It’s not hard for comedies to slip under the radar. Like any ‘genre film’, so many are pumped out each year that it’s almost impossible to keep track of which ones are good. Unless something gets an alarmingly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or was made by people you trust no matter what the Tomatometer says, you probably aren’t going to see it. And then you’re going to forget it even existed. Here’s ten great ones that probably passed you by.
Dan in Real Life (2007) | Dir. Peter Hedges | 98 min.
I caught this one at a free advanced screening my sister got tickets to. Hadn’t heard anything about it, didn’t know what to expect. Simply knew it was a Steve Carrell movie, and that’s all I needed to know. This was back when his career was on the up—he’d just had The 40 Year Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine back to back. Which is like ridiculous. Just thing about that for a second: two crowd-pleaser comedies back to back, one a total game changer for the genre, the other an Oscar darling. After that, yes, Evan Almighty, but still, that one wasn’t even all that bad. I remember everyone shat on it when it came out, but it actually has some funny parts, and overall it’s genuinely sweet—which is a hard feat for such a dumb premise. But anyway, those three movies in a row meant he had earned my trust. I’d see whatever movie he was in next, because his burgeoning movie career was looking pretty damn good. And Dan in Real Life did not disappoint. In fact, it’s just as good as 40 Year Old, if not better.
They’re very different movies, sure, but they’re pretty comparable as far as quality. They’re movies where even if you don’t like them, you have to admit they’re good for what they are. Dan in Real Life is way less joke-y, but I found myself laughing just as much. And it’s just as sweet. Plus, it’s got a gorgeous, warm color palette and real-feeling sets. And the story is very tightly constructed and paced. There’s seriously nothing wrong with this movie whatsoever. Anything I’d say that was wrong with it would just be nitpicking.
After I saw it, I really thought it was going be a huge movie—but then, I saw the marketing. The marketing of this movie was abysmal. The trailers did not capture the tone of the movie at all, and neither did the poster. The poster is seriously one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Carrell’s head on some fucking pancakes. For no damn reason. It’s like the person who made the poster didn’t even watch the movie, and simply had a picture of Carrell and a stock image of pancakes lying around. This is a sensitive, lovely movie, dammit. And everyone really acts in it. Even Dane Cook. Please see the damn thing. Also, the guy who did this, Peter Hedges, did an overlooked movie before this one, Pieces of April, which you should definitely check out as well. That one is more of a drama.
My Blue Heaven (1990) | Dir. Herbert Ross | 97 min.
This is a huge favorite from my childhood. I’ve seen this movie maybe fifty times. It’s one of those purely delightful movies that can always put you in a good mood, and doesn’t gets old no matter how many times you’ve seen it. But for some reason, either people have no idea this movie exists (which is bizarre, considering it stars Steve Martin and Rick Moranis) or they saw it once ages ago and barely remember it. Well, it’s my favorite Steve Martin movie. There’s something so pitch-perfectly preposterous about his Italian mobster persona. And Moranis plays off him perfectly. It’s my favorite Rick Moranis movie, too.
Nora Ephron wrote this, and it’s clear she had a lot of fun with it and didn’t take it too seriously. Which is what makes it her most restrained, and best work. It doesn’t have any of that forced romance that bogs down her other scripts. The romance here is handled lightly, not obsessed over.
Also, it features a lot of shots of blue skies with big white clouds, which is one of my favorite things in film. I have a sneaking suspicion Paul Thomas Anderson aped this movie’s blue-sky-and-clouds chapter breaks for Magnolia. Watch both and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Career Opportunities (1991) | Dir. Bryan Gordon | 83 min.
The hottest Jennifer Connelly has ever looked. I repeat—the hottest Jennifer Connelly has ever looked. That’s reason enough to see this movie. But it’s also quite good too. Frank Whaley, one of the most underrated actors of the 90’s, gives a stellar starring performance—his best to date. And all the supporting characters are wonderful too. It’s a perfect little John Hughes movie that for some reason just isn’t revered like his other work is. I guess what makes it forgettable in peoples minds is that it’s a very succinct, small story about two people in an enclosed environment. Movies like that tend to be overlooked. (The extreme example of this being Oleanna, one of Mamet’s best—yet I’ve never met a single other person who has seen it.)
Things Change (1988) | Dir. David Mamet | 100 min.
And here’s another Mamet movie nobody talks about. A very funny and touching italian mobster comedy starring Joe Mantegna and the late great Don Ameche. It’s one of those rare ‘suitable for the whole family’ movies that isn’t dumb and doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. It truly respects your intelligence, whether you’re a kid or an adult. I’m sure some of that comes from the fact that it’s co-written by Shel Silverstein—a fabulous writer famous for work that both kids and adults can enjoy.
