In this week’s issue of the Reader, Leah Pickett wrote at length on Long Shot, a new romantic comedy set in the world of American politics. The film certainly reflects a healthy tradition, as filmmakers have mined U.S. politics for comedy for generations. Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of comedies that take place in political milieux. All are by American filmmakers, save for In the Loop, whose director, Armando Iannucci, is British; and save for Duck Soup (my vote for the funniest political comedy in movie history), all take place in American settings. Is the American political landscape a riper zone for comedy than those of other countries? Or am I less familiar with foreign political comedies because comedy and political nuance are some of the most difficult things to translate from one culture to another? In any case, enjoy these reviews of superior political comedies of the last 86 years that share a certain irreverence and cynicism.
Duck Soup The Marx Brothers’s best movie (1933) and, not coincidentally, the one with the strongest director—Leo McCarey, who had the flexibility to give the boys their head and the discipline to make some formal sense of it. Groucho is Rufus T. Firefly, brought in by Margaret Dumont to restore order to the crumbling country of Freedonia; his competition consists of two bumbling spies, Chico and Harpo, sent in by the failed Shakespearean actor (Louis Calhern) who runs the country next door. The anti-war satire is dark, trenchant, and typical of Paramount’s liberal orientation at the time. —Dave Kehr
The Great McGinty Preston Sturges’s first film (1940) is a gentle, perfectly crafted satire on American political corruption in which a party “voter” named McGinty (Brian Donlevy) becomes governor through the efforts of a corrupt political boss (Akim Tamiroff). Sturges was convinced that the American success story was a load of hooey (as they used to say back in the 40s), and that a bum like McGinty had just as much chance—and ability—to go to the top as anyone else. All you needed was luck and a bit of larceny. The perfect fusion of Sturges’s wit and frenzy. —Don Druker
The Candidate Robert Redford looks right for the part—as a naive young idealist drafted for a senatorial campaign he’s meant to lose—but somehow his doughy blandness spreads out and obscures the sharp-edged satire of Jeremy Larner’s Oscar-winning script. He doesn’t seem to be in on the joke, and pretty soon there isn’t a joke: as far as he’s concerned he’s playing Bobby Kennedy. Michael Ritchie still had some sense of structure and proportion when he directed this 1972 film; it’s nowhere near as broad or insistent as his later comedies (Smile, Semi-Tough), and much of it has a pleasing air of accuracy. But Redford’s inability to suggest any irony about himself finally sinks it—it’s the only sanctimonious satire you’ll ever see. With Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, and Melvyn Douglas. —Dave Kehr
Bulworth Throwing caution to the wind, producer-director-cowriter-star Warren Beatty sounds off about politics, delivering his funniest and liveliest film to date (1998). Beatty plays a senator up for reelection who suffers a nervous breakdown, takes out a contract on himself, and with nothing to lose finds himself blurting out what he actually believes—mostly in the style of street rap. He addresses the lies of the government in general and the Democratic Party in particular, especially regarding Black people, and once he starts hanging out with the daughter of Black Panthers (Halle Berry), whether the two of them will have sex becomes more of an issue than whether he’ll get reelected. This lacks the craft of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, but it offers a personal statement that may be just as important, and some of it equals Richard Pryor’s concert films in farcical candor and reckless energy. Coscripted by Jeremy Pikser; with Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Paul Sorvino, Don Cheadle, Amiri Baraka, and lots of enjoyable cameos. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
In the Loop Adapted from the BBC series The Thick of It, this enormously witty satire (2009) follows a British diplomatic staff as they fly to Washington to confer with their U.S. counterparts, who are secretly ginning up an invasion of the Middle East. Tom Hollander is the foreign office administrator whose hapless press statements on the matter inflame speculation and enrage the prime minister’s communications director, a brilliantly vulgar Scot played by Peter Capaldi. On the American side, a general who’s trying to slow the rush to war (James Gandolfini) is smoothly outflanked by the State Department’s assistant secretary for policy (David Rasche), an airy asshole plainly based on Donald Rumsfeld. Cowardice and incompetence are endlessly ripe subjects for comedy, and the movie mercilessly indicts the careerists on both sides of the Atlantic who let the Iraq war happen. Armando Iannucci directed; with Steve Coogan. —J.R. Jones v