Sunday, October 7, 2012

Comedies from Epic to Intimate: The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, How to Steal a Million, The Puffy Chair

The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming, by Norman Jewison, 1966

Back in the 60's, it seems like they were trying to kick off a new subgenre: comedy epics.  That's a pretty tall order.  Most of the best comedies are short and smaller in scale, packing in the laughs and getting out without wearing out their welcome, and keeping the focus on a few main characters.  Norman Jewison's Best Picture nominated Cold War comedy, The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming has a great premise and starts off strong, but ultimately collapses under its own massive weight.

A Soviet submarine gets grounded just off the coast of a small New England island.  A group of men (led by Alan Arkin in his movie debut) are sent out to find a boat to get themselves unstuck.  They soon cross paths with a local family (Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, and a couple of kids) who become unwilling participants in their plan.  Eventually, word spreads, and through a huge game of telephone, the word is that a Soviet Invasion is imminent and the entire town is into a panic and forms a mob.

Norman Jewison is a very good filmmaker (see the excellent original The Thomas Crown Affair), and 'Russians' was skillfully made, but it was just too big and too long.  It had all these wacky townsfolk, like Jonathan Winters as the police chief, and an unnecessary love story thrown in between a Russian and an American girl.  The delivery of the film's message of peace and unity between the USA and Russia is done in an overly sentimental way.  The best parts of the movie were the scenes between Reiner and his family, and Arkin and his men.  I loved Reiner's insecurity, as his manhood is questioned through his son's disappointment that he didn't shoot anybody.

There was a great, smaller movie to be found in there, with the exact same message, and without all the setpieces and stunts and mob scenes and superfluous characters.  I'm not opposed to the epic comedy, Blues Brothers is amazing, even at 2 1/2 hours, but it also has lots of great music and action to ease the lulls in between the laughs.  This movie has some very good moments, and might be worth checking out sometime for Reiner and Arkin's performances alone, but I wouldn't go too far out of my way to see it, if I were you.

How to Steal a Million, by William Wyler, 1966

I don't know how this happened, but until I saw How to Steal a Million, the only William Wyler film I'd seen was Ben-Hur.  Well, Ben-Hur is Ben-Hur, but this is pretty good, too.  It's a whole lot of fun and really smart.

As the title suggests, How to Steal a Million is a heist movie, a romantic heist comedy to be exact.  It stars Audrey Hepburn as Nicole, a (gasp!) wealthy socialite, whose rich father, sweetheart though he is, earned all his money as a master art forger.  It's a family trade.  Nicole meets an art thief (Peter O'Toole) who has broken into her home and smooth talks her into driving him back to his own place.  When she finds out that a statue forged by her grandfather on loan to a museum is about to undergo an inspection, Nicole recruits the thief into helping her plan a heist of the statue in order to prevent her father from being exposed as a fraud.  Then they fall in love.

How to Steal a Million is clever, funny, has a great script, and good performances by all the leads.  Peter O'Toole is especially awesome as the suave art thief, Simon, and he has great chemistry with Hepburn.  The heist is really well put together, and involves simple but effective tactics like throwing a boomerang to trip an alarm.  There's a great twist toward the end that I didn't see coming at all.  I love a good heist movie, and How to Steal a Million more than qualifies.

The Puffy Chair, by The Duplass Brothers, 2005

I think I've gone on record on this blog in saying that I really like what the Duplass Brothers do.  They make these intimate, emotional comedies, that focus way more on character than plot or set pieces.  I dug the hell out of Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and Safety Not Guaranteed (which they produced but didn't write and direct).

The Puffy Chair is Mark and Jay Duplass' first film, made for a microbudget, with heavily improvised dialogue.  I guess it's considered a part of the "Mumblecore" movement, but I don't really have much of an understanding of what that means.  There's not really any mumbling in this.  It stars Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton as a couple in a doomed relationship who, along with his deadbeat brother, drive across the country to deliver a vintage chair that is an exact replica of the one in their house growing up to their father for his birthday.  And you know, things happen on the way, like road trip movie things.  And relationship things.

I actually like these guys better now that they mix more comedy into their movies, but you can see the beginnings of their style and humor taking root in The Puffy Chair.  There's a hilarious and uncomfortable sequence where Mark Duplass tries to sneak his girlfriend into a cheap motel room.  It goes wrong in a painfully realistic manner. 

The Puffy Chair is worth looking into if you're a fan of the Duplass Brothers' other films, but if Jason Segel or Jonah Hill are your reasons for watching those, you should probably look elsewhere.  Though, I guess if you're a fan of The League, you might be interested in this, since Duplass and Aselton are stars of that show.  As epic and expensive as The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming was, The Puffy Chair is the complete opposite, and I definitely prefer my comedies better this way. 

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