Comedy demands a fixed perspective. If you can’t figure out where a joke is coming from, you’re not going to get it, no matter how good a sense of humor you have. All the great pioneers of American movie comedy operated from deeply held personal beliefs: the humanism of Charlie Chaplin, the modernism of Buster Keaton, the anarchy of the Marx Brothers, and the misanthropy of W.C. Fields were like natural springs that never ran dry, creating a context that followed them from film to film. Perspective is what distinguishes real comic filmmakers like Woody Allen and Albert Brooks from the endless succession of sketch-comedy alumni who score a few times at the box office, then dry up and blow away.
Perspective is also what separates the brilliant You, the Living, a Swedish import screening for two weeks only at Facets, from the mediocre The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, which Paramount snuck into theaters last week without any timely press screenings. You, the Living springs from a bleak vision so fully worked out that when I saw the movie at the Toronto film festival two years ago, the smallest details elicited gales of laughter from the audience. The Goods, like most mainstream comedies these days, comes out of skepticism—an absence of belief, if you will—and as a result has to work much harder for its laughs. When I saw it this weekend, there were so many clever lines that I soon gave up on the idea of jotting them down, yet only a handful of them got an audible laugh from the people around me, and not always the same people.
Roy Andersson, who wrote and directed You, the Living, takes the idea of a fixed perspective to a literal extreme. Every scene in the movie transpires in an unbroken long shot, beautifully composed and rigidly controlled. Usually the setting is a room viewed in two-point perspective, the strong diagonal lines broken up by Andersson’s miserable, often rotund characters. Sometimes a door will be open, exposing in the next room another character who provides mute witness to the main character’s predicament. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Andersson cited George Grosz and Otto Dix as painters who influenced him, but his minutely detailed long shots, many of them created on studio soundstages, also recall comic-strip panels—not the clean, minimalist squares popularized by Charles Schulz but the busy tableaux inhabited by early comic-strip heroes like Popeye and the Yellow Kid.
Andersson developed this long-take aesthetic in a series of witty, offbeat TV commercials, and on the big screen—in his 2000 feature Songs From the Second Floor and now You, the Living—he exploits it for a series of killer sight gags. One of the earliest scenes in You, the Living shows an old man with a walker laboriously making his way down a city sidewalk, from the left of the frame to the right. Only as he’s about to exit the frame does the leash wrapped around his hand drag into view his whimpering pet dog, tied by its hind leg. Even the corniest old gag is enriched by Andersson’s unblinking gaze and densely detailed shots: when a joker at a family banquet insists on performing that old parlor trick of yanking the tablecloth out from under the dishes, he not only shatters a huge collection of crystal and china but also reveals a vintage table inlaid with swastikas.
Yet the real key to Andersson’s comedy is his stark view of humanity: most of his characters are cruel, selfish, or just oblivious. When the man from the family banquet is surreally sentenced to death for breaking all the dishes and strapped into the electric chair, an observation window reveals rows of spectators munching on popcorn. A man practices the tuba in his apartment, and when his downstairs neighbor pounds on the ceiling with a broom, he succeeds only in dislodging a hanging lamp; but the punch line doesn’t arrive until Andersson cuts to a man standing on his balcony across the street and watching this conflict play out in silence through lit windows. “Nobody understands me!” complains a woman brooding on a park bench near the beginning of the movie, and her sentiment is widely shared. Eventually she gets herself laid, going to bed with the tuba player, but as she straddles and humps him, concentrating on her own pleasure, he prattles on about his retirement portfolio.
“People demand so much,” says a weary psychiatrist at the midpoint of the movie, addressing the audience and, one suspects, serving as a mouthpiece for the director. “”They demand to be happy, at the same time they are egocentric, selfish, and ungenerous. . . . They are quite simply mean, most of them. Spending hour after hour in therapy, trying to make a mean person happy. There’s no point. You can’t do it. I’ve stopped doing it. These days, I just prescribe pills. The stronger the better.”
The last shot of You, the Living shows a squadron of bombers in formation, the clouds breaking beneath them to reveal the city below. If this film were any darker, a projectionist would have trouble shining light through it.
Neal Brennan, who makes his directing debut with The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, once partnered with comedian Dave Chappelle to write the cult sketch-comedy series Chappelle’s Show, and no one familiar with its wild, in-your-face racial humor would accuse it of lacking a point of view. But according to a recent profile in the Times, Brennan “made it a point to set aside his own sensibilities” when directing The Goods, about an ailing car dealership that calls in a team of hired guns to help move inventory during a three-day sale. Screenwriters Andy Stock and Rick Stempson must have been inspired by John Landis’s documentary Slasher (2004), and a rivalry with another dealership recalls the old Robert Zemeckis classic Used Cars (1980). The Goods was hatched by Will Ferrell’s company, Gary Sanchez Productions, and the hero (Jeremy Piven) is the sort of fierce, self-deifying boob that Ferrell usually plays.
With so many competing levels of authorship, naturally the movie winds up being a hodgepodge. That isn’t to say it’s a dud—some of the gags are brilliantly conceived. The car dealer’s ten-year-old son suffers from a pituitary condition that has given him the body of a grown man (he’s played by Rob Riggle), and he becomes an object of seriously conflicted desire for one of Piven’s salespeople (Kathryn Hahn). A rival car dealer (Ed Helms) devotes his off-hours to an absurd “boy band” whose members are all grown men in their 30s. And Ferrell has an uncredited cameo as Piven’s dead partner, who perished during a sales stunt in which he leapt from a plane dressed as Abraham Lincoln; he reappears as an angel, flanked by two black women who echo his vulgar dialogue in gospel harmony. Like the hired guns in the movie, Brennan will do anything to close the deal.
But as with most car salesmen, you can never be certain he means what he’s saying. Since the seismic shock of Saturday Night Live in the 70s, a whole generation of comedians has grown up pandering to the current zeitgeist or just firing at anything that moves. From Chevy Chase to Conan O’Brien, they’ve taken great pains to hide their own beliefs—personal, political, religious, whatever—to maintain that hip aura of aloofness. When someone like Jon Stewart or Bill Maher or Dennis Miller actually says what he thinks, he’s immediately labeled as “controversial,” but that’s only because the majority of comedians are so afraid to let on where they’re coming from. As any marksman will tell you, you have a better chance of hitting your target if you’re standing still.