Film comedies have always been a problem for me, since for the most part I don’t find ’em “funny.” (Funny: what’s that? When you laugh, I guess, though Rob Zombie movies—or Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil: Extinction … can’t hardly wait for that one!—probably don’t count.) And with the recent canonization of everything Judd Apatow touches, things are looking bleaker all the time, at least from my side of the aisle. Poker-faced through The 40-Year-Old Virgin, poker-faced through Knocked Up, poker-faced through Superbad (I mean, what’s with the decibel count: if the characters don’t immediately turn into screaming, gesticulating ferrets, does it mean the “comedy” has somehow failed?). As desolating as it undoubtedly is, Aki Kaurismaki’s Lights in the Dusk seems more chortlesome (now there’s a word!) than anything Apatow et al have been able to cook up. Maybe it’s the very numbness of it, like a whiff of nitrous oxide in the dentist’s chair: cleaned out and bracing, daring you to find subliminal riffs in an open, airy void—what’s not to like about that?
But still I’m not laughing, since that’s not primarily what Kaurismaki’s about … so what does set me off comedywise? Probably a window to the soul in this—and maybe I should close it while the opportunity’s still there—but so far this year it’s been DeCillo’s Delirious, Hartley’s Fay Grim (two-thirds a white telephone movie elegantly skewed … until the deplorable imploding finale), Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!, Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, Waitress if you care to count it, then … nada, zilch, zero. What all these personal faves ultimately share is a reliance on mise-en-scene—on spatial relations and blocking, attitudes and movement, visual filigree—rather than literally “funny” lines. Obviously not into the yackety end of things, which wretched hearing partially accounts for—but only partially, since the same division holds with subtitled movies. And I do hate stand-up, the expectation to laugh’s too overbearing and brutal—no Sarah Silvermans for this guy, please.
So what’s the “best” comedy in the last five years? My own vote goes to—whoa, credibility alert!—Catherine Breillat‘s Sex Is Comedy (2002) … which hardly seems anyone else’s idea of a good time at all. Except for me it’s almost a “been there, saw that” kind of deal—just a typewriter-wielding factotum at the derriere end of the trade (apologies for the imagery)—and, my god, she’s got it all down cold: yes, they do actually debate which body parts to crop out of the frame and which photogs do or don’t know how to shoot breasts and schlongs, etc. It’s also extremely perceptive in what it emotionally deconstructs and clarifies … maybe even too much so. You wonder how anyone with Breillat’s kind of knowledge (or for that matter Anne Parillaud‘s, her alter ego in the film) can sustain a “romantic” relation at all. Or maybe she doesn’t: insight as the ultimate incapacitator, a life beyond all fantasy … but who’s in a position to say?