How the laughter got ‘Lost’

[11 June 2009]

By Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

“Land of the Lost” isn’t just a bad movie.

It’s emblematic of what’s wrong with lots of movies, especially comedies.

Watching this stillborn adventure you’re painfully aware that the moviemakers are working their way down the list of key elements from the old Saturday morning kids TV show.

Tyrannosaurus rex? Check.

Sleestaks? Check.

Hairy ape boy? Check.

Cave hideout? Check.

What never emerges is a purpose. It’s all about referencing the original TV show and recycling those memories for the now-grown fans.

Bad idea. The $100 million movie looks to be the clunker of the summer, opening in third place with only $18.8 million.

Apparently everyone involved had faith that funnyman Will Ferrell would jazz up the empty script. Actually, Ferrell was funnier in a two-minute appearance on Sunday’s Tony Awards show than he was in all of “Land of the Lost.”

Only slightly better is “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” in which Ben Stiller chases special effects through the nation’s capital.

I was bored by both movies. Could it be because these moviemakers care less about telling a story, exploring characters and following a theme and more about exploiting an existing franchise?

So many comedies leave me cold because in the quest for funny moments they’ve utterly abandoned meaning.

They’re like a mediocre stand-up comic spewing countless one-liners that never build to a satisfying payoff. You may find yourself laughing at individual bits, but they exist in a vacuum.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Check out any Abbott & Costello film from the 1940s ... you’ll get a couple of hysterical scenes surrounded by insufferable blandness.

What really rubs me wrong with so many of today’s comedy filmmakers is that they think we’re too savvy and ironic to care what happens to the characters they’ve given us. Ferrell has made a career of it.

He can be brilliantly, explosively funny, yes. But often he’s cast as a self-important blowhard. Psychologically his characters have all the weight of paper dolls. That’s fine for his “Saturday Night Live” sketches, not feature films.

Considerably better is Judd Apatow at his best. I laughed loud and often while watching “Knocked Up,” but I also found myself rooting for Seth Rogen’s and Katherine Heigl’s characters. There were things — real things — going on beneath the hilarity.

Same with Steve Carell’s socially awkward electronics salesman in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

But the comedies that stick with me really aren’t all that different from the serious dramas that stick with me. I remember them not just for funny moments but for the thoughtful purpose behind them, for the entire package.

Two great comedies that mix hilarity and thoughtfulness: “Groundhog Day” and “Defending Your Life.” More recently I’d cite “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Lars and the Real Girl.”

The memories stay with me long after the puerile yuks of other comedies have evaporated into the ether. They linger because the laughter was always in the service of something even bigger.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/94947-how-the-laughter-got-lost/