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December 07, 2007

Final-Reel Flopping

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

If I were a student of movies, something I'd be inclined to research is the matter of successful comedies. What do they possess that almost-successful comedies don't?

I have no answer, just now. The only reason I'm mentioning it is that I've been thinking about three comedies that, while being very good (in my opinion, natch), shared a common flaw: They got sidetracked and, because of that, ran out of gas.

Sorry, but none of these are recent movies, and that's my fault, I suppose. It's just that I'm down to seeing perhaps two or three movies a year and have been in that mode for a long time now. That said, here are my examples.

  • M.A.S.H. About a wild army hospital unit during the Korean War. When I saw it, I was about six years away from the Army and was in hysterics over what the personnel were getting away with; a totally different atmosphere from the uptight, disciplined, rule-following units I had served in (which briefly included an evacuation hospital). I don't remember ... halfway through? ... it began falling apart.

    Crumbling started when some of the characters went to Japan for an R&R trip. Later, a sizable chunk of time was spent on a football game between the MASH troops and some other outfit. The Tokyo and football sequences weren't necessarily bad, but they were far removed from the inspired insanity that took place in the hospital setting.

  • Help This was my first Richard Lester-Beatles movie. I was charmed. Forty years on, Lester's visual schticks are commonplace because they've been recycled or riffed-on. But when they were new, they astonished and delighted the 26-year-old me.

    Help began to crack when the Beatles were using Buckingham Palace as a safe-house and disintegrated when they went to Bermuda where the final segment took place.

    (Yes, Help might be considered a musical of sorts because it serves as a framework for Beatles performances. But that framework is a comedic one. Droll, wry, amusing, satiric in places -- low-key Brit stuff, and quite different from this final example....)

  • Animal House This call might be more controversial than the others because Animal House seems to be in the Gross Comedy Pantheon. Having been a member of a decidedly less than top-drawer frat myself, I found it easy to connect to the movie. And the pace was fast enough that the details that bothered me (Rotsy-guys as fascists) blew by quickly and juicy grossness continued.

    Animal House slipped when the scene shifted to the roadhouse where the Black band was playing. Suddenly, we were no longer at college. Thereafter, things never got back on track. The parade scene at the finale did nothing to help.

In each instance, the movie began in a well-defined comedic setting -- an overworked army hospital not far behind front lines, swingin' Sixties London, a dysfunctional private college -- and in each case the setting was abandoned or watered down well before the credits rolled.

Why did this happen? Was there a running-time budget of minutes that forced the directors and writers to thrash about for more material once their initial inspiration had run dry? That happens in long-running television series; back in the 70s I could tell a show was on the skids when a everyone-goes-to-Hawaii episode was aired.

Or were there other reasons? I don't know, though films buffs in our readership might be able to help in Comments.



posted by Donald at December 7, 2007


I agree with you on "M.A.S.H." although I think the reason is the director Robert Altman's style. His films tend to be very free-flowing and open-ended. For some people it just means his films are boring. Some people think he's a genius.

I don't remember "Help" very much (but I do love the Beatles) and I think "Animal House" is overrated. But I think you have a point. My tastes tend to run to the Marx Bros. movies and the best ones are tight and snappy with a million jokes and puns thrown in.

Maybe comedies just need good editors.

Posted by: Daniel on December 8, 2007 1:47 AM

Two films 180 degrees apart in tone and substance, "Stripes" and "Full Metal Jacket", both kind of fall apart after their basic training sequences end.

But "Stripes" is the film that really follows your examples. The basic training setting was fantastic and really worked but for some reason they abandon that setting two thirds of the way into the film. Once the unit relocates to Europe the movie loses its focus and kind of peters out.

Posted by: Pat Hobby on December 8, 2007 3:38 AM

Donald, You have a point there, but this probably is part of a much wider phenomenon. Designing an ending that is really a denouement involves an art that is no longer much esteemed: plotting. To say that the movie gets side-tracked and runs out of steam is only a metaphor. Literally, it's the writer who fails. (Screenwriter -- that's one more factor that is not much esteemed.)

Posted by: Lester Hunt on December 8, 2007 10:13 AM

The standard length of movies, at least 90 minutes, makes it very difficult to sustain the humor appreciation level to the end. It's exhausting, from the audience's perspective, to have the funny bone stimulated for that much time.

I thought Airplane was funny from start to finish, but being no more than a bunch of gags strung together the-length-of-time-exhaustion-rule kicked in towards the end.

