From Robin Williams’ suicide to James Foley to the shooting death of Mike Brown and the ongoing tension in Ferguson, Missouri, that it inspired, it’s been a really crappy month. The idea that there’s always something bad going on seems to have reached new heights, obliterating the Rule of Three and morphing social media into a daredevil experience – stay current if you dare.
In times like these we need moments of recalibration, feel-good experiences that allow us a reprieve from the negative. As movie fiends, film is the perfect safe-haven, or so one would think. During the mess of drama this week I started Googling feel-good movie lists and was shocked to see how many required the viewer to feel bad before they felt good (if at all). Lists included the melancholic Little Miss Sunshine, Robin Williams’ own dark suicide comedy World’s Greatest Dad, the Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, and Up, which requires you to go through cinematic devastation before the sweet journey. One list of movies “that instantly make your day better” even includes Magnolia. Another at IMDb is labeled as “feel-good melancholic atmosphere.”
Sure, these films might make some viewers feel good, for whatever reason – we all have beloved films that other people can’t understand – but they aren’t “feel-good” films guaranteed to brighten everyone’s day. They are not movies someone who is feeling bad can turn on to lighten their mood and take them out of their angst and pain.
So, in an attempt to balance the craziness, I want to offer a mix of absurdity that doesn’t require empathetic pain before the positive pay-off. Here are some of my favorite movies and scenes that let us forget our real world. Relish them, and please include your own favorites, so that we all might take a break and smile.
There are films that come together so perfectly that they easily defy expectation, and Zoolander is one of those films. Two thirty-something comedians playing the sexiest male models in the world who have to fight villainous brainwashing and protect the Prime Minister of Malaysia shouldn’t work. Yet Zoolander boasts the rare alchemy that makes it a unique comedy that improves with multiple viewings. Some of Ben Stiller’s starring gigs might fall flat, but his movie scripts (this and Tropic Thunder) hit the spot. This is no movie for ants! As an added bonus, you get to see Alexander Skarsgard in his first Hollywood role as Meekus.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Most comedies offer a set number of laughs – a collection of ridiculousness sprinkled through the narrative that holds them together. Monty Python – especially Monty Python and the Holy Grail – challenges this notion by placing a lesser film’s worth of jokes into any one scene. From the clomping coconuts to the killer bunny, the Holy Grail is one of cinema’s best comedies because its goofy absurdity is matched by its smarts. It is a film that exemplifies the potential modern comedy rarely strives to achieve, no more potent than the French taunting scene that farts in our general direction.
For as much bad cinema as Hollywood releases, there is usually some advancement after decades – whether it be through technology, social evolution or acting temperament. Yet thirty-plus years after the arrival of Airplane!, it is still the film all modern spoofs are compared to (and the movie we look back on with longing after “comedies” like Breaking Wind). It knew how to precisely mix corniness into a package that was fun rather than insipid, with gags that made fun of anything and everything.
Mel Brooks made so many great comedies during his tenure as director that everyone has their own entry point into his absurdism, whether it’s Blazing Saddles, a history of the world that’s never finished, or the sci-fi spoofing wonder of Spaceballs. For me, it was Young Frankenstein – a black and white classic in a modern world, which brings light into the darkness and boasts the incomparable likes of Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Teri Garr. It plays on horror’s seriousness, on banter and wordiness and the ridiculous things women are tasked with in the name of sexiness (“Roll, roll, roll in ze hay!”).
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
I don’t think Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle would be among my favorite comedies, but it should be present here, not only for it reintroducing us to the comedic talents of Neil Patrick Harris, but also for holding the only scene that has made me fall to the floor in laughter. Sure, today it’s nothing much, replayed countless times until it lost its impact, but then it was the least expected scenario: Harold and Kumar relishing the talents of Wilson Phillips. The scene is one of the best in the movie, and not just because the mix tape makes the pair evolve from condescending mockery to the thrall of ‘90s pop song by song until they let their inhibitions go and rock out. It also taps into our own tendency to judge, from glass houses, while taste skeletons hang in our closets.
Arsenic and Old Lace
Delightfully unexpected absurdity isn’t only the domain of modern comedy. Much like Monty Python’s tendency to thrust a lot into a little space, Frank Capra’s 1944 classic absolutely loves being ridiculous. On the day Cary Grant is to marry, he learns that insanity runs in his family. He tries to keep a handle on his own sanity in the face of the openly unhinged Teddy (who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt), his murderous brother Jonathan, and deadly, arsenic-poisoning aunts. Darkness is present, but only as an absurd dance of errors as Mortimer tries to keep a handle on his own sanity.
A Mighty Wind
Melancholy usually has no place in feel-good movies – at least ones designed to make the masses laugh – but A Mighty Wind is the exception, making melancholy the funny backbone to the mockumentary’s comedy. Eugene Levy plays Mitch Cohen, one half of the famed folk duo Mitch and Mickey until a nasty divorce broke up their duo and send Mitch straight into an emotional breakdown. It manages to display all of Christopher Guest’s trademark absurdity (and one of the rare modern Levy characters that gets to be remarkably off the beaten path), while also being quite clever in its exploration of what celebrities submit to in the name of fandom.
See also: All of Christopher Guest’s other mockumentaries.