For every Superbad, Juno, and The Hangover, there are fifty comedies that boast former “SNL” cast members, well-known talent, and sometimes even good writers. Hilarity seems imminent! Often enough, though, these movies are horribly offensive, disgustingly crude, sadistic, or just plain unfunny. This week’s release Grown Ups features almost every comedian who’s ever had a cult following of 12-year-old boys. Kevin James, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, and Rob Schneider play former childhood friends who reunite after the death of their basketball coach. James’s wife is still breastfeeding their son at four years old. Schneider is happily married to a woman twice his age (“ewww, gross,” say the same idiots who coined the awful term “cougar”). All five men get into the baby pool and pee together, leaving behind trails of blue chemicals. The trailers look nearly unbearably unfunny—though based upon audience reactions in theaters, the movie might open well.
For this week’s Listicle, William Bibbiani and I (Julia Rhodes!) write about movies that seemed to be surefire hilarity—and ended up being epic fails.
Meet the Parents (dir. Jay Roach, 2000)
Meet the Parents is the epitome of the “humiliation” style of humor that only masochists enjoy. Though half the world seems to find Meet the Parents and its sequel, Meet the Fockers, hilarious and uproarious and all those other terms critics use for “super-funny!”, I can’t get behind it.
Gaylord ‘Greg’ Focker (Ben Stiller), a male nurse, falls in love with a great girl in Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo). The problems start when Greg has to meet (and of course woo) Pam’s parents, Jack (Robert de Niro) and Dina (Blythe Danner). Meet the Parents is an exercise in idiocy. It’s not funny when Greg kills the family cat; it’s not funny when he knocks over an urn containing grandmother’s ashes; it’s certainly not funny when he continues to blunder and fail through the entire trip, and the whole 100 minutes of film. I’m sure Meet the Parents is hilarity central for high school bullies who revel in pantsing the geeks and humiliating the smart kids. With de Niro, Stiller, Danner, and Owen Wilson aboard, the movie looked to everyone involved like surefire hilarity…but for some of us, cringing our way through it feels like torture.
The Nutty Professor (dir. Tom Shadyac, 1996)
Eddie Murphy can be hilarious. His stint on SNL made his career, but in the last fifteen years his career has been a series of terrible, horrible comedies that would make anyone with a brain wonder how they got through the studio system.
The original Nutty Professor, made in 1963, is directed by and stars comedy legend Jerry Lewis. Despite its silliness, it’s a fun little romp. The 1996 version stars Murphy in a fat suit as Dr. Sherman Klump, a man frustrated by his obesity (because overweight people are disgustingly hilarious, yes?). When Dr. Klump meets a gorgeous young woman in the form of Jada Pinkett-Smith, he decides to take a potion that transforms him into a slim, smarmy man named Buddy Love. The significance here is of course supposed to be that looks don’t matter–it’s what’s inside that counts.
I call BS on that heartwarming, if diluted, message. When it’s buried under “laugh at the fat guy” moments, fart jokes, and terrible effects, it just doesn’t work right. Much like William’s pick below, Shallow Hal, I just don’t see it. Sorry, guys. Unfunny to the max. Even less funny? The fact that its sequel, The Klumps, was ever made.
White Chicks (dir. Keenan Ivory Wayans, 2004)
Here’s an awesome movie pitch: two African American FBI agents (Shawn and Marlon Wayans) go undercover as white girls. Okay, I understand trying to subvert the idea of blackface, the racial history of cinema and theater’s early preference disguise white actors as black people. I get it, but this scheme is pretty seriously whacked.
Firstly, how does anyone believe this? I understand suspension of disbelief, but please look at the DVD cover and tell me you can’t see something terribly off here. Secondly, we all know the Wayans love to promote themselves and that they were certainly funny on “In Living Color,” but this movie’s part of a tumble into a chasm of stupid.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (dir. Dennis Dugan, 2007)
“Gay men? HILARIOUS. Straight men acting like gay men? Even better.” I imagine that’s how the studio pitch went for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Two straight, single firefighters (Adam Sandler and Kevin James) get married in order to receive domestic benefits. What’s most funny about this film is the fact that it drew talent like Sandler, James, David Spade (in other words, half the cast of Grown Ups), Dan Aykroyd, and Steve Buscemi.
