by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, February 20, 2010





Send-ups. Satire. Slapstick. A Comedy's primary goal is to make you laugh - to provide you a cathartic, emotional release from everyday life. Characters and situations are often exaggerated for comedic effect. Popular trends of 2000-2009 included spoofs (the Scary Movies, Meet The Spartans), expletive-heavy sex comedies (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Superbad), and Will Ferrell. Of course, what actually qualifies as "comedy" depends on you, the viewer - because what's funny to one person may not be quite so funny to someone else. Whatever your personal taste, it all comes down to one rule: If it doesn't make you laugh, or the humor doesn't at least reveal a few recognizable truths about life, then it fails as Comedy.

The Top Five:

5. Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)

One of the decade's great entertainments – and a testament to the virtues of star power. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner – it's almost too much for one movie to handle. Yet director Steven Soderbergh manages to juggle multiple character threads without ever losing his audience, so that we know exactly who's doing what, and where they're doing it. What's more, he remembers that movies, at their core, are supposed to be fun. Ted Griffin's script is a treasure trove of snappy dialogue exchanges, and the actors have such an easy rapport you get the sense they really enjoy each other's company – the spark is palpable. Critics blasted Soderbergh and Co. for relying too much on style, not enough on substance. To which I say: What's the problem with that? When a movie's as effortless and enjoyable as this, that's substance enough.

4. Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)

A tart, wise and welcome antidote to all the countless, soulless, sex-driven teen comedies of the last twenty years. First off, the sex has already happened: Sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) finds out she's pregnant just as the movie begins. Second, the Oscar-winning script by Diablo Cody is uncommonly well-observed for its type, with "stylized" dialogue that – at first – feels like a ploy designed to entice audiences with lines they've never heard before ("That's one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet"). But the characters tend to act less like stereotypes and more like actual human beings the longer the movie goes on, so that moments of sudden insight and warmth sneak up on you. And holding it all together is twenty-something Page, a bundle of insecurities hiding behind a wisecracking exterior. Just your typical teenager in your atypical teen Comedy.

3. Dan In Real Life (Peter Hedges, 2007)

Steve Carell stars – in a role about a thousand times removed from any character he's played before – as a widowed newspaper advice columnist who packs up his three daughters (two of them teenagers) for a weekend family get-together in Vermont. While there, he falls head-over-heels for the woman (Juliette Binoche, lovely) dating his younger brother, and spends the rest of the movie throwing temper tantrums. Most of the laughs are of the awkward, too-close-for-comfort variety, as Carell struggles with his emotions and tries to be an example to his children – and fails at it miserably. It's a movie populated with characters you'd probably recognize from your own life: the parents who sit back, amused, while their grown-up kids make grown-up mistakes; the brother in a seemingly endless string of relationships; the petulant, love-struck teenager – the list goes on. That's the beauty of a Comedy like this, how we recognize the foibles and frustrations of the lives on screen as our own.

2. Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster, 2006)

Magical. The kind of experience that's so one-of-a-kind in tone and story you can't wait to tell all your friends about it. Its basic concept – lowly IRS auditor (Will Ferrell) starts hearing a voice that turns out to be narrating his life – would have been enough to sustain a lesser movie. But the script by first-timer Zach Helm is literate and funny, and it keeps adding layers to the plot and the characters, so that it actually unfolds like one of the novels in which Ferrell's Harold Crick is supposed to be playing a part. Ferrell is a revelation here – he's funnier acting as straight-man to the absurdities going on around him. Plus, he's surrounded by actors (Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, even Queen Latifah) who force him to step up his game. Those quirky visual tricks director Marc Forster peppers throughout the movie are nifty too; whether they're on-screen digital readouts of a character's thoughts, or clouds that move oh-so-subtly behind Ferrell's head on an office wall (above), they reinforce Fiction's underlying theme, that we're all cogs in grander schemes at play.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

Wes Anderson has a bold filmmaking style all his own, with humor so dry it takes a peculiar sensibility to appreciate it. His characters seem overly pleased with themselves, content in their own little worlds, and his actors deliver their lines in such a hushed, ironic monotone (it's like they can barely be bothered to speak) that their performances border on the catatonic. But it's a defense mechanism masking deeper heartache. All three Tenenbaum children – reclusive playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), fallen tennis star Richie (Luke Wilson), and widowed mathematics wiz Chas (Ben Stiller), all geniuses – have been damaged in some irreparable way, most of it due to the influence of their father, Royal (Gene Hackman). The punchline to the movie's big cosmic joke is that, for all his bluster and detachment, it's this same man who ultimately helps them break out of their shells – and gets me all misty-eyed, every time. Tenenbaums is, finally, a summation of each title that makes up this list: the star power of Ocean's Eleven; the characters of Juno (adolescent or adult) who all have some growing up to do; the family dynamic of Dan In Real Life; a plot, like Stranger Than Fiction, that unfolds with the richness of a great novel; and a voice as original as anything I've seen these past ten years.


