Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: One of the first things I learned when I started working for film studios was that every executive thinks he knows what makes people laugh. Unfortunately, none has a sense of humor. This spring we are all learning some lessons about comedy. Lesson one: Melissa McCarthy understands it. Her new hit, Spy, perfectly fits her two-word formula: It’s brash and it’s trash, and she owns it. The same formula arguably fits Pitch Perfect 2. The first movie, a surprise hit, was rather sweet and gentle. The sequel is trashy, brash, and it works great for audiences. The same cannot be said for the other spring comedy, Entourage. Rather than come up with a new movie, its writer-producer, Doug Ellin, created a sort of highlight (or low-light) reel of routines from the old TV shows. The trouble is that the jokes worked better a few years ago when the characters were young and hungry. Now they’re rich and oily.
FLEMING: Let’s take these one at a time. I have been high on Melissa McCarthy since I saw her first Saturday Night Live hosting stint. She had done fine work on Gilmore Girls and in sharing the small screen with Billy Gardell in Mike & Molly. On SNL, she tore the place apart (and did it again two more times), showing the best physical comedy chops I’d seen on that show since Chris Farley was a cast member. She was a scene stealer in Bridesmaids, but she raised the bar in Spy. I love Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mike Myers and Steve Martin for the way they invest themselves completely in the reality of the absurd roles they play, but my favorite physical comics ever are Curly Howard of The Three Stooges, and Farley. When those guys got going with highly physical stuff, everybody else on screen seemed to disappear. McCarthy is subtler, but she is the most gifted physical screen comedienne since Lucille Ball, and a much better actor than either Howard or Farley. She also doesn’t have the baggage that haunted those Falstaffian funny men. That’s the third movie she made with Paul Feig after Bridesmaids and The Heat. They bring out the best in one another.
BART: Melissa and Paul Feig deserve plaudits for plunging into new turf, some of it bizarre (why are so many bats flying around CIA headquarters?) And notice Melissa’s new shtick is to play the ‘guy roles’ – the snarling cop, the brawling spy. Does this represent the new transgendery school of humor? Is she refuting Bruce Jenner’s now famous blurt that “my brain is now much more female than it is male” (I hear feminists cringe). In any event, Melissa and Feig’s formula has clearly earned them a much fatter budget than on they had on their earlier films. And it will make them a lot more money.
FLEMING: You trashed Entourage. I loved the HBO show. I cover the business of Hollywood mostly from my home in Long Island. Watching Entourage gave me a vicarious glimpse of the decadence I miss from here. I will be the first to admit that the conflicts in that film were as simplistic as those you see on TV sitcoms. None of the characters are ever really at risk, and most of the plot was just plain implausible. Like when Ari Gold realizes his dream of running a studio and for his first big risky project, he allows his former signature agency client Vinny Chase to make his directing debut. And then Vinny won’t let Ari see a frame of the film, even after going way over budget. He won’t let Ari see it, but has hooked up an outdoor screening in a mansion, with every jock, B list star and topless girl in Malibu in tow. Because of course, nobody is going to blog about it and what studio would have a problem allowing their $100 + million negative to be tested in this fashion? It’s okay for the Gronk to see it but not Ari, whose career hangs in the balance? This is supposed to be an insider’s look at Hollywood? And when we finally glimpse a scene from Chase’s film, it reminded me of that great Elmore Leonard Get Shorty line, “I’ve seen better film on teeth.” No way any of this is plausible, but I didn’t really care. I missed the core characters; I guess this for me was like what Sex And The City was for hard core fans of that series when HBO turned that into a film. I’d pay to see them reunite every year in a film, but its place really is on HBO. It’s hardly groundbreaking movie making, though and further blurs the line between TV and movies. I watched an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones last Sunday, when a corps of corpses attacked Jon Snow and his group, and it was more terrifying and innovative than anything I’ve seen on a movie screen in a good long time. It’s ironic that McCarthy and the Entourage cast were moonlighting from their sitcoms on a movie screen this weekend. TV, especially basic and pay cable and streaming services like Netflix, are too often taking greater risks and soaring to greater heights than movies.
BART: Consider the message the box office is sending on comedy: Adam Sandler can’t open a movie. But the Princess of Pudge not only opens to giant business but has also launched what promises to be a major franchise—a sort of James Bond merged with Abbott and Costello. And Peter Chernin’s company, which has had a bumpy ride in movies (despite having a great studio deal at Fox), is the proprietor. And no one ever accused Chernin of being a laugh riot in the years he ran Murdoch’s empire. So here’s the basic irony: At a moment when women are demanding equality of pay and an end to the glass ceiling, Melissa may become Hollywood’s highest paid star. She’ll be in great demand at those Power-of-Women events. All that is fine with one constraint: Don’t go near those Weight Watcher functions, Melissa. You’ve got to protect your brand.
