Features and Columns · Movies

Big-Screen Comedy Seems in Need of Saving

But maybe its heroes have been here all along.
Life Of The Party
By  · Published on May 14th, 2018

It is mid-May, and only one comedy release sits at the edge of the top 10 movies of 2018 so far. Game Night, which maintained steady attendance and a decent profit in theaters after opening in February, is still only a modest hit. Next week, Deadpool 2 will knock it down the chart while delivering some of the biggest laugh of the year. Even our best-selling comedies now are superhero movies.

Deadpool, as performed by Ryan Reynolds, is perhaps the closest thing to a comedy movie icon we have at the moment. His masked pantomime is compared to Charlie Chaplin in the press kit for the upcoming sequel, and during the making of Deadpool 2, the script had code names for different characters, including “Chaplin or Keaton [for Reynolds], depending on whether he was Deadpool or Wade.”

According to a chart on the box office website The Numbers (which doesn’t label Deadpool as part of this genre), market share for comedies has been on a severe decline over the last decade. At a time when attendance is moving upward — yes, partly thanks to MoviePass — comedies are still underperforming. If it wasn’t for The Hangover and The Hangover Part II, there wouldn’t be a single release from the past 10 years on the all-time comedy box office top 20 chart.

That’s with inflated figures, which if we’re talking adjusted numbers only two movies from the past decade are among the all-time all-movies box office top 20 chart as well. But even if we look at unadjusted box office for comedies, only three more titles make it into the top 20: 22 Jump StreetPitch Perfect 2, and Bridesmaids. Compare that to the all-time unadjusted list for all movies, which features 13 titles from the last decade (14 if we include 2008) in the top 20.

The fact that Bridesmaids is one of those big comedy titles is relevant to this past weekend’s box office. The 2011 release broke Melissa McCarthy out as a major comedy star, even earning her an Oscar nomination for her scene-stealing supporting performance. In the seven years since, McCarthy has become one of the few singular comedic talents to sell tickets on her name alone. But her marquee value seems to be on the decline with the disappointing numbers for her latest, Life of the Party.

Coming in second place next to the obviously still-reigning Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t sound so bad, but McCarthy’s new collaboration with her husband-as-director, Ben Falcone (who also appears in Bridesmaids), was expected to sell as many as 2.3 million tickets. That still would be a low number for the actress — her and Falcone’s other two efforts, 2014’s Tammy and 2016’s The Boss brought in 2.7 million people each in their first weekends. Life of the Party barely sold 2 million tickets in its debut.

McCarthy as directed by Falcone is also on the lower end of her career as far as both ticket sales and critical reception go. She’s done much better in her continued work with Bridesmaids writer/director Paul Feig. They’ve reunited, with McCarthy promoted to co-lead or lead, on 2013’s The Heat (4.7 million tickets sold in its opening weekend), 2015’s Spy (3.5 million tickets), and Ghostbusters (5.4 million tickets). Of course, all three of those efforts had the benefit of a genre infusion, whether action, spy, or fantasy. All three are also fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, while all three of Falcone’s movies are rotten.

Would better reviews revive McCarthy’s status as a comedy star? Certainly it couldn’t hurt, though what I wrote about her talents in The Boss still stands. Even in a faulty vehicle, she’s hilarious and worth watching. And that should be the case with any comedic talent. Her brand of humor should be drawing consistently from a fan base that appreciates her shtick. In their prime, stars such as Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, et al. have been able to open movies no matter how good or bad they are.

Moviegoers need to give more women-led comedies a shot, especially if they’ve got unlimited tickets per month from a subscription service like MoviePass. But Hollywood also needs to be giving funny women better movies to draw larger audiences. Amy Schumer broke out as a new comedy icon in 2015’s Trainwreck, but her subsequent movies have been received poorly both by critics and audiences.

I Feel PrettyWhile Trainwreck sold about 13.4 million tickets total, last year’s Snatched sold only 5.1 million total, and so far her latest, I Feel Pretty, has sold just 4.8 million. The new movie, which will at least turn a profit, took a beating in its reviews. In part because it could so easily be compared negatively to Shallow Hal. Likewise, Life of the Party is basically a redo of Back to School. Another new female-led comedy, Overboard, which stars Anna Faris, is literally a remake. All of these women deserve more original material through which to work their magic.

But the public might be tiring of them all anyway. Comedy stars don’t have long lives at the multiplex anymore. Most get a decade tops, but now a lot of performers get maybe half that before audiences are on to the next thing (currently Tiffany Haddish, and interestingly enough, she’ll be co-starring with McCarthy in next year’s The Kitchen). Then the comedic talents best turn to drama for the next phase of their careers.

This year will probably be one in which there is no big comedy phenomenon, whether it be a singular star or must-see story (like a Home Alone or a Hangover). Looking at the top-grossing comedy of each year going back to 1995, the main factor drawing an audience has gone from mostly singular stars in high-concept vehicles and their sequels to more and more ensemble pieces without one big name being the primary appeal.

Game Night and Blockers are hits no thanks to any of their cast members. That they are this year’s current best-selling comedies with only around half the gross of other years’ biggest entries of the genre is depressing. Especially since they’re pretty good and should be larger successes. Non-spectacle comedy, though, is now seen as something that can wait for home viewing.

Fortunately, audiences are still regularly laughing at the movies. While straight comedies are stumbling, a lot of genre films are getting funnier. In addition to Deadpool and its upcoming sequel, the most hilarious features in recent years have included Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man:Homecoming, the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Ant-Man, and the non-superhero movies Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Get Out. According to the Golden Globes, one of 2015’s top-grossing movies, The Martian, was a comedy, too.

Perhaps box office sites like The Numbers and Box Office Mojo need to include such comedy-heavy “genre films” among the ranks of the comedy genre overall. If Ghostbusters counts, why not Jumanji or Men in Black? If Beverly Hills Cop, why not Ant-Man or Deadpool? And why not also animated features that are huge laugh-getters?

If the qualifications of what a comedy is are broadened, the genre is doing quite well. It’s just that the icons are no longer the former comedians and variety show veterans. Now they’re costumed characters and cartoon minions and minifigs. If Melissa McCarthy wants to regain her box office heat, perhaps she needs to put on a cape and fly back up the charts.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.