Okay, so that's two down (and sorry for the delay, but the entire family's been extra sick the past two weeks). Agree? Disagree? Please comment below! And stick around, because our next entry will tackle a genre I never would have even considered a valid category until this last decade.


  1. Okay, now that my eyes are permanently stuck in the squinting position let me take a few minutes to massage them back to normalcy..............................................................ahhhhhhhh! that's better! Darin! please don't subject me and my precious eyes to that small text again!

    I appreciate your list, and the fact that you did not include the "expletive-heavy sex comedies" which attempt to glamorize the truely offensive to generate a response i.e. drug use, alcohol use and nudity. This list is on a much higher plane than those trashy flicks.

    Unfortunately, I have not seen all the titles on this list and need to make a trip or two the the red box, but I did see Oceans Eleven and Stranger Than Fiction. Your evaluation is as accurate as any I could hope to put into words. Like I mentioned before I am not as eloquent as you are, so I leave the eloquency to you. I am, admittedly, conservative when it comes to my movie watching, so again unfortunately, I will probably not see a few of the titles and will trust your evaluation. Though I may not prefer to watch them I am perfectly willing to accept your opinion and appreciate from afar.

  2. This seals that we're related. The Royal Tenenbaums is on my top 10 of ALL TIME. Owen Wilson was much better before he went all-out big screen.

    If we ever get a Waldo/Wilma reunion put together, I think a Tenenbaum viewing should definitely be on the agenda.

  3. I have to admit, even though Juno was still too smutty for my taste (they didn't have to flash back and have the sex scene) I did shed a few tears when the warmth and insight snuck up on me. It was refreshing to have a, true to life comedy!

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  5. Hey Darin, I think I speak for everyone when I say that Jonny is the world's biggest dork! He thinks he's sooooooooooo funny, he makes himself pee his own pants. And I married this guy? All I can say is at least he's goodlooking.

  6. I realized that some things in my first comment might have been offensive and I apologize. I was only joking. But all joking aside, I would like to express my opinion about the movies on this list. As much as I liked Ocean's Eleven when I originally saw it, I can't remember laughing out loud throughout the entire film. And, for me, a good, memorable comedy should make you laugh. Sure it was clever and entertaining, and yes Brad and George had noticeable chemistry with their witty banter, but for me, it didn't leave a lasting impression. And unfortunately after seeing Ocean's Twelve, I lost a lot of respect for Steven Soderbergh, and therefore lost respect for Ocean's Eleven as well as for Ocean's Thirteen. In my opinion, Ocean's Twelve ruined the Ocean's trilogy. And now on to Juno. Again, I liked Juno at first, it was fresh and new, and Diablo Cody's dialogue was interesting. But after winning the Oscar and producing Jennifer's Body (which I saw reluctantly I might add) her once intelligent and unique dialogue now seemed forced and regurgitated, saying things like, "You give me such a wetty." and nicknaming her best friend "Monastat." Who does that? People (especially teenagers) don't talk like that. It's way too written. And I feel she only writes her characters the way she does because she has to stay fresh and hip because Juno was so original. She's fallen under the M. Night Shayamalan curse. Just because you are a success with your first movie, doesn't mean you have to follow that same formula for every subsequent movie! Now Dan in Real Life also did not make me laugh. I thought it was more of a drama. I don't have much to say about it other than it failed to keep my attention. Not because I don't appreciate dramas (or dramedies) but because it failed to keep me interested in the characters. Now, being a big Will Ferrell fan, I wanted to like Stranger Than Fiction, and for the most part, I did. But again, after the first twenty minutes, I lost interest in the story. I liked the premise and the characters, but I think it might have worked better as a short. Okay, so The Royal Tenenbaums I really liked! I think Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson nailed it with this one! I liked the dry humor, the quirky characters, and the story. And yes I did laugh out loud at this one; many, many times as a matter of fact. It is, in my opinion, a true comedy! Good pick, Darin!