[20 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Is that even true? Every “great”...Wait, let’s backtrack for a moment. Over the last few weeks, Lionsgate has been advertising its Dax Shepard vanity project Hit and Run with the unusual tagline “Every great comedy has an awesome villain.” The campaign, which focuses on the criminal character played by a dreadlocked Bradley Cooper, has the charismatic thug kissing his gal pal, roughing up a man in a tank top, and stumbling upon a group of over the hill swingers. In between the quips and gunfire, we see a bit of Shepard and his co-star/real life lady love Kristin Bell. The plot gets a cursory nod (guy who gave up his criminal co-defendant gets a reprisal visit from same) and we see some chase/action beats.
Yet it’s the broad pronouncement about comedy and villains that plays as the sales pitch. In essence, Hit and Run is arguing that (a) it is a great comedy, because (b) it has an awesome villain. The statement also implies three other ancillary theorems: (1) that a villain is mandatory for a comedy, (2) that a bad villain makes for a bad comedy, and (3) that by logical extension, a bad comedy can’t have an awesome villain and a great comedy cannot have a bad/non-existent villain. On first glance, they’re right. What would Animal House be without Dean Wormer, Greg Marmalard, and Douglas Neidermeyer? M*A*S*H* without Frank Burns and Hot Lips? Blazing Saddles without Mongo and Headley Lamar? Or how about Ken Jeong in the Hangover films?
Let’s go back a bit further. The slapstick greats - Chaplin and Keaton - frequently saw their onscreen alter egos battling against malevolent characters, and there was always a meddling businessman or cop threatening the Three Stooges. But this doesn’t necessarily create an universal maxim. Even if the majority of great comedies have awesome villains, there are many examples without. Annie Hall would be hard pressed to name a true bad guy (Paul Simon? The Network honchos? The Nazi-like record store clerk?) while Raising Arizona and The Producers have ancillary scoundrels at best. The In-Laws (the original, not the rotten remake) could present either the CIA or a Senior Wences-inspired General Garcia while Monty Python and the Holy Grail could call upon any number of bit parts (The Black Knight? The Knights Who Say “Ni”? The French?).
Here’s the point: you just can’t declare the aesthetic dynamic argued over by this tag and declare victory. Does This is Spinal Tap need a gun-toting hood to make you laugh? Does The Big Lebowski lose something if Jesus and The Nihilists are nowhere to be seen? Dr. Strangelove may function best because Gen Jack D. Ripper goes gonzo over the preservation of his precious bodily fluids, but does he actually truly act as the catalyst for all the comedy? That’s the implication made by Hit and Run. Without Cooper and his crazy hair-trigger temperament, the movie wouldn’t be that much fun. Instead, it would be just a mediocre comedy, or worse, not very funny at all (after seeing it recently, the latter is clearly the case). While the precedent may be easy to prove, it is also racked with complications and contradictions.
When the Marx Brothers made their timeless classics, did they really think the wealthy dowager character was a villain? Aren’t rubes and idiots more prevalent as comedic counterbalance? How about something like the original Nutty Professor. Is Buddy Love the antagonist, or just a manifestation of Prof. Kelp’s darker side? In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the screwball genre used naive, sullen squares as their laugh-at rivals while the ‘50s and ‘60s focused on topicality. Look at Tootsie. Is Dabney Coleman’s crude director wolf really the reason the film is so funny? Or could it be that actor Dustin Hoffman does such a great job at playing a blousy woman that we laugh at the contrast?
It’s a pickle, since there are ways to both prove and disprove the claim. Borat treats the whole world as an enemy while Napoleon Dynamite is just as obnoxious and crass as his family. Bill Lumbergh may be Office Space‘s middle manager from Hell, but he’s not as noxious as the titled Horrible Bosses. Some Like it Hot has the mob, while Caddyshack as Judge Smails…and a gopher. Yet the cult classic Withnail and I has one of its main character function as a misanthropic drunk (it’s the same with Arthur) and yet we find the person loveable in an amiable, anti-hero kind of way.
Under this definition, however, The Silence of the Lambs would best any other laugher out there if only the serial killer thriller had abandoned the death for a bunch of one-liners. Similarly, when a villain actually cracks wise in an otherwise non-comedic title (think “I’ll Be Back” from the original Terminator), it should stifle the thrills. Again, there seems to be more examples of the maxim than not, but it’s a dangerous sentiment to champion. If you movie is terrific, then you’ve proven your point. If not…
Even more knotty is the personal nature of humor. We laugh at the death-defying exploits of the Jackass crew, but where is the villain there? Is it the possibility of death? Physical injury? Old school slapstick taken to predatory post-modern extremes? Why does Adam Sandler tickle some and sicken most? Do we really need another 1000 words on the pros/cons of Judd Apatow’s dick fetish or how gross out gags ala the Farrelly Brothers have seemingly run their course? Comedy may not be pretty - according to Steve Martin - but it is also not predictable. Just by throwing in a questionably “great” baddie doesn’t mean you’ll have audiences in stitches (we’re looking your way, again, Hit and Run...).
Granted, if all the marketers want to do was attach themselves to a relatively sound theory so that their film will be considered “great” by comparison, then fine. There’s always been bait and switch in movie advertising. And as we’ve shown, there are big exceptions to this hyperbolic ‘rule.’ Just like giving your movie an easily hijacked name (Hit and Run will easily morph into “Hit and Miss” for many a critic), such a claim demands a critique. It may act as a conversation starter, but it also functions as a definition. You better be prepared to back it up, less your self-proclaimed greatness actually turn into something slight…or worse, awful.