recent laughs

I’m going to lighten the tone in this post because I’ve a tendency to write serious blog entries. That’s partly because I use this journal to tease out writing-related issues that are on my mind.

Today I’ll examine two comedies I saw in recent weeks that I really enjoyed.

First off I’ll state that I have huge respect for comedy writers because it is a difficult art. There is something miraculous about making people laugh. It’s a gift. It doesn’t hurt that comedy sells, as I pointed out lately.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to add more comedy titles to my DVD collection, because I tend to gravitate towards sf/horror/fantasy genre films as a default. Recently I examined my database of DVD titles by category and I realised that at least a third of collection is tagged as “horror”. Yikes! My husband, Martin, is a comedy fan, so it’s only fair I cater to his tastes too.

The first film I want to mention is Bad Santa (2003). I sought it out this Christmas as an antidote to the more saccharine fare that was available during the holiday season.

A couple of minutes into the film–as Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), dressed in his Santa Suit, vomits in a back alley–I was sitting slack-jawed and wondering how on earth this film was made in Hollywood.

Because Willie is a depraved, cynical, reprobate, who dresses up as Santa during the Christmas season so he can rip off shopping malls once a year with Marcus (Tony Cox), Santa’s elf. Willie is a safecracker, who hates kids, and has no joy in his life.

What’s so important to establish in the opening scene of the film is that even though Willie’s attitude towards life is nihilistic, we see a person who hates himself more than anyone else, and is deeply lonely. This is achieved, in my opinion, by Thorton’s incomparable acting in this role, and the voice-over that’s used in that pivotal scene. I was disappointed when I read the online script that it doesn’t contain the voice over monologues. Voice over can be badly implemented in films, but I think it’s used correctly in Bad Santa.

There are so many hilarious scenes in that film, and fantastic dialogue. Just read the conversation between Willie and the Kid (Brett Kelly) as Willie drives him home due to a mixture of avarice, guilt, and greed:

KID
Why do you need a car?

WILLIE
…Fuck you talkin’ about?

KID
This car.

WILLIE
Whuh. Which turn is it?

KID
Sage Terrace. Where’s your sleigh?

Willie answers absently, his head slightly ducked and his
eyes darting side to side, checking for road signs:

WILLIE
Repairs. In the shop.

KID
Where’re the reindeer?

WILLIE
I stable ’em. Is it gonna be left or
right?

KID
(pointing left)
That way. Where’s the stable?

WILLIE
Next to the shop.

KID
How do they sleep?

WILLIE
Who — the reindeer? Standing up.

KID
But the noise, how do they sleep?

WILLIE
What noise?

KID
From the shop.

WILLIE
They, uh, they only work during the
day.

KID
I thought it was always night at the
North Pole.

WILLIE
Not now. Now it’s always day.

KID
Then how do they sleep?

WILLIE
Well, they — WILL YOU PUH-LEEEZ
SHUT THE FUCK UP! HOW THE FUCK DO
KNOW?! I’M GONNA — Whoa! Sage
Terrace!

He makes a hard left.

WILLIE
…What is it with you? Somebody
drop you on your fucking head?

KID
On my head?

WILLIE
What, are they gonna drop you on
somebody else’s head?

KID
How can they drop me onto my own
head?

WILLIE
Not onto your own h — ARE YOU FUCKING
WITH ME?

The Kid’s innocent gullibility is a brilliant foil to Willie’s cynicism. The best thing about the film is that even though Willie does change (in the way Glacier’s move– slowly and almost imperceptibly) it is done in a way that is realistic to how the character began the movie. Bad Santa does wrap up in a satisfying manner without succumbing to the lure of the tissue box moment.

I will note that I’ve never wanted a man to deliver a stuffed pink elephant to a boy as much as I did while watching this movie.

On to Kung Fu Hustle (2004), by Stephen Chow. I loved Shaolin Soccer (and wrote about it), and the advance word on this flick was great. Like its previous film, Kung Fu Hustle is a comic romp that is not afraid to have fun and play with the genre.

One thing that struck me while watching the film is the abundance of physical character actors who are not “typically” pretty, and actually revel in their ordinariness. It’s such a relief to watch actors who look like the everyday citizen, and not some pretty boy or girl who needs make-up to hide the fact.

The story is simple: the residents of Pig Sty Alley (such a marvellous name) fend off the evil Axe Gang, and their hired fighters. Mixed up in it is the failed mugger, Sing (Stephen Chow) and his sidekick Donut (Zhi Hua Don), who caused the confrontation in the first place. Despite their best efforts they are terrible bad guys. In the end Sing surrenders to his good nature and becomes a ass-kicking emissary for Buddha. Pig Sty Alley is the home to a number of Martial Arts masters who are attempting to live a simple life (this is lauded as more important than a vainglorious life or violence).

The fight sequences are incredible, mostly because of their innovation and imagination. Chow is not content to do a variation of the usual

face-off between characters, but instead elevates everything to new heights. In one moment Sing runs away from the Pig Sty Alley’s Landlady (Qiu Yuen), and the two of them become like Loony Tunes cartoon characters with speeding legs that rotate so quickly you can’t see them–the gag even ends with a character smashing into a billboard, which is a great touch. Chow is never afraid to walk over the line into surreal humour because the the Kung Fu genre is already straining at the border as it is. The fight sequence between the three martial arts masters and the scary musician assassins is downright stunning.

Chow knows how to invigorate his scenes with humour whenever needed. The Landlady’s silent threat to the leader of the Axe Gang is serious, and yet contains a funny homage to Bruce Lee at the same time.

For me the stars of the film are the Landlady and her browbeaten husband (Wah Yuen). With her exceptional Lion’s Roar, and a permanent cigarette hanging from her lip (the rollers come out of her hair towards the end of the film), the Landlady is particularly hilarious. Both of them are unmasked as being something different than first thought as the film progresses, which gives them a nice depth for an action film.

The ending is also entirely Oriental in viewpoint. When Sing defeats the Beast (Siu-Lung Leung) by the fantastic Buddha Palm technique, the Beast becomes his apprentice, rather than becoming a smear on the pavement, which would have been the Occidental way to end the film.

From a Western perspective there are difficulties with the film in regards to its setup, sudden character changes, and structure, but I don’t think that those criteria are totally applicable to this film. Overall the film works as a fun parody of the Kung Fu movie, as well as providing a simple and neat story, with lots of action and plenty of gags.

I’m looking forward to the sequel.