FLEMING: Wait a moment, mister. I jumped to Melissa’s defense when the cranky critic Rex Reed disparaged her weight, and I’m not letting you get away with it, either. As I wrote when Reed insulted McCarthy, she should be lauded for being comfortable in her own skin. I like her ferocious confidence, and she is a beacon to women all over the country who deserve to feel good about themselves even though they don’t fit a Size 2. Look how McCarthy’s look lent itself to comedy; when she is elevated to secret agent and gets those coveted gadgets and weapons of death, hers are concealed in hemorrhoid wipes and a box of stool softener; her secret identity is a single woman with ten cats or a variation thereof. Alternatively, she was glamorous when she eventually asserted herself as a talented spy, and her action and fight scenes are hilarious. She is a role model and what she is accomplishing is important. You really need to watch her work more closely, from Heat to St. Vincent to those SNL turns, and watch how good an actress she is.
She’s got a future doing serious turns, if she wants it, but for right now, she came along at exactly the right time, riding the R-rated comedy wave created by The Hangover. McCarthy is so accomplished with curse words that she could live in my house. I’ve taken (somewhat playfully) a chauvinistic attitude toward Ghostbusters because it remains one of my favorite guy movies. After Spy, I can’t wait to see what Feig and McCarthy conjure up. One of the refreshing things about their comedy collaborations is, they leave room for others to get laughs. How funny was Jason Statham, in a performance that reminded of his pre-action hero fast-talking turns in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch? And what about Miranda Hart, who came out of Brit TV comedies and absolutely established herself as a keeper? Rose Byrne as the bitchy villain? Feig smartly spread the subversive silliness around. I was thinking about great star-director pairings. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. Ivan Reitman and Bill Murray. Woody Allen, and himself, in those early movies. Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers. Feig and McCarthy might eclipse all of them, at the rate they are going.
BART: I want to respond to one of your comments – that Entourage offers “an insider’s look at Hollywood.” I think it’s a phony look. Today’s Hollywood is much more corporate and buttoned up. Entourage’s ‘scene’ is a throwback to ‘70s Hollywood – an untamed town offering an abundance of both opportunity and sex; one where even non-talents like Vince could get a chance to direct.
FLEMING: This is turning out to be quite a summer for comedy, starting with Pitch Perfect 2. We’ve got Ted 2 coming. I’m hoping that Seth MacFarlane learned from his self-indulgent film A Million Ways To Die In The West, and delivers a worthy sequel. Amy Schumer will try to challenge McCarthy’s reign as queen of comic vulgarity with the Judd Apatow-directed Trainwreck; there is another Vacation. People at Sundance loved the upcoming Dope, but then again another festival fave, Chris Rock’s Top Five, played huge at Toronto and I didn’t find it all that funny when I finally caught up to it. Looking forward, there is Feig’s Ghostbusters, and it sure looks like when the 21 Jump Street tandem of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill appear again, they’ll go from narc to alien hunters and get drafted into Men in Black. A lot of subversive R-rated laughs to look forward to.
BART: I think it is too early to make cosmic predictions, Mike. Besides you are mixing too many genres: The chaotic comedy universe of today ranges from SNL to Twitter, from YouTube to Kimmel, from Trevor Noah to Charlie Hebdo. Back in the time of I Love Lucy, comedy brought society together. Today comedy is confrontational and even death-defying. Candidly, my own richest experiences with comedy dealt with character, not confrontation. I was lucky enough to foster Being There with Peter Sellers and Harold and Maude with Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. Both were directed by my friend, the late Hal Ashby. I like to think audiences warmly remember the people who populated those two pictures, not just the gags.
FLEMING: I’m glad one of us is sophisticated enough to feel that way. For me, it is always about those unexpected moments that are so shockingly funny that you fear your organs will fail because you are laughing so hard. The prom-spoiling “franks & beans” scene in There’s Something About Mary; Dan Akyroyd conjuring up the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters; Borat wrestling the roommate who’d just sullied his beloved Baywatch book; Sacha Baron Cohen, this time as Bruno, convincing Paula Abdul to sit on a Mexican man he tells her has been hired as a temporary chair; the road trip mishap scenes in Tommy Boy and Planes, Trains And Automobiles (and don’t forget the ‘Those aren’t pillows” scene from the latter); the rhino “birth” in Ace Ventura 2; the grainy film strip showing the danger of the “Iron Lotus” skating maneuver in Blades of Glory; Joel McHale, losing the girl and passing gas in Ted; Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggling to drive his car after the Quaaludes kicked in during Wolf of Wall Street; Randy Quaid’s Amish character flossing in Kingpin; Jim Carrey fighting himself in Me, Myself & Irene, and Liar, Liar; the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles; the revealing photos from a lost night that were shown at the conclusion of The Hangover; dozens of Curly Howard moments from The Three Stooges shorts. You get the idea. I’ll take the gags, but they need the repartee and plot to set them up. Spy has both.