In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Alison Willmore, and Odie Henderson—about the year in cinema. Below is Entry 11.
Dana, Odie, Alison—
How do I follow that up? There is no way I can (or should) match Odie’s musical stylings. I still occasionally get night sweats when I recall the time Amy Nicholson asked me to compose a poem for the Movie Club, even though I did eventually respond with a poem about Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. (The Mule! Remember The Mule? Made back when Clint was a sprightly, plucky 88-year-old.)
I am not good at coming up with music and lyrics, but I am good at coming up with completely random, stupid thoughts that drift from one inane, unlikely place to another, and so Alison’s list of great movie scenes from 2021 got me thinking. First of all, I was intrigued by how so many of the scenes she cited were musical scenes in nonmusical movies (CODA, Bergman Island, Belfast, Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar), which maybe says something about this very musical year. But it also got me thinking about Jamie Dornan and how delightful he was in Barb and Star. And then I thought more about Barb and Star, which I’ve now seen something like four times and probably should have been somewhere in my Top 20.
And then, because I was already thinking about The Mule, I started thinking about another Eastwood movie, Richard Jewell. (I promise this is going somewhere.) Which then got me thinking about Our King, Paul Walter Hauser, who gave one of the truly great-performances-in-a-not-very-good-movie with his turn in Queenpins this year. And then I thought, hmm … Queenpins. Barb and Star. One was good, one was not so good. Both had hilarious, scene-stealing performances. Both were … what’s the word I’m looking for here? It’s like … a movie … with funny scenes in it … and it makes you laugh? The Old Ones had a word for it, I seem to recall. Perhaps I should consult a history book.
I guess what I’m getting at is: Was 2021 the year the movie comedy finally, actually died?
Last year, Alison and I participated in a conversation with our Vulture colleague Jesse David Fox, one of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the world when it comes to all things humorous, about the fate of the theatrically released comedy film. Of course, this was in the early days of the pandemic (which is bittersweet to say now, because it was August, and if back then you told someone August 2020 would someday count as “the early days of the pandemic,” they would have shot you out of a cannon), so some of us were wondering if we’d ever get to see any movie in theaters, let alone a comedy. But still, it seemed like comedies in particular had been having a hard time of it even before the pandemic—and the pandemic had merely accelerated their demise.
But last year, we actually had some real comedy movies, albeit often forced by circumstance to come out via streaming or on demand: Palm Springs, Eurovision, An American Pickle, The King of Staten Island, Irresistible, The Lovebirds, Hubie Halloween, Borat 2. Not all of them were good, to be sure. But they were definitely comedies. A practical cornucopia, compared with the wasteland that was 2021.
This year, what did we have? We did have some animated films (and let me just say, thank God for The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Encanto, and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run), and we had a lot of very serious (and often meaningful) comedy discourse. But actual, outright, make-’em-laugh comedies were shockingly rare. Most of the movies were more interested in being big adventure blockbusters à la Jumanji (Jungle Cruise) or were reboots/sequels to beloved/better classics. I didn’t see the new Ghostbusters (because I worried that then I’d have to have an opinion on it, and besides, how could it or any movie possibly match the greatness of Ghostbusters 2?) but I did see Coming 2 America, which was mildly fun. The Suicide Squad was sometimes funny. Red Rocket was often quite funny. The French Dispatch should have been funnier, but at least it tried.
However, you guys know the kind of movies I’m talking about, the kind of movies we really don’t get anymore. Barb and Star was tremendous, but it seemed designed for cult film status: I suspect that it alienated as many audience members as it enchanted. Meanwhile, I keep going back to Queenpins, which (aside from Our King, Paul Walter Hauser and a very game Vince Vaughn) felt like a blurry palimpsest of the kind of movie that would have knocked ’em dead in the Before Times. In retrospect, I want to watch it again, because it feels like an endling, the last member of a dying species. Maybe I’ll buy the Blu-ray and place it in a climate-controlled room, where it can quietly live out its lonely final days in peace and comfort.
What really struck me this year about the dearth of comedy was how people who should have known better seemed to have abandoned it. I mean, Being the Ricardos is a movie about two real-life people who created one of the greatest comedies of all time, and … did I laugh even once? I get it, it’s meant to be a serious movie (a seriously bad one), but still, would it have killed Aaron Sorkin to also make it a funny one? Meanwhile, the shrill, scattered, scolding, contemptuous Don’t Look Up is a movie made by someone who up until a few years ago I would have called one of the greatest comedy minds of our time (and up until Vice, I hadn’t seen a single Adam McKay film I didn’t adore) but now seems to have forgotten the first thing about being funny.
OK, that’s not entirely fair: There are about 20 to 30 hilarious minutes fairly early on in Don’t Look Up, right after Leo and JLaw have their first TV appearance and she goes viral as a crazy screaming doomsaying banshee and he goes viral as the hot dad astronomer the Internet wants to fuck, that had me in stitches, and not coincidentally served as the kind of scathing social critique the film was trying to be. It also reminded me of how much better and more effective the rest of the movie would have been had it actually been, you know, funny. I keep thinking of the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels, about a comedy director who desperately wants to make a Serious, Important Movie about Serious, Important Subjects, but who learns over the course of his journeys that making people laugh can do more to heal the world than any social issue drama he wants to make.
Elsewhere, I actually loved Last Night in Soho, which is most definitely not a comedy, but I do think Edgar Wright is one of the great comedy directors of our time and I would love for him to go back to that well one day. (I rewatched my Blu-rays of the Cornetto Trilogy like three times over this year. Let me reassert here that The World’s End is one of the greatest movies ever made.)
I do hope I’m being overly negative. Maybe there’s a backlog of comedies just waiting to meet the public in 2022. At least we’re getting a new Jackass movie. Apparently we’ll get to see Jack Black on-screen again in the New Year. And maybe Adam Sandler will realize that the Oscar he so longs to win will one day be given to him for a comedy movie, the same way that Clint Eastwood got his first Oscar for a Western. But I really do feel that when we lose the ability to laugh out loud together—and I mean actually laugh, not just type “LOL” and quietly chuckle—strange, terrible things happen to us. The world becomes a bit more lifeless and cruel when you lose the ability to laugh out loud. It becomes—well, not unlike the world we currently inhabit.
Tell a joke, save a life,