A female tennis star wrestles with the patriarchy and her own sexuality in the gyno-centric sports dramedy Battle of the Sexes (2017), written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton. A retelling of the most-watched tennis match of all time, between ex-champion Bobby Riggs and top female player Billie Jean King, seemed promising, but something misfired along the way. It was partly billed as a comedy, and features both Sarah Silverman and Steve Carell, but ends up only being mildly amusing.
It’s the early 1970s. Tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confront Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) about gross inequality in tennis prize money between male and female players. In outrage, they storm off to found their own women’s tennis association. Meanwhile, ex-tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has hit a new low as his gambling addiction threatens to tear apart his family.
As her new league takes off, Billie Jean King’s behavior threatens her marriage as well, when she meets hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and discovers she is attracted to women. This affair seems to have little effect on her life, however, when her cuckolded husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), shrugs it off and continues to faithfully dote on her.
Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs comes up with a way to exploit controversy over the women’s lib movement to make money and challenges top female tennis players to an exhibition bout. He handily defeats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is portrayed as somehow flawed and weakened by her loving devotion to her husband and child. Billie Jean King finally accepts the challenge and ends up humiliating Riggs in a match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.”
A down-and-out bouncer discovers he has a talent for dolling out beatings in the hockey rink in Goon (2011), a surprising independent Canadian sports comedy film written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg and directed by Michael Dowse. Aside from being well made, Goon features a solid, nuanced performance by Seann William Scott.
Despite dismal box office returns, Goon is almost universally praised by critics. It currently has a rating of 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I overlooked it many times, because although Seann William Scott has had funny side roles in some of my favorite comedies, I just couldn’t imagine him as a leading man. I was so wrong. In Goon, Scott proves he is a competent actor capable of breaking out of the fratbro trope.
Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), a tough but polite simpleton, is working a dead end job as a bouncer. His friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel), hosts a public access hockey call-in show. One night at an Orangetown Assassins minor league game, Doug gets into a fight with a player and the Assassins coach invites him to join the team as their “enforcer.” When his skills on the ice improve, he’s recruited to play for the Halifax Highlanders and protect their star player, Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-André Grondin), who is slow to recover from a brutal knockdown.
Along the way, he falls in love with Eva (Alison Pill), an adorkable hockey fan who sleeps around with hockey players, but is in a relationship, and discovers he might one day have to confront Ross “the Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber), who was responsible for knocking out Xavier LaFlamme. Will he get the girl and defeat his rival?
An unlikely duo must team up to find a missing girl before a secret cabal has her murdered in The Nice Guys (2016), a comedic crime drama written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi and directed by Shane Black. Set in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys is a film noir for the disco era, but wasn’t originally written as a period piece. Thankfully, the writers decided to rework the concept and what resulted was one of the best films of 2016.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a muscle-for-hire who Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) pays to dissuade private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) from looking for her. March, an alcoholic who lives with his preteen daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), believes Amelia is somehow connected to the death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Misty’s aunt, Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith), hired March to investigate Misty’s death because she believed Misty might still be alive.
When two anonymous men (Beau Knapp and Keith David) show up at Jackson Healy’s apartment to press him for details on Amelia’s whereabouts, he decides to pay March to help him locate Amelia before they do. Together, they discover Amelia and Misty were connected to an underground adult film allegedly exposing a conspiracy on the part of auto manufacturers to suppress the catalytic converter. Several people involved in the movie turned up dead.
Things get really complicated when Amelia’s mother, Judith (Kim Basinger), a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, pays March and Healy to find her daughter. When Amelia literally falls into their laps, she accuses her mother of being part of the conspiracy. March and Healy slowly put the pieces together, but will they rescue her and the last remaining film reel in time to expose the truth?
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016) is one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen in a long time. I try to watch anything with Aubrey Plaza in it, but didn’t catch this one in the theater. Not only is it hilariously improvised, it’s also based on a true story. The unbelievable misadventure of Mike and Dave Stangle, who were instructed to bring dates to their sister’s wedding in Saratoga, New York, inspired the film. They posted an ad on Craigslist in February 2013, which went viral. Real life Mike and Dave, from Albany, even have a cameo in the film.
