Americans used to fear provoking ridicule abroad because of George Bush, now they're afraid because of "Grown Ups 2." To watch the so-called "comedies" Hollywood churns out faster than Stephen Colbert dodged #CancelColbert is to be assaulted by grown men’s fart jokes and fat jokes about Melissa McCarthy.
Even many U.S. indie comedies tout a certain formula of twee ennui: unlikeable attractive people who can’t get jobs find love unexpectedly. Producers want to bet on a sure thing, so we viewers end up with the same thing by the same uninspired tastemakers over and over again. Which is why one must look far beyond Hollywood product for comedies that surprise. Europe is a good start, as proven by the Museum of the Moving Image's ongoing Panorama Europe series, which includes two great examples.
The first is "I Feel Like Disco," a coming of age film that avoids cliché at every turn and should be a breakout hit at festivals this year. Florian is a fat kid with a kind face. He lives somewhere in Germany, probably not Berlin but some sadder city’s outskirts, possibly present day or during the golden age of disco. We meet him crashing his father Hanno's moped — "Can I just have a piano instead?" — its front wheel rolling jauntily out of frame. Sporting an impressive horseshoe mustache and an equally impressive belly, Hanno is a formidable adversary — albeit one who seems ripped from the pages of "The Adventures of Tin Tin." (Think Captain Haddock plus fifty pounds.) Monika, Florian’s mother, gets him. They dance together in fake sideburns and white blazers beneath his bedroom disco ball, hanging where other kids might choose a solar system mobile, singing a song called "Sexual Intercourse."
If Monika seems too good to be true, at least for a tragi-comedy about a fat gay kid, she is. After Hanno sits resignedly naked for a haircut, and she vacuums the cut hair off of his already hairy body, she collapses from a stroke and is pronounced brain dead. So vivid and charming in those first twenty minutes, Monika's absence is made all the more poignant. The movie contains echoes of Gina Gionfriddo’s play "After Ashley," in which our young protagonist loses his mother after a long opening scene painting their unique and intimate bond. With Monika in the hospital, Florian moves his disco ball mobile into "her new home," singing and reading to her and sometimes with her, as she rises from her bed and his golden-hued fantasies melt into the brighter reality of the film.
More than a first crush narrative; though this film sports a particularly cute one, the way that "I Feel Like Disco" blurs the lines between fantasy and reality truly make it a moving queer film. In an early scene, when Florian and Monika switch Henno’s sports game to a war movie, Henno is briefly entertained until the two soldiers begin kissing passionately mid-combat. Later, Florian’s first flutters over his acned paramour take the form of visions of the two boys starring in that same film. I could have been watching myself, falling asleep to scenes from "The L Word" on repeat in my head. (Starring me, of course.)
As the scene makes clear, music, fame, and the movies are openings into our fantasies — not merely entertainment, but a way to be someone different. For a lonely gay fat kid like Florian, fantasy is more than escape; it’s a means of survival. And for the lonely gay fat kid in each one of us, "I Feel Like Disco" is better than the fantasy of a good comedy; it’s the real thing.
If you’re up for some bull-fighting and ball jokes after all that disco, stick around for "Sonja and the Bull," a wacky and unusual romantic comedy from Croatia. A box office success back home, "Sonja and the Bull" might be Croatia's "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." After a small bullfighting outfit full of eccentric old men learns of an animal rights activist spearheading a movement against their favorite pastime, one genius, Stipe (his two sons and his father are named Stipe as well), wagers his balls that she cannot come within three meters of his favorite bull, Garanjo. I repeat: Stipe will cut off his balls, or his father (also Stipe) will bite them off, if Sonja the animal rights activist can stand three meters in front of Garanjo.
If it sounds loopy, it is, which is precisely what makes it so funny. So Ante, the man betting against Stipe (pronounced: stee-pay), sends his son, who is named — you guessed it — Ante, to go fetch this young activist from the big city and bring her back to face the bull. Sonja turns out to be rather lovely despite being a vegetarian, though she is also quite stubborn, or, dare I say it, bull-headed. I was happy the translator connected the dots for me when, towards the end of the film, a policeman refers to Sonja with something akin to, "Tame your shrew."
There certainly is a Taming of the Shrew aspect to this romance, and, like that play, "Sonja and the Bull" walks a fine line between satirizing female archetypes and having a little too much fun making jokes at the woman’s expense. It’s kind of funny the first time one old man offers her his sausage, but by the end even little Stipe’s cute marriage proposal unsettlingly casts him as a child misogynist. Which traditions are all these generations of Croatian men fighting to keep alive, the bullfighting or the keeping the men in charge? I'll make a concession, since this film is so lighthearted and fun, and we could all use a little more meat in our diets.
These exciting films are proof that, at least in other parts of the world, the star-studded group bromance has not forever killed the quirky coming of age comedy, and that fat jokes aren’t nearly as touching as a shot of a father and son hugging, belly pressed against belly, their fatness not quite big enough to keep their hearts apart.
"Panorama Europe" continues at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens through Sunday. For more information, go here.