If you’re ever stuck during the holidays trying to figure out something to watch with a big group of family members with varying tastes, this one is perfect.
Big Top Pee-Wee (1988) | Dir. Randal Kleiser | 86 min.
For some reason, everyone disregards Big Top Pee-Wee. I guess people wish it were Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure 2, and were disappointed when Paul Reubens didn’t give them that. But I don’t think you should compare the two movies. They’re nothing alike. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s impressive. It proves Paul Reubens versatility as a comedic performer.
Whether you like Pee-Wee or not, there are tons of layers to the character. He’s not at all one-note. He has tons of personality traits. The humor isn’t ‘easy’. And my favorite thing about this movie is that the jokes comes from so many different places. There’s broad visual stuff, witty stuff, subtle stuff, dry stuff, observational stuff, etc. Yet on the surface this is just a simple movie about a weird guy and his weird farm. It takes a true craftsman with an impeccably rich sense of humor to be able to mine that much depth from such simplicity.
Top Secret! (1984) | Dirs. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker | 90 min.
When people think Zucker Brothers, they think Airplane. Or the Naked Gun movies. Or the Hot Shots movies. And those are all fine, serviceable films. (Except Naked Gun: 33 1/3rd. Ugh.) But they don’t represent what they’re truly capable of. Top secret does.
Top Secret is absolutely their funniest film. It’s solid from start to finish. And it actually feels like a real movie, not just a series of gags—even though it’s got tons of them. It’s also one of the weirdest mashups ever: Cold war era spy movie meets Elvis movie-musical. It feels like a precursor to Team America, in that sense. I’m sure it made quite the impression on Trey and Matt when they were young.
The Wrong Guy (1997) | Dir. David Steinberg | 92 min.
Everybody who knows anything about comedy digs Kids in the Hall. Or, at least, some of the sketches. It’s damn near a rite of passage. It’s not a show I think about often, but anytime I revisit it, it’s clear how much it helped shape my sense of humor as a kid.
Some people are absolutely nuts about the show though. It’s kind of the American equivalent to Monty Python in that sense, even though it’s Canadian. Yet for some reason these same fans haven’t rallied around this film, with Dave Foley wrote and stars in.
The sense of humor is a little Kids in the Hall-ish, but really, I think its most close cousin is stuff by members of The State. You could replace Dave Foley with Michael Showalter and keep the script the same and it’d feel like a movie David Wain made. So if you’re a fan of those guys, definitely give this one a shot. It gets really zany as it goes on in the most lovely way possible, much like their stuff does.
The Hammer (2007) | Dir. Charles Herman-Wurmfeld | 88 min.
It’s sad to me that Adam Carolla has this reputation as an insensitive guy by people who don’t know much about him. He’s actually extremely sensitive. Dude feels fucking everything. In fact, he’s been diagnosed hypervigilance. And his acute sensitivity definitely comes through in this movie.
This is a beautiful little indie film, stuck in a crappy DVD cover that make it seems like a dumb cheap-o bargain bin movie. If you like touching sports movies with sprinklings of romance, and also like to laugh, this one is for you. It strikes the perfect balance. Adam’s attention to detail here is immaculate.
Pumpkin (2002) | Dirs. Anthony Abrams & Adam Larson Broder | 113 min.
The best Todd Solondz movie Todd Solondz never made. Christ, this one has bite. I don’t think people really picked up on that aspect when it came out. And so it was cast aside and now nobody remembers it ever existed.
I think this one has the capacity for a resurgence. Its satirical elements are pretty clear as day now. Our collective sense of humor has evolved—most people these days can recognize the difference between a crappy late 90’s movie and a movie pretending to be a crappy late 90’s movie.
The Brothers Solomon (2007) | Dir. Bob Odenkirk | 93 min.
What the heck is wrong with people? Bob Odenkirk, Will Arnett, and Will Forte all involved, and still people assume this is some throwaway comedy to avoid like the plague? Did it ever occur to you comedy nerds that maybe the reason this has a 15% on Rotten Tomatoes is not because it’s unfunny, but because it’s too funny? Too funny for most critics to be able to understand? Smart comedy is by and large unpopular. Deal with it. Now, when I say ‘smart comedy’, I don’t mean big words and literary references and whatnot—I’m not talking Whit Stillman. (Although I adore him, Damsels in Distress aside.) What I mean by smart comedy is jokes where the joke isn’t the joke. On the surface, yes, this is a stupid movie. But it takes smarts to truly do stupid well.
Now, is this a perfect movie? Absolutely not. There are misfires here and there. But by and large, this is a delight. I’d liken it to the TV show Stella. In fact, if ever a Stella movie were to exist, it’d probably be pretty similar to this. So, if that sorta thing is up your alley, definitely give this one a shot.