Once again, blogger and cinephile extraordinaire Brian Saur is conducting a series on his website, Rupert Pupkin Speaks, featuring contributions from film critics, curators, and cinephiles from all walks of life. Once again, he invited me to participate, and once again I’m shamelessly stealing his wonderful idea for a post here on Criticwire.
This time, Brian asked people to name their favorite underrated comedies. I’m not sure what inspired the topic, but the inspiration for my particular list was simple: I looked at my DVDs and Blu-rays, and picked out the titles that I never see in anyone else’s collection.
These were those movies (well at least four are those movies. One was a recent discovery on Netflix Watch Instantly):
“Fatty Drives the Bus” (1999)
Directed by Mick Napier
This zero-budget oddity from Troma Films was apparently made in 1999 and looks maybe ten years older than that. Whenever it was made, it was way ahead of its time (and possibly from another dimension). Back in ’99, there was almost nothing like its cheerily cheap production design, surreal humor, and deliberately bizarre plot — which is basically spoiled, in its entirety, in a hilarious opening title crawl: “This is the story of how Satan changed into a Chicago tour bus guide and rose to earth in order to get the souls of the people taking the tour that day because he knew the bus was going to crash and everyone was going to die and all the while he, along with everyone on the tour, were being pursued by Jesus Christ. This is a true story.” In 2013, it looks like the biological father of all Internet comedy videos — no wonder, since director Mick Napier is a staple of the Chicago improv comedy scene and a longtime fixture at The Second City. Just watch the first five minutes (the whole film is available for free on YouTube from Troma). If you don’t laugh at the title, and Satan’s performance, just turn it off. If you do laugh, congrats: you just found your new favorite too-cult-to-have-a-cult comedy.
Directed by Kent Alterman
Many critics tend to divide the films of Will Ferrell into two camps: those he makes with writer/director Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”), which are okay to like, and those he doesn’t, which are not. I’m not sure why some people get so snobbish about Ferrell, but the idea that only his movies with McKay are worthwhile is ludicrous; Ferrell has given some of his best performance working without his admittedly talented partner from Gary Sanchez Productions. That’s why I wanted to highlight my favorite McKay-less Ferrell movie, the underdog sports movie spoof “Semi-Pro,” in which Ferrell plays a former pop star who uses the money from his one big hit (“Love Me Sexy”) into buying the Flint Tropics, a franchise in the floundering American Basketball Association. With the ABA/NBA merger looming, Ferrell’s Jackie Moon has to turn his team around to try to prove they deserve a spot in the newly expanded league. The plot is formula, and you can just fast-forward any scene involving the romantic intrigue involving the team’s washed-up point guard (Woody Harrelson) and his ex (Maura Tierney). But Will Ferrell movies are sort of the comic equivalent of Jackie Chan adventures; you don’t go see them for the intricate narratives or remarkable characters, you go for the inspired setpieces that let the star flex their unique acting muscles. In that regard, “Semi-Pro” is a winner, featuring some of my all-time favorite Ferrell moments — including his attempt to weasel out of paying a guy his $10,000 prize for hitting a full court shot and a extremely ill-advised boxing watch with a bear as a promotional stunt. I quote this scene, in which Ferrell introduces his Tropics starting lineup, more than I’d care to admit.
“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982)
Directed by Colin Higgins
I just watched this movie for the first time as research for a recent Filmspotting: SVU podcast on movies set in Texas and was thoroughly charmed by this cheerful tribute to two great American traditions: freedom and fornication. Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton star as a small town Texas sheriff and the owner of a local brothel that comes under attack from a hypocritical consumer watchdog (Dom DeLuise in a hilarious performance). The stars have great chemistry, Dom’s a riot, and Dolly sings the dickens out of “I Will Always Love You.” I’m not sure what else you need beyond that, but there are also a lot of sex jokes plus a musical number featuring the entire Texas A&M football team stripping out of their uniforms and line dancing while they sing about how excited they are to get laid. I’m not quite sure why this one doesn’t have a great reputation but I was very pleasantly surprised.
“Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” (1994)
Directed by Peter Segal
For the life of me, I’ve never understood why the “Naked Gun” sequels have such a bad reputation. Certainly neither matches the heights of the original film (or the TV series that inspired it, “Police Squad!”), but that’s sort of like complaining that “Skyfall” isn’t as awesome as “From Russia With Love.” I think the fact that the ZAZ guys were mostly absent from this one (David Zucker hung around as a producer and co-writer but that’s it), and that the cast includes folks like Pia Zadora and Anna Nicole Smith, made it look particularly uncool and ripe for dismissal. But anyone paying attention would see plenty of classic gags, a truly funny supporting turn from Smith as the devious femme fatale Tanya (that she won a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst New Star shows not only how underrated this movie is but also how inessential those awards truly are). “33 1/3” is bookended by two particularly memorable sequences: an inspired parody of the Odessa Steps scene from “Battleship Potemkin” and a hilarious satire of the Academy Awards, in which Leslie Nelsen’s Lt. Frank Drebin poses as Phil Donahue in order to find a bomb hidden somewhere at the Oscars. That so many critics and audiences missed such a satisfying comedy truly was the final insult.
“The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” (2001)
Directed by Larry Blamire
It’s hard enough to make a good movie; imagine the skill it takes to make a good version of a bad movie. The degree of difficulty involved in “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” is almost too high to calculate. Somehow Larry Blamire — who wrote, directed, and starred in this admirably terrible paean to the so-bad-they’re-great films of Z-grade ’50s auteurs like Edward D. Wood Jr. — pulled it off. Shot in black and white in and around Los Angeles’ famed Bronson Canyon, the site of countless cruddy science-fiction and monster pictures from yesteryear, “Lost Skeleton” follows the hilarious misadventures of a dopey scientist (Blamire), a pair of dopier aliens (Andrew Parks and Susan McConnell), and a supremely dopey but incredibly dickish living skeleton all chasing after a one-of-a-kind meteorite containing the rare element atmosphereum. Attempts to deliberately recreate Ed Wood’s brand of lovably crummy sci-fi typically end in disaster of the least watchable kind; “pure camp,” as defined by Susan Sontag, must be “naive,” not invented. But Blamire’s script is peppy and sly, and never condescending. And, the Lost Skeleton himself (who’s literally an anatomy class prop on visible wires) steals scene after scene. The movie’s sequel, “The Lost Skeleton Returns Again,” isn’t bad, but the original is the true atmosphereum in the rough. And with that, I sleep now.
What are your favorite underrated comedies? Tell us your picks in the comments section below.