“I kind of want to see that, I guess.” Such was the level of enthusiasm one could expect to muster toward going to the movies in 2010. Sure, this was the year of Inception, The Social Network, and Black Swan, but pickin’s were pretty slim if you were looking for a laugh. Hardly anything released all year was anywhere near as funny as the moment you first laid eyes on a handlebar-mustachioed John Travolta in the poster for From Paris With Love.
This year was poised to be the takeover of hard R-rated original ensemble comedies. The Hangover proved that such movies are still capable of bringing in crazy McDonald’s money if they’re any good, or at least marketed correctly. Instead, we got an onslaught from too many rom-coms, adaptations, and assorted misfires – all accompanied by fluff news stories about how nobody goes to the movies anymore. Faced with mounting competition from television and the internet, the movie industry had to either go hard or go home this year, and it seems they chose the latter. Audiences then followed suit and stayed in to watch Netflix Instant. Despite a distinct lack of breakout comedies and sleeper hits, though, there were some bright spots among the darkness.
In some instances, overly familiar formulas succeeded. Having Steve Carrell and Zach Galifianakis play weirdos bouncing off of Paul Rudd’s straight man isn’t exactly an out-of-the-box strategy, but it worked well enough to make Dinner for Schmucks an enjoyable diversion. Actively bucking against the familiar confines of the buddy comedy genre from within, The Other Guys managed to score big laughs too, while largely sticking to the script. What these movies have in common is that they both stack the deck with inspired casting choices for peripheral characters. The slimy romantic threat in Dinner for Schmucks is played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, and the harried police captain in The Other Guys is played by Michael Keaton. When these stock roles are played by comedic pros, it can make all the difference in the world.
On the other hand, there were some movies whose aching familiarity could not possibly be overcome no matter who was involved. Adam Sandler, firing on all cylinders, is a force to be reckoned with, and Chris Rock is of the sharpest, funniest stand-ups of all time. David Spade, Kevin James, and Rob Schneider are also professional comedians. Putting them all together for Grown Ups should have been a slam dunk. Watching them go through the stilted motions of a standard Maturity Panic flick, unfortunately, is about as exciting as watching surveillance footage from a store that went out of business. The same could be said for the rote offerings of Cop Out. Where The Other Guys used the conventions of the buddy cop movie to its strengths, Cop Out more or less settles for regurgitating the tried and true elements of the genre it attempts to satirize. As fresh as the idea of seeing Tracy Morgan play a cop is, it pales next to the crushing reality of seeing Bruce Willis play a Bruce Willis-style cop again with a wink and a smirk.
Almost as unfortunate as the overly familiar, the kind of comedy that strives for hyper-realism has a penchant for missing more often than hitting too. The number of quirky indie movies with titles like Douchebag, Bass Ackwards, and Multiple Sarcasms was pretty high this year, and none of them managed to make a dent. The indie world was not without its successes, though. The latest Nicole Holofcener film, Please Give, wrung laughs out of its social critique, and Tiny Furniture introduced the world to talented triple-threat, Lena Dunham (she wrote, directed, and starred in it). While largely plotless, Tiny Furniture had terrific dialogue to spare and was impressive enough to convince Judd Apatow to take Ms. Dunham under his wing.
Also in the independent realm, a couple of documentaries released in 2010 proved to be necessary viewing for comedy nerds. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is an unflinching portrait of the artist as a 75-year old woman, fighting and clawing to maintain her foothold. Former stand-up Jordan Brady’s ode to the profession, I Am Comic, has a ton of great interviews and performance footage of several generations’ best comics. Taken together, these two films really get to the heart of what it means to be a comedian, and they’re almost as funny as they are informative and interesting.
Sequels, adaptations, and spinoffs account for such a high percentage of movies every year, it’s a wonder there wasn’t a feature-length Marmaduke in theatres years ago (like a thousand years ago, when somebody might have wanted to see it or even knew what it was). Lots of comedies tend to fall in that pre-sold franchises category too, with varying levels of success. Little Fockers tied upall the loose ends of the epic Focker trilogy with a surprisingly poignant commentary on the unbridgeable gaps that exist in modern families. Or maybe that’s not what happened – I didn’t go. I’m sure it was fine, though. Totally fine. A couple months earlier, Jackass 3-D made a lot of money with a lot of poo. And as questionable as it was that a Forgetting Sarah Marshall spinoff even got made, Get Him to the Greek definitely had its moments. These three movies were all successful, helping to ensure that even more movies will be adapted and be-sequeled for years to come. Yay?
Finally, as always, some movies that came out in 2010 went unjustly overlooked. When a movie does poorly at the box office, it’s pretty easy for the potential audience to write it off as a flop and avoid it. That’s what happened with Youth in Revolt. I know because I didn’t want to see it either. With a January release date and some burgeoning Michael Cera exhaustion, I just couldn’t be bothered. When I did end up seeing the movie under very boring circumstances, though, what I found was a gem. Youth in Revolt has a lot of scenes that complement Cera’s established abilities, but there’s also a lot of them that pushes him suitably far out of his comfort zone. If Youth in Revolt failed – which, it totally did – at least it went quietly in January. Released at the competitive start of summer movie season, MacGruber bombed hard enough to become a cautionary tale. That is the reason why MacGruber is easily the most underrated movie of the year. More than an SNL character with a 90 minutes wrapped around it, MacGruber is the best action movie satire since Hot Fuzz. It makes fun of so many things you wanted to see made fun of; it mocks so many things you never realized needed to be mocked. It goes to nasty dark places, and uses Ryan Phillippe to hilarious effect. Also, it has the funniest one-two punch of an extended sex scene ever. Youth in Revolt will be lucky to find a following and a second life on DVD, but with MacGruber, there will be no way to stop the cult from materializing around it.
That was 2010 – a lot of dumb movie posters, a lot of familiarity, and Johnny Knoxville’s ballsack flying at you in three dimensions. Mistakes were made. Let’s just hope that somebody learned from them.