April Fool’s means great comedies

Film Special: Underrated Comedies

In honour of April Fool’s Day—the only day of the year when it is socially acceptable to cherry bomb a toilet—I have compiled a list of underrated comedies. This is by no means a definitive list of the best or funniest movies ever made. It is rather a group of films that do not receive the respect they deserve.

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski may be the definitive Coen Brothers movie. It is a strange mixture of all their filmmaking obsessions: twisted plotting, quirky characterizations, stylized dialogue and a taste of film noir. Jeff Bridges stars as “The Dude,” a middle-aged, L.A. stoner who gets caught up in a kidnapping plot while trying to replace his ruined rug that “really tied the room together.” Radical feminists, German nihilists, angry Vietnam veterans, sleazy private eyes, acid flashbacks and a pederast bowler named Jesus are just some of the obstacles that The Dude must overcome on his noble quest. The Big Lebowski is one of those movies that is so dense with wild characterizations and hilarious dialogue that it only gets funnier with repeated viewings. It may have been a commercial failure upon initial release, but the film has become a true cult classic with annual “Lebowski-fests” held in bowling alleys across the States to honour this comic gem. Waiting For Guffman

Director/actor Christopher Guest has become synonymous with the “mockumentary,” having helped pioneer the genre by writing and starring in the 1984 classic This is Spinal Tap and starting the recent renaissance in the format with 2000’s Best in Show. But his most impressive work to date is probably his least known: the underrated 1996 effort Waiting for Guffman. It was Guest’s first entry in the genre since Spinal Tap and also the first full assembly of his stock company of actors that includes Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey among others. Guest stars as a wannabe Broadway director working on a local theatre production about the history of a small town called Blaine. The uniformly solid cast takes full advantage of Guest’s improvisation-based style of direction and the campy musical production makes for a near-perfect comedic climax. Like all of his movies, Waiting For Guffman is a tightly constructed comedy with great performances and a bittersweet finale that is emotionally resonant without feeling corny or sacrificing laughs.

Election

Election is quite possibly the best film ever made about high school. This pitch-black comedy perfectly captures the banal existence of teachers and students and playfully satirizes the unnecessary drama brought about by school politics. Writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways), as always, creates fully rounded and believable characters who never fall into the category of caricature (as is common in so many films about this subject). Payne delves into issues—such as sexual relationships between teachers and students—that most filmmakers avoid and mines them for dark comic gold. Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon star and each give career-best performances. Often dismissed as simply being a teen-comedy in the vein of American Pie, Election is one of the smartest and most effective satires to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. It just happens to be about high school.

Repo Man

Alex Cox’s 1984 directing debut is undoubtedly one of the strangest stories ever captured on film. In some scenes it’s a deadpan satire on the suburban punk lifestyle, in others it is a comic examination of the life of a repo man ... and then there is also the subplot about a mysterious glowing green car that might be a neutron bomb, a time machine or even a U.F.O. Yet, somehow it all comes together to create an utterly bizarre but undeniably hilarious cinematic experience. Needless to say, Repo Man is more of a cult oddity than a mainstream commercial comedy, despite the fact that it was funded and released by Universal Studios. Cox’s deadpan comic tone is not for everyone, but Repo Man is a movie that seems to improve every time you watch it, as its subtle jokes, hidden throughout, may not be obvious upon first viewing. Repo Man is one of the few truly original movies to emerge from Hollywood during the 1980s, but unfortunately most people have never even heard of it. Made

Now one of the most overexposed stars in Hollywood, it is easy to forget that Vince Vaughn was once a cult actor. Until recently, Vaughn was a struggling dramatic actor slugging his way through thankless roles such as Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s disastrous Psycho remake. But in the two films that he made with actor/writer friend John Favreau, Vaughn showed a great comedic skill that he has only sporadically matched in his recent Hollywood output. Their first collaboration was on Swingers, the 1996 indie hit that launched the pair’s careers. Their follow-up was Made, a film that was unjustly dismissed at the time of its release for not being Swingers 2. Instead, it is a gangster/comedy, with Favreau and Vaughn playing two childhood friends who are working their first job for the Mafia. What is interesting about Made is that Vince Vaughn plays the only purely comedic character in the movie. The rest of the characters—and indeed the actors who play them—are straight out of gangster films, and the comedy comes from Vaughn’s bumbling idiot trying and failing to exist in their world. The movie is a hilarious homage to gangster movies (not a parody) that is funny enough to even appeal to those who aren’t fans of the genre. Made boasts a tight script, some great improvised performances and beautiful cinematography by Wong Kar Wai’s regular cameraman, Chris Doyle. It deserves a much wider audience than it has been granted.

Cannibal: The Musical

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are best known as the creators of the incredibly popular TV series South Park. But before the pair became famous for that foul-mouthed cartoon, they were struggling independent filmmakers. Cannibal: The Musical was their first feature film, completed while they were still students at the University of Colorado. It is the true story of Alfred Packer, the only person in U.S. history ever convicted of cannibalism ... and, obviously, it’s a musical. Come on, who wouldn’t take that approach to the material? Cannibal: The Musical is an undeniably low-budget affair, but that aesthetic works for the movie, with lame effects and amateur acting being played for laughs. While the film may lack the political satire of South Park, much of the pair’s unique sense of humour is still visible in this early effort. The lowbrow, gross-out comedy and pop culture referencing of South Park are present in Cannibal as are the hilarious musical interludes (“It’s a Shpadoinkle Day” and “Hang the Bastard” are showstoppers). The movie sat unreleased for two years after its completion and even now it is only available through Troma, the trashy, small-scale production company responsible for The Toxic Avenger. But, for those able to find it, Cannibal: The Musical is a must see for any South Park die-hards.

Further Viewing Here are a few more titles that could have easily been included on this list, but it would have been way too friggin’ long: Delicatessen, The Burbs, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, The King of Comedy, After Hours, Orgazmo, Straight to Hell, Bottle Rocket, Ed Wood, Mars Attacks, Raising Arizona, The Frighteners, Coffee and Cigarettes, Stripes, Flirting With Disaster, Ghost World and many, many more ... what can I say? I’m a geek for comedy.

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