Of all the non-franchise film genres the pundits have recently declared dead and buried, the studio comedy seemed like the most certain to stay six feet under. Over the last five years, only a handful have been made and even fewer—basically just Good Boys, Blockers, and Game Night—could be considered a success on any level. This year, things may be different. The Lost City has scored big already, while The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is poised to be a hit, at least if the critical buzz is any indication. A hopeful cinephile would say that the studio comedy is back.
A cynic, however, would point out that today’s studio comedies are only a pale imitation of the genre at its best. There was a time when studio comedies were not just funny, but also had real craft underpinning their humor. They were films, not just laugh factories. I’m talking about the studio comedy boom of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the talent explosion and serious intent of New Hollywood blended with the star-driven ethos of the Me Decade to create a series of film comedies that were considered trifles at the time but look more like high art today. Their behind-the-scenes artists honed their crafts on the films of Altman, Lumet, Scorsese, and all the rest, bringing an expertise and thoughtfulness to their work that is not even asked for today. It was comedy, taken seriously.
Consider the case of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which in the past 30-odd years has gone from minor hit to beloved classic. It’s easy to pinpoint its rising reputation on the film’s star—Steve Martin is essentially America’s grandfather at this point—but the film itself has aged like one of the fine wines in Lawrence Jamieson’s cellar. Credit is surely due in part to cinematographer Michael Balhaus, who shot Dirty Rotten Scoundrels just after wrapping up The Last Temptation of Christ. He was Scorsese’s director of photography for many years, also lensing After Hours, Goodfellas, and Gangs of New York; and before that, he was a key member of the German New Wave, shooting many of the best films of Rainier Werner Fassbinder.
His talents are actually vital to the building out the world of the French Riviera-set Scoundrels, particularly in those sequences in which Jamieson (Michael Caine) poses as exiled royalty to woo and ultimately con gullible American aristocrats. In the opening scene, we watch as he slyly manipulates a woman into donating her pearl necklace for the supposed liberation of his people. He refuses her offer several times, but she insists. It’s part of the game, and Chapman’s camera captures it magnificently, staying in extreme close-up on the pearls themselves throughout—as they are the only thing that really matters—withholding the characters’ faces to create a sense of mystery, and isolating the body language that really tells the story. If the Oscars cared a whit about comedy, Balhaus would have been recognized for his work here.
The comedies of this era were also buoyed by a profound sense of place, something almost entirely absent from the comedies of today. The Lost City has a few laughs and solid chemistry between its stars, but half of it looks like it was shot against a green screen. Good Boys and Game Night are both shot in nondescript middle-class suburbs near Atlanta and British Columbia, presumably for economic reasons. But to see how comedy can benefit from a distinct location, look at the films of this era shot by cinematographer Michael Chapman, particularly Quick Change, the underrated heist flick in which Bill Murray dresses as a clown to easily rob a bank, but then can’t get out of New York. Chapman was responsible for the urban landscapes seen in The Last Detail, Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Raging Bull, and in Quick Change, he grounds the human comedy of the bank robbers’ escape in a decidedly unromantic view of the most filmed city in the world. From a crowded bodega to a city bus filled with weirdos, Chapman shows a slice of New York rarely seen on film, a perfect fit for the inherent populism of a movie that asks us to side with the bank robbers. It elevates Quick Change from a good Bill Murray movie into a comic urban fairy tale.
A protagonist is only as interesting as their environment, and the comedies of this era take a deep interest in their backgrounds. Let It Ride, the fantastic Richard Dreyfuss comedy set at a race track, has the thinnest of premises—a guy has a very good day at the track—but it fills out the frame with a detailed world of losers, deadbeats, and degenerates (it was co-edited by the great Dede Allen, who cut Bonnie and Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon, and Slap Shot, and knows a thing or two about losers and deadbeats). You can practically smell the stale beer, manure, and second-hand smoke. The same goes for Doc Hollywood, also lensed by Chapman and scored by the great Carter Burwell (the Coen brothers’ go-to composer), about a plastic surgeon who gets waylaid in a small Southern town and eventually falls in love with it. There have been many films like it—Cars, Sweet Home Alabama, and New in Town spring to mind—but none feel as lived-in as this one. If Let It Ride makes you smell the beer, Doc Hollywood will have you brushing the mosquitos away from your face.
Then there’s My Cousin Vinny. Beloved mostly for its performances—including its pure comic turn by Joe Pesci, its dazzling debut from Marisa Tomei, and the endless parade of solid That Guys—it also boasts an incredible roster of below-the-line talent. The resourceful cinematography from Peter Deming (who’d go on to shoot several David Lynch movies, including Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive) features Dutch angles, crane shots, and a full range of dolly moves, accentuating the dramatic movement of the script and ensuring that the frame is never static. Even more crucial to the success of My Cousin Vinny is its editing. Tony Lombardo, who worked on almost all of Robert Altman films of the 1970s, builds the story through its reaction shots. Pesci’s performance, particularly in the courtroom scenes, can lean towards the cartoonish, but Lombardo’s well-timed cutaways to Fred Gwynne’s exasperated judge and Tomei’s supportive fiancée create three dimensions out of every moment.
Through their attention to craft, these substantive comedies carry on the subversive, populist values of New Hollywood by situating their laughs in a real-world context. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels apes the wealthy. Let It Ride speaks for the losers. My Cousin Vinny tells a story of Southern bigotry, even if it substitutes two New Yorkers, one Italian and one Jewish, for people of color to sidestep more pointed politics. Hollywood comedies seem to have no use for those values anymore, or really any values. If you look at The Lost City (a blatant rip-off of Romancing the Stone) or The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it’s clear that their only reference point is other movies. They don’t require the same sense of imagination or world outside the frame. That era of comedy may be over, but it was hilarious while it lasted.
Noah Gittell is a cultural critic from Connecticut who loves alliteration. Find him on Twitter @noahgittell.