In the movie version of events, Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) face an ultimatum from family members over a history of hard partying and ruining family gatherings. Their parents, Burt (Stephen Root) and Rosie (Stephanie Faracy) Stangle, insist they bring dates to their sister Jeanie’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) wedding in Hawaii. She is marrying Eric (Sam Richardson), who is grounded and emotionally reserved. After their Craigslist ad goes viral, they run through a series of hilarious dates before meeting Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza), another pair of hard-partiers who pretend to be nice girls to get a free trip to Hawaii.
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates was written by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien and directed by Jake Szymanski. Szymanski has directed dozens of video shorts and a few television episodes and TV movies, which might explain why the film felt like a series of skits seamlessly woven together. Make no mistake, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates not only has a plot, it also has character development, two things often missing from other recently-released comedies.
The film is simply about four shallow, emotionally juvenile people maturing and finding happiness. Dave learns he needs a separate identity from his brother and decides to pursue his talent at drawing, Alice finally gets over being left at the altar and pursues a relationship with Dave, and Mike and Tatiana go into business together. They patch things up with their sister after derailing her ceremony, and use their talents to make sure Jeanie gets the Hawaii wedding she deserves. Even Eric gets to show he’s not as straight-laced as he appears. It’s not a complex story, but what else can you expect from a raunchy romantic comedy?
I’ve been thinking about two movies I watched this year, Logan Lucky and Rough Night. Both can be considered black comedies about people getting away with crimes. In Logan Lucky, two sets of siblings rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. In Rough Night, a group of friends snort a bunch of cocaine and accidentally murder a male stripper in Miami. In my review, I ripped Rough Night for being morally bankrupt, but didn’t feel the same way about Logan Lucky. Why?
In a typical crime drama or thriller involving the protagonist engaging in criminal activity, there’s always a consequence for the crime. Either the character loses the money, a partner or friend gets hurt or killed, he or she ends up in jail, or some other misfortune befalls them. This is not only because stories are expected to impart lessons, but also because the film makers either don’t want to promote or glamorize criminal activity or don’t want to be seen as doing so.
Imagine a movie where the protagonists commit a crime or series of crimes and get away with it (ala Natural Born Killers (1994) or Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – Neither movie is a comedy but both had comedic moments). Now imagine a movie where the protagonists not only get away with committing a crime but profit from it as well… and imagine we’re asked to laugh at that situation.
In Ocean’s Eleven, we root for the thieves because casino owner Terry Benedict is a huge asshole and besides, it turned out Danny Ocean was more interested in winning back his ex wife than stealing the money. He even ends up back in prison. Even though technically the “bad guys” win, we perceive them as good guys because they are reuniting true love and punishing a faceless, evil casino without anyone getting hurt.
When Jessica “Jess” Thayer (Scarlett Johansson) decides to plan a wedding while running for state senate, she’ll need a little help from her college friends, Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), to pull off a wild bachelorette party in Miami. Hilarity ensues when the ladies get drunk, snort a bunch of cocaine, and accidentally murder a male stripper, all while leading Jess’ loyal fiance, Peter (Paul W. Downs), to believe she wants to cancel the wedding. In the end, they get away Scott free because, well, I guess manslaughter isn’t a thing in Florida. Comedy gold!
Since the success of Bridesmaids (2011), there have been a slew of female-led comedies, but none have quite recaptured the magic of that film. Rough Night is something of a cross between Bridesmaids and The Hangover (2009), or a gender-swap of Very Bad Things (1998). It was written by partners Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs and directed by Aniello. Aniello, a former member of the improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, writes and produces Comedy Central’s Broad City. This is her directorial debut. Ilana Glazer and Paul Downs also hail from Broad City.
In Very Bad Things, a bachelor party in Las Vegas goes out of control when the drunk and coked up men (see a pattern?) accidentally kill a stripper and a hotel security guard. Roger Ebert said Very Bad Things, “isn’t a bad movie, just a reprehensible one. It presents as comedy things that are not amusing” and assumes “an audience has no moral limits and will laugh at cruelty simply to feel hip.” That’s how I feel about Rough Night.
I normally don’t judge movies from a moral standpoint, because I realize people watch movies, especially comedies, to see situations and characters way outside the norm. It’s escapism. But the more I think about Rough Night, the more morally adrift it seems. There are no consequences for anything that happens in the movie. Not only are there no consequences, but everyone’s life actually improves in the end. Because it turns out the “stripper” was actually a bank robber, it helps Jess’ campaign. Alice hooks up with the real stripper, and Frankie and Blair rekindle their college romance.