In the latest battle of the box office comedy wars, trusted institution Will Ferrell was trounced by three drunken men and a baby. What happened, exactly? And what, if anything, does it say about How We Laugh Now?
Aside from the obvious "well, Land of the Lost looked terrible" factor, The Hangover's success may hint at something more expansive, a change sweeping the old comedy flick rubric. Hasn't there been something of a paradigm shift away from the days when broadly funny, nice-ish actors made those broadly funny nice-ish movies?
Sure we still do have some star-vehicle garbage like the milquetoast Yes Man quietly banking a hundred million dollars here and there, but those sorts of movies don't really have much in the way of cultural currency these days, do they? Really, does anyone remember a single quote from the last few (still successful) Jim Carrey movies? What about Adam Sandler's Click or Bedtime Stories? If the old, chumily caustic breed is dying out, and a new comedy—small, viral, angry, left-of-center—is blossoming, The Hangover might represent the first time that the new kid really did best the old-timer, head to head.
The more underground or "risque" comedy has been beating mainstream stuff in the funny department for a while now, but until recently it's been mainly relegated to cult status at the box office. Little sleepers, pleasant surprises, that sort of thing. But $45 million's worth of people happily showing up to be exposed (wittingly or unwittingly) to the bizarro antics of someone like Zach Galifianakis? That represents a real change.
Perhaps what we once thought of as too weird, subversive, or cerebral is beginning to become just plain old American-style profitable. Could it actually be that all of our college cynicism and snotty in-jokes and internet circle-jerking has actually pupated into something undeniably, universally both funny and appealing? Looks to be.
The 90s and early 00s were so boring and fatty and toothless, so we got the big comedies we deserved—dumb manic fare like Liar, Liar and Happy Gilmore. Even the absurdism of something like Anchorman (which came pretty late in the curve) was fairly light and airy. But now! Now the good stuff is dark and mean and lean and strange. While those kinds of comedy sentiments seemed mostly niche and cultish once not long ago, they now seem almost de rigueur.
So with this new type of funnee stuff beginning its ascendancy, those big glossy laff-man pictures are starting to fade. Now, it's not necessarily time to play blame the actor—Ferrell's Land of the Lost fizzled, sure, but last summer his giddily profane Step Brothers scored—but producers may want to rethink how their movies are shaped and packaged. Go for the sharper angle, and some unexpected people just might bite. (And, yes, we know that Hangover isn't exactly Dr. Strangelove and are aware that the soot-black Observe and Report didn't fare so well, but, you know... baby steps. In the case of O&R, we're not quite ready to laugh at maybe-date-rape yet. Well, most of us aren't anyway.)
Whatever the reason, it does seem, increasingly, like old Nelson Mandela was right. It really is our light that most frightens us. Leaving our darkness to make us laugh.