild disaster of a dinner party featuring obscene dinnerware and confused identities. Lane shines as the emotionally fragile Albert and Williams does some of his most substantial and nuanced character work to date. Meanwhile, both Hackman and Wiest do a good job of bringing depth and empathy to what could’ve been square cardboard monsters. Due to its subject matter and point of view, The Birdcage won’t be for everyone, but my own rather traditional and conservative mother went to see it at the movie theater and reported having had a great time!
Other 1996 comedies: Swingers & Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy. This was a close call between The Birdcage and Swingers, but the latter is more tied to its time and place and feels a little dated just 17 years (!!!) later.
1997 – Waiting For Guffman
After a short gap of 13 years, Christopher Guest returned to the improvisational ensemble form which helped make This is Spinal Tap a favorite of comedy and music fans alike. This time he takes on regional theatre as Corky Sherwood in the savage but affectionate Waiting for Guffman. The very fact that this film about a band of small town amateur drama enthusiasts is in part named after a masterpiece of modern existentialist theatre is just one of the sly and silly bits of humor contained therein. There is so much good material here that there are fall-down funny scenes that didn’t even make the cut and ended up in the DVD’s bonus features. Since Guffman, Guest and crew have returned several times with comedies like Best in Show, Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, but none of these matches Corky and company’s deluded group. Now if I could just find that “My Dinner with Andre” action figure set.
Other 1997 comedies: As Good As It Gets, Chasing Amy, Wag the Dog. All of these are great in their own right, but none is as giggle-inducing as Waiting For Guffman.
1998 – The Big Lebowski
What can you say about a comedy film that has spawned so much obsessive fandom? There are festivals and bowling tournaments dedicated to The Dude and his way of life. People seriously model their free time (hopefully just their free time) after the characters in this movie. Some observers have declared Big Lebowski fans as second in obsessiveness to only fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s not hard to see why this movie is so endearing to so many. First off, the cast is top-notch. Jeff Bridges (The Fabulous Baker Boys), John Goodman (Raising Arizona), Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs), Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights), Sam Elliot (Tombstone), John Turturro (Quiz Show), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), David Huddleston (Blazing Saddles), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Tara Reid (American Pie), etc, etc, etc,…heck, beloved rock musicians Aimee Mann and Flea even make appearances. You could spend most of a viewing just saying, “hey, that’s that guy from _______.” But then you’d miss a piece of fun dialogue or idiosyncratic behavior. The Cohen brothers created the world of The Big Lebowski by combining some eccentric real life people they knew with a Raymond Chandler type story and filling in as many random bits as they could. I particularly like the way characters hear somebody else use a saying or word in one scene and then use it themselves in a future scene. Also, there’s this:
Other 1998 comedies: Rushmore & There’s Something About Mary. Either of these might’ve won in another year, but they were no competition for The Dude.
1999 – Office Space
If The Big Lebowski is a 90’s ode to Los Angeles slackerdom, then Office Space is indicative of an equally slummy instinct amongst the cubicle set just about anywhere in the country. It was shot mostly in creator Mike Judge’s home town of Austin, Texas, but could have just as easily been filmed here where I live in the RTP (Research Triangle Park) section of North Carolina. Plenty of other people probably feel like it recreates their home town as well, and this universality has been a strength for Office Space as it has carved a place out on cable and in DVD sales. Despite initially barely making back its expenses, its status as a cult favorite has slowly boosted its profits for everyone involved. Aside from Jennifer Aniston and maybe John C. McGinley, it is probably the most recognizable role of each performer’s career. Despite Stephen Root’s varied work in TV (News Radio, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire) and film (Dodgeball, The Conspirator, J. Edgar) fans will always ask to hear one simple phrase from him:
Other 1999 comedies: Galaxy Quest, Bowfinger, Election, Fight Club, Dogma, Shakespeare in Love. Wow! 1999 was a great year for comedy on film! Just like above, any of these might have won out in a weaker year.
So that’s the 90’s-
Notice how seldom I’m mentioning films that aren’t clearly comedies? Notice how deep some years are? It will be interesting to see if this trend continues backwards into the 80’s.
Posted on February 19, 2013, in Movies, reviews and tagged Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Dianne Wiest, Gene Hackman, Harold Ramis, Jeff Bridges, Joe Pesci, John Goodman, John Travolta, Kevin Kline, Marisa Tomei, Meg Ryan, Nathan Lane, Robert Downey Jr, Robin Williams, Sally Field, Stephen Root, Tom Hanks, Woody Allen. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.