Posted by: ricpic on December 8, 2007 10:44 AM

Old-fashioned screwball comedies and even farces required social rules to contravene, and people who were anxious about breaking them, to function. It's hard to write comedies set in modern times in a social world in which almosst everything is permitted. Well, you could write a comedy that poked fun at political correctness, but who would risk making it?

I also have a theory that part of what has ruined comedies since the early 1980s is drug abuse. Much of the humour in movies since then strikes me as very druggy, the kind of thing - silly and obscure (marijuana) or frenetic and wild but losing focus (cocaine) - that seems funny only under the influence of certain substances.

Posted by: alias clio on December 8, 2007 11:03 AM

Some recent comedies that don't let you down in the end, although you might have to be an adolescent at heart:

There's Something About Mary
Harold and Kumar go to White Castle

Posted by: JewishAtheist on December 8, 2007 3:32 PM

Amen to the "Superbad" thing. That movie didn't let up, as far as I recall.

I think a lot of what happens with comedies (another that comes to mind for me as a failure-in-the-last-third is Office Space,) is that they have to start tying up their story points. The situation is funny, not the story. When you've got to contrive to turn your funny situation into a beginning-middle-end story, problems happen.

Posted by: i, squub on December 8, 2007 4:42 PM

Your Hawaii suggestion generalises. The Inspector Morse detective series was on a downward slope when they went off to Australia for a weak episode.

Posted by: dearieme on December 8, 2007 4:50 PM

"Some recent comedies that don't let you down in the end, although you might have to be an adolescent at heart..."

Speaking of adolescents...Michael Cera, of Arrested Development (great ensemble cast), Superbad, and Juno fame is a talented young comedic actor. I would also love to see his AD and Juno co-star, Jason Bateman, star in a romantic comedy. Christ, if Billy Crystal can star in a couple, Jason Bateman deserves a shot...

Check out Cera at

Posted by: Scott on December 8, 2007 4:55 PM

i think superbad was pretty funny and true to high school (in my experience..i'm 25). the only thing that was really exaggerated for movies was the stuff with the 2 cops. i actually think it's the best teen sex comedy ever made really (not saying much but still...) and is a better film then one might think. the tender moments don't feel tacked on and EVERYONE'S funny in the movie not just the main characters. the straight man (michael cera) is funny, the love interests are funny. the girl that tries to sleep with cera towards the end gives one of the best true to live "drunk girl" performances i've seen in a film.

Posted by: t. j. on December 8, 2007 6:21 PM

Harold and Kumar go to White Castle was a white-bashing piece of shit.

Posted by: PA on December 8, 2007 7:19 PM

i observed recently that the one hour episodes of the Office have a totally different feel than the 30 minute episodes. they have to go somewhere, whereas in the 30 minute episodes, all they have to do is get minor things to be annoyed about.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on December 9, 2007 12:17 AM

The problem is in the implementing of an idea versus have a plot. Many comedies are cute ideas (Animal House, Caddyshack) that somehow have to be worked into the plot. Many of the funniest scenes are not related to the plot.

I have found that many science fiction novels suffer the same face. The author had a great idea but could not figure out how to work it into a good story.

Posted by: superdestroyer on December 9, 2007 4:43 PM

The comedy troupe that couldn't figure out how to end a skit, much less a movie was Monty Python. Holy Grail is the funniest movie ever made and crumbles in the last half hour for all of the reasons stated above.

Posted by: Rick on December 10, 2007 10:42 AM

A Hard Day's Night was the much better Beatles film. Help was a mess, if an occasionally charming one.

Posted by: Thursday on December 10, 2007 1:52 PM

I think your general point is well-taken, although I must disagree that "the parade scene at the end did nothing to help" Animal House. People who worship "Animal House" think the parade scene is the pinnacle, the whole point. It is the part of it that total spoofs George Lucas' wierdly downer ending to "American Graffiti". Talk about getting sidetracked!! He made sure we knew Toad was killed in Viet Nam and Ron Howard's character never did go to college and became an insurance salesman in Modesto?? And the Hot Rodder guy was killed by a drunk driver??? 'Cause after all life sucks...I think its why the parade was so classic---all the miscreants wind up big winners. Belushi is a US Senator and Otter is a gynecologist in Beverly Hills??? Boy, were they giving the finger to George Lucas or what??

Posted by: annette on December 10, 2007 3:53 PM

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