Three’s comedy

Which one got the last laugh at the box-office?

Now playing, or just about to, are three very different kind of comedies: one darkly modern, one a genial crowdpleaser and one a kind of zippy retread—call it futuristic-retro. So, how will they do at the box-office, and will their comic stylings really have all that much to do with their cineplex success?

Bad Teacher is a comedy with an incompetent, uncaring, nearly self-destructive anti-hero. It’s a particularly recent genre; it used to be that comedies were usually centred on genial bumblers, luckless semi-clowns, or (with Brits like Peter Sellers and the Pythons) witty oddballs and dry prigs. But incompetent idiocy is part a kind of blackly American subgenre of comedy epitomized by one of the most successful TV series ever made—The Simpsons (1989 –  ).

Homer’s stupid inability to do his job at all became, very quickly, a dark comment on the American Dream—instead of the self-made man, you had the man who had it all made in spite of himself. The North American coasted along. His important job—Homer clocks in at a nuclear plant—only makes his total inadequacy worse.

Before the series dragged on and on, turning Homer into a caricature of himself, one of its very best episodes tackled Homer’s blinding ineptitude head-on—in “Homer’s Enemy” (1997), a straight-arrow, all-American hard worker, Frank Grimes, joins the plant and is appalled by the bald slob’s do-nothingness. Unable to make anyone understand what a lazy danger Homer is, he finally snaps and imitates Homer’s incompetence, handling a live cable without safety gloves and electrocuting himself to death. (Of course, it was also a meta-cartoon joke—Grimes was suddenly, fatally exempted from the ultimate law of the animation universe that Homer was ruled by—real-life stupidities or perils won’t kill him.)

Six years later, in Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton played a dissolute mall Santa who robs the mall every Christmas Eve; the cheerfully anti-moralizing film went beyond The Ref (1994) in trying to bring grouchy grinchiness back into the holiday season. And now Cameron Diaz is a cursing, drinking, drugged-up excuse for a teacher. (Coming soon: Bad Doctor; Bad Lawyer Lionel Hutz; Bad Parent; Bad Bad Guy.) The added twist is that she isn’t just an anti-hero but an anti-heroine—it’s unusual to see a woman as utterly irresponsible and pathetic in her job. But after Bridesmaids, this is turning out to be a bit of a summer for the woman-child-idiot comic role—a new career option for an actress in Tinseltown?

Larry Crowne, though, seems to be all about playing to type and middling expectations. Tom Hanks directs himself and Julia Roberts in what looks to be a smiley, sunny, heartwarming, genial, __________ (insert happy, inoffensive adjective of choice here) comedy about a guy who goes to community college (and gets hot for teacher there) after losing his job. The amiable character rom-com injects a little contemporary spice with its dash of troubled economic times for Larry. Otherwise, Hanks is clearly playing a Tom Hanks kind of lovable average guy (or, as this piece argues, his kind of edge-less Jimmy Stewart) and Roberts is clearly playing a Julia Roberts kind of beaming (obviously out-of-our-league but let’s pretend she’s average) gal. This middle-of-the-road movie seems geared to the middle-aged middle-class.

And it’s really demographics, not comic stylings, that will determine which of these laughs last at the box office. Cars 2 will obviously roar across the finish line first, because it’s the ultimate in a kids’ film, and kids are the main draw for cineplexes now (they bring their parents and double the receipts at the gate; they like 3D glasses; they have birthday parties at many theatres; and right now, school’s just ending). A zippy, flashy, anthropomorphic take on boys’ favourite toys, the car? It’s box-office gold but, more importantly, it’s merchandising and tie-in gold for Pixar, Disney and other brands (including Goodyear Tires).

And Cars 2 just happens to roar the summer blockbuster line-up right into next week’s big release, a third tale of Hasbro’s killer robot cars, geared at “grown-ups,” that’s sure to be one of the big moneymakers for Hollywood in 2011. As much of a joke as I hope that sounds to box-office archivists in the near future, unfortunately, Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon is not a comedy.

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