While not entirely homophobic (the film tries to insert gay-positive messages), the movie’s premise is downright icky, especially when you realize that homosexuals are still one of society’s most marginalized groups. Call me a Debbie Downer, but posing as teh gays so that hetero men (arguably the most powerful subsection of the population) can get marital benefits is not funny.
Sex and the City 2 (dir. Michael Patrick King, 2010)
Yes, this is the third time I’ve written about SatC2. I grow weary of listing my myriad issues with the movie. Shallow, vapid, offensive, culturally insensitive, and pathetic—these are all terms that could describe our tried and true protagonists in Sex and the City 2. Suffice to say, women make up 51% of the U.S. population, and as one of them, this is not the kind of representation we need onscreen. I think The Stranger’s Lindy West said it best: “I Watched 146 Minutes of Sex and the City 2 and All I Got Was This Religious Fundamentalism” (link has NSFW language). Times critic Manohla Dargis (also NSFW language) concurs: give us something new on which to feast our eyes, ears, and brains.
My Father The Hero (dir. Steve Miner, 1994)
Picture yourself in a production company, sitting across a table from a group of executives spitballing ideas for their latest comedy. You take a good long sip off your cappuccino, listening intently as some young upstart pipes up with, “You know what’s really funny? Incest.”
You spit out your drink in shock. “What the hell is funny about incest, Roderick?” Roderick looks at you, about to answer with something smarmy – probably making fun of your film school education – when an older, more powerful producer says, “Nothing. Nothing at all is funny about incest.” You breathe a sigh of relief. Crisis averted. Roderick even looks a little embarrassed. Then the older producer says, “Implied incest. That’s where the real laughs are!”
Just another day in Hollywood, and France apparently. My Father the Hero is actually a remake of a French comedy entitled Mon Pere, Ces Heros, and in both versions Gerard Depardieu plays a divorced man who takes his teenaged daughter on a vacation in an attempt to bond. Then she meets a cute young man and in an attempt to appear more mature and independent she pretends that Depardieu is not actually her father, but rather her much, much older lover. “Comedic” hijinks ensue as Depardieu goes about his business, unaware that the entire resort thinks he’s a pedophile. There’s a bit where he’s asked to play something on the piano and innocently decides to sing “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” from the soundtrack to Gigi. (At least he’s not an Oingo Boingo fan.) Needless to say, none of this is amusing in the least. At best it’s merely disquieting.
But this father really becomes a ‘hero’ when he learns of his daughter’s machinations and, in an attempt to curry her favor, agrees to go along with the charade and pretend to be her lover in a film billed as a family comedy. Unfunny and genuinely terrifying, My Father The Hero is only remarkable for starring a young Katherine Heigl as Depardieu’s daughter, over a decade before she would speak out against the uncomfortable subtext in Knocked Up, another (more successful) film in which she starred. If anyone has heard her formally apologize for her role in this nightmare, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Black Sheep (dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1996)
In 1994, Chris Farley and David Spade became comedy stars thanks to a little film called Tommy Boy. The lovable buddy comedy paired the earnest but ignorant Farley with a smart but mean-spirited Spade, and their natural chemistry elevated a pretty standard road trip comedy into something genuinely special. So it made perfect sense to pair the two stars together again and let them play out the same comedy dynamic. The result was Black Sheep, a movie that sucked.
On the surface there’s nothing terribly wrong with Black Sheep. The ‘hilarious’ premise involves an upcoming election in which one of the candidates, played by Tim Matheson, has an embarrassing relative, played by Farley. Though well-meaning, Matheson is forced to put one of his aides – David Spade – in charge of keeping Farley out of trouble. It’s reasonable set-up for a series of amusing set pieces, in which the stuffed shirt is forced to endure, rein in, and finally come to befriend an outlandish buffoon. But it doesn’t go anywhere. The premise promises a series of situations in which Farley can be destructive, forcing Spade to go into damage control, but they spend most of the film effectively trying to stay out of trouble altogether, and simply getting on each other’s nerves.
Black Sheep has a few comedic highlights. Three, in fact. There’s a cute gag with a bunk bed, a pretty funny gag about trying to drive the speed limit while high, and a fundraising concert that goes kinda hilariously wrong, but when I say “comedic highlights,” what I really mean is, “the only times I laughed.” I laughed three times over the course of this entire movie, and for a comedy… that’s pretty embarrassing. Even Almost Heroes was a better Chris Farley movie than this.
