Misery Loves Comedy


Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner

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The Princess Bride


The Princess Bride

True love's kiss always comes complete with horse and sunset.

(1987) Romantic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Peter Cook, Mel Smith. Directed by Rob Reiner

 

Some romances have a fairy tale quality to them – brave princes, fair princesses, monsters and magic, quests and daring rescues. Okay that doesn’t happen much in real life but sometimes we all love to feel as if our romance is fairy tale-esque.

Buttercup (Wright) is the daughter of a simple farmer who has the farmboy Wesley (Elwes) wrapped around her finger. It isn’t too long before they fall deeply in love with one another. However, Wesley cannot marry Buttercup as a farmboy, so he sails across the sea to seek his future. His ship is taken by the Dread Pirate Roberts and sent to the bottom of Davey Jones’ locker and Wesley with it.

Buttercup is inconsolable. However she attracts the eye of Prince Humperdink (Sarandon), heir to the throne of Floran. She becomes engaged to marry him but remains sad and unhappy. She will marry him but her heart belongs to the late, lamented Wesley.

Then one day while she is out for her daily horseback ride she is abducted by three men – Vizzini (Shawn) the Sicilian mastermind, Inigo Montoya (Patinkin) a Spanish swordsman looking to avenge his father who was murdered by a six-fingered man some years back, and Fezzik (Andre), a giant from parts unknown.

They ride for Gilder, the sworn enemy of Floran with the Prince and his right hand man, Count Rugen (Guest) hot on their heels. Also right behind them is a mysterious man in black who catches up with them and in turn dispatches Montoya, Fezzik and Vizzini. He then takes Buttercup who guesses him to be the Dread Pirate Roberts – which turns out to be correct. But in her attempt to escape she discovers he is also Wesley, who has assumed the identity of Roberts when the pirate using that name retired.

But with the Prince right behind them, they run into the Fire Swamp to evade capture. Sadly, although they survive the Fire Swamp, they do not evade capture and they are taken  back to Floran where the Prince prepares for his wedding and the Count prepares to torture Wesley. Will true love win in the end? Only with the help of Miracle Max (Crystal) and his buttinsky wife Valerie (Kane) will the heroes save the day, rescue the princess and allow true love to triumph. That and a holocaust cloak.

Let’s start out by saying this is one of my very favorite movies of all time. Not a single misstep is made, nothing feels wrong from the framing device of the devoted grandfather (Falk) reading to his sick grandson (Savage) to the haunting score by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler.

Reiner assembles an impressive cast who all inhabit their characters impressively and the fact that they are given a marvelous script full of great dialogue helps immensely. Who can forget Mandy Patinkin repeating “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” as he fights Count Rugen, the six fingered man, to the death. Who can forget Wesley begging Buttercup “Gentlyyyyyyy!” as they are reunited or his regular “As you wish” whenever she asks something of him.

There is a certain cheese factor in the somewhat low-budget special effects and sets. This is meant to be a Grimm’s Fairy Tale with a slightly modern twist, pre-Shrek but minus the pop culture references. The cast is without exception top-notch with Elwes giving a career-defining performance. Wright made her film debut here and has since gone on to a long and acclaimed career of 25 years.

Patinkin, one of the more versatile actors out there, channels Errol Flynn (down to the moustache) and has a genuinely affectionate chemistry with the late Andre the Giant, who remarked later that he had never felt so accepted as he did on the set of this movie. You can feel the camaraderie of the cast come through onscreen – this is the type of movie that leaves you with as good a feeling as it is possible to come away with from a movie.

This should definitely be at or near the top of the list for romantic movie night viewing. This is a movie that understands love, understands its magic and is able to translate that to the screen. If you aren’t in love when you start watching this film, you will be by the time it’s over.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most romantic movies ever, with great wit, panache and Andre the Giant.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You are freaked out by Rodents of Unusual Size.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few items of mildly crude humor and a few scary moments of Andre the Giant flambé but this really is perfectly fine for kids of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Max and Valerie are named for original author William Goldman’s parents. And by the way, the Dread Pirate Roberts was a real person – Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart. He was a very successful 18th Century Pirate. Inconceivable, no?

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There have been several DVD releases of the film, including a Special Edition (2001) which includes home movies taken on set by Elwes and a Dread Pirate edition (2006) that includes that and a featurette on the real Dread Pirate Roberts, a featurette about fairy tales and their similarities, a tourist brochure for Floran and an interactive trivia game. The 20th Anniversary edition (2007) strangely contains none of these things but does have featurettes on the swordplay in the movie as well as a bit on how folklore is incorporated into The Princess Bride and how it compares and contrasts to other books in a similar genre. All of these are available on the Blu-Ray release (2009) which makes it the best choice for extras.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.7M on a $40M production budget; the movie was unable to recoup its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: An Affair to Remember