As The Finally Screenings have shifted from comedies that are at the top of classic-comedy lists to films that are found on more obscure or specific charts, I suppose it’s inevitable that there would be a higher proportion of films that I wouldn’t necessarily think to describe as comedies, per se. Light-hearted, fanciful, bizarre, stylish or satirical, maybe, but not funny-ha-ha. 1977’s Slap Shot is a perfect example, a film whose darker and more dramatic elements outweigh the laughs to a genre-stretching degree.
Which isn’t to say that Slap Shot is a bad movie. It has a lot of things going for it, and the laughs to be found are solid and well-earned. But the jokes seem only peppered into a story that is much darker, more lonely and more tragic than the first 20 minutes would suggest. In fact, as the film goes on, the violence, immorality and consistently unlikable characters start to undermine scenes which, in the first act of the film, come off as charming and humorous.
But first, some context: Paul Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, the aging player-coach of a small-town Pennsylvania minor league hockey team. When he learns that the team is being folded due to falling attendance, he lies to the team that they’re being sold and convinces them to start playing dirty, which invigorates both their fan-base and their win-loss record.
Obviously it goes without saying that those two things I mentioned above — comedy and more dramatic aspects — can co-exist. In much of the best comedy they’re the exact same thing. But here they’re clearly separated on distinct planes. On the ground level, in the moment, there are lewd jokes, physical mayhem, strong and memorable character games and a number of ragtag-sports-team-comedy tropes. But hovering just above all that are more tragic elements: broken marriages, selfishness, manipulation and deceit, sports-fan bloodlust, a blue-collar town in decay. These things are never played for laughs, but are rather the foundation of a story that is alternately funny and dismal.
It’s honestly sort of disorienting. I’m not used to having the depression and wacky-antics portions of my brain poked so hard at the same time, and from different directions. Some of the jokes are solid and the tragedy is effective to the point of being a little sickening sometimes. But somehow one doesn’t inform the other. The things that hit in Slap Shot are not jokes that also make you sad, they’re mostly straight-up jokes nestled between straight-up portrayals of despondency, immorality and hopelessness. Newman’s enigmatic leading character is a good example. I say enigmatic not because his character is difficult to discern, but because Reggie Dunlop is a character you alternately sort of root for and completely despise, and very rarely at the same time. And to make matters worse, he doesn’t change, doesn’t redeem himself, and in fact the movie ends with him claiming success and happiness with no way to verify the truth of that claim (for the uninitiated, he lies his way through the entire film. But not so consistently that it’s a foregone conclusion). It’s the kind of bleak arc you expect from an enigmatic villain, in a story where the killer-gets-away-with-it-and-that’s-kind-of-like-life-sometimes. Because when your leading man is an irredeemable asshole who wins and doesn’t change, what kind of story are you telling?
Paul Newman is great here, as always, though. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and I’d count The Sting among my favorite movies (also directed by George Roy Hill). He’s the kind of guy who always looks more at home than anyone he shares a screen with, and it’s never more true than here, surrounded by a bunch of actual hockey players, many of whom have just one single quirk or character game to sustain them through the film. He’s also, as I said, pretty severely unlikeable in Slap Shot, which is pretty impressive for a guy who made a career out of being charismatic.
And as one-dimensional as the supporting cast can be, the film never feels populated with jokes or thin characters — the whole film buzzes with loud, profane, overlapping locker-room shouting (sort of like an obscene Goonies, now that I think about it), and in every situation the members of the supporting cast have their predictable but unique voice to add. The Hanson brothers — three violent, bespectacled, nearly-identical siblings recently added to the team roster — in particular are consistently hilarious, acting like a three-headed monster of swearing, pep-talking and fast-paced banter, finishing each others sentences and adding a constant chatter to every scene they’re in, as well as gleefully kicking their opponents’ asses at every opportunity.
In addition to his work with the cast, George Roy Hill does some impressive aesthetic directing here too, playing up the sad and the barbaric in a story about small-town hockey. There’s no sports-glory cinematography here; in fact, the film is never more ugly than when there are players on the ice. Even the art direction adds to the sadness — the polyester, ugly cars, proto-mullets and missing teeth all make this movie feel as ragged and over-the-hill as its lead character. It’s hard to say what effect that had when leather pants and matching leather jacket were actually cool, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence — I think Paul Newman dressing like that was probably a little gross even in 1977.
It feels strange to say this, but I don’t think I’d do Slap Shot justice to consider it a comedy. Not because I think the label is limiting by any means — I think some of the best films of all time are straight-up comedies — but because viewing Slap Shot as a comedy, prioritizing the relatively small number of jokes above the greater weight of its tragic elements, neglects what I believe to be the larger point of the film. Of course the two can coexist, but here they just don’t. The laughs to be found here are solid. But the world George Roy Hill is creating is not a comedic one. Slap Shot is about a man, a town, a team, a league and a sport that are all dying, and Hill has created characters who are desperate, selfish, lonely, deceitful and violent.
In the same way that a film like Magnolia or Fargo can have elements of comedy but be telling a story that is at its core a drama (and meant to be received as such), Slap Shot takes the same approach to a film with more personal and less philosophical ambitions than P.T. Anderson or the Cohens tend to have. This is a film that reminds me more, thematically, of films like On the Waterfront or Raging Bull, films about people and towns and how they change and fall apart. The weight those things have doesn’t diminish as readily as jokes (or Newman’s Burt Reynolds costume) can, so in that way I think Slap Shot certainly holds up — as some of the comedy has faded, the very fact that it has faded only strengthens the weight of the tragedy. The passé wardrobe and hairstyles, the decreased appeal and shock value of vicious and violent hockey, the curdling of homophobic and sexist jokes into disturbing fossils of once-acceptable-and-in-fact-ubiquitous behavior, have all shifted over the years to somehow strengthen the tragic component of the film, and somehow it still works. It may be a different kind of movie in 2011 than the one that was released in 1977, but all the elements are still working, even if they now tell a story that’s more melancholy.