Shallow Hal (dir. The Farrelly Brothers, 2001)
After the success of Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary (not to mention the hilarious but underappreciated Kingpin), The Farrelly Brothers fell into a bit of a rut, making the same movie over and over again. Namely, they made ‘high-concept’ comedies about debilitated people in love. Though made with The Farrellys’ usual good-nature, none of these movies, from Me, Myself & Irene to Stuck On You made much of an impression on the box office. But none were as bad as Shallow Hal.
Shallow Hal tells the story of Hal, played by Jack Black. Hal is shallow, seeking only the superficial happiness that comes from dating attractive women, which he’s not very good at (his unattractiveness is definitely a factor). It all stems from some childhood trauma at his father’s death bed, as if that excuses anything. Naturally, Hal has a lesson to learn. One day he’s stuck in an elevator with Tony Robbins – the Tony Robbins – who hypnotizes Hal into a new state of mind. From now on, Hal can only see inner beauty. Unfortunately, The Farrelly Brothers aren’t so enlightened.
You see, Hal sees ‘inner beauty’ by envisioning good-hearted people as hot chicks, like Gwyneth Paltrow, while mean-spirited people are ugly old hags. The ramifications of this are never fully explored. For example, his image of himself remains unchanged, and the image of everyone he already knows, be they lovely individuals or absolute monsters. Further, The Farrelly’s ‘cleverly’ realized that you can make any kind of offensive and degrading fat joke you want, provided that the fat chick is someone with a conventionally attractive figure. The result is a film with a thin premise obscured by unpleasantness, and a message that hits you so hard over the head the pain overpowers any comedy that could have been mined from the idea. Shallow Hal is pretty shallow itself.
Intolerable Cruelty (dir. The Coen Brothers, 2003)
The Coen Brothers, teaming up with George Clooney, in a wild Preston Sturges-esque romantic farce? Sign me up… to never laugh again. I’m not going to dwell on Intolerable Cruelty. Clooney plays a successful divorce attorney who falls for the soon-to-be ex-wife of his client, only to find that he’s met his match in the devious and underhanded femme played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Intolerable Cruelty came by at the creative nadir of The Coens’ career (The Ladykillers was just around the corner), and remains the lowlight of their oeuvre.
Frankly, the biggest problem with criticizing comedies is that laughter is an instinctual process. It’s very difficult not to laugh when something’s funny, and we all laugh at different things. But I have never known anyone who laughed at Intolerable Cruelty, impeccable pedigree or no. On paper it probably looked fine, but in actuality the film is a hodgepodge of cartoonish characters running around doing predictably farcical things in a desperate attempt to keep our attention away from how much we’re not laughing. Intolerable Cruelty is even more aptly named than Shallow Hal.
School of Rock (dir. Richard Linklater, 2003)
Pretty much everyone loves this movie, but not me. Remember in the entry for Intolerable Cruelty how I said that “we all laugh at different things?” That’s true, but also all have personal experiences that prevent certain subjects from being funny. Try telling a dumb blond joke to an actual blond woman and I think you’ll see where I’m coming from.
Extraordinarily talented screenwriter Mike White and often-fabulous director Richard Linklater teamed up for this family farce starring Jack Black as a musician who sneaks his way into a substitute teaching gig and finds himself educating his class in rock music for his own personal ends. All the kids are talented, Black seems to have found his calling, and it all ends in a big honking rock-off. The love of music is palpable and contagious, and Black has rarely been better cast (I know it seems like I’m beating up on him in this Listicle, but I really do think he’s a charming actor). So why do I hate, hate, hate this film?
Because it takes place over an extended period of time, during which Jack Black hijacks the class’s education and runs roughshod over the entire school curriculum. Yes, I know Led Zeppelin is great. Yes, it’s awesome that you’re teaching the kids about that. No, it shouldn’t take the place of history, math and English development. They’re still in elementary school for pete’s sake! They’re going to fall behind!
White and Linklater de-emphasize this ghoulish misappropriation of school time and resources by indicating that all of these kids are intellectual prodigies who are way ahead of the curve already, but by the end of the film it’s entirely possible that they might have fallen behind on their higher education. Jack Black might make a great music teacher, but as a teacher-teacher? He’s a monster.
Both my parents are educators, by the way, so I’m particularly distracted by this. I imagine this is what it’s like when police officers watch “Tango & Cash,” or when doctors watch “House, M.D.”