Fun with Dick and Jane: A Movie Review
The Vanishing Art of the Straight Man in Comedy
Let me say that in my opinion, within the filmography of Jim Carey, Fun with Dick and Jane (2005), stands out, I think, as a comparative masterpiece. I know that sounds condescending but I do not mean to be. This performance is, to my mind, Jim Carey at his best as a comedic actor. The casting of Tea Leoni, as his wife, was a perfect fit. Their on-screen chemistry was off the scales. In fact the chemistry between the three of them---Jim Carey, Tea Leoni, and the adorable little boy who played their very young son---was completely convincing as that of a loving nuclear family.
It seems to me that Jim Carey, as a comedic performer, is at his best when he has the help of a 'straight man.' Tea Leoni, as Mr. Carey's co-star, effectively played that role, thereby leveling out Carey nicely. The reason I mention this is because I was profoundly disappointed to see that, yet another cinematic installment of the Dumb and Dumber franchise---this one Dumb and Dumberer---with Carey and Jeff Daniels in the title roles. Contractual obligations of some kind, no doubt.
What am I talking about? What is a 'straight man'?
You know, I only realized, literally just yesterday, in a concrete way, what it is that annoys me about many comedic movies [ex. Dumb and Dumber, Dude, Where's My Car?, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and so on]. What I'm talking about is the vanishing art of the 'straight man.'
Again: What is a 'straight man'?
Comedy duos of the past: Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy...
Classic comedy sitcom: I Love Lucy!
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello: Costello had all the punchlines; Abbott was the straight man.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy: Laurel had all the punchlines; Hardy was the straight man.
I Love Lucy (sitcom): Lucy & Ricky; Ethel & Fred: two married couples.
Pairs: Lucy & Ricky---Ricky is the straight man; Lucy & Ethel---Ethel is the straight man; Lucy & Fred---Fred is the straight man; Ethel & Fred---Fred is the straight man; Ricky & Fred---Fred is the straight man; Ethel & Ricky---Ricky is the straight man.
Seinfeld (sitcom): Jerry, Elaine, George, & Kramer. Jerry & George---Jerry is the straight man; Jerry & Elaine---Jerry is the straight man; Jerry & Kramer---Jerry is the straight man; George & Elaine---Elaine is the straight man; George & Kramer---George is the straight man; Elaine & Kramer---Elaine is the straight man; Elaine & George---Elaine is the straight man.
Decades past, when the term was commonly used, the 'straight man' was understood to be the facilitator of the partner, whom the audience most directly laughed at and for. This partner, the one who grabs the punch lines, creates chaos and confusion. The straight man, ostensibly, tries to restrain him and stop him from doing this. It is that interplay that creates the comedy.
The straight man, ostensibly, seeks to establish and maintain a conceptual space of reason and order, which the other partner, the punch line grabber, constantly violates. The 'straight man' is a device that, as far as I can see with buddy comedic movies today, is not used very much at all. What this gives you is a situation in which both performers are, each, in effect, doing nothing but trying to constantly one-up the other for the punch line, to be the One the audience most directly laughs at and for. And what this dynamic creates, essentially, is a world where EVERYTHING is hilariously funny. As a consequence, in such a world where everything is hilariously funny, nothing is.
I'm no expert in these things, but it seems to me that comedy is about two things: timing and contrast. When you want to tell a joke, you, hopefully, do two things. First, you alter the mood, lighten it, by bringing it from a relatively serious situation to one of lighthearted amusement. This has a lot to do with the timing with which you tell your joke or do whatever slapstick you're interested in doing. Then, hopefully, your joke or slapstick is inherently funny. The execution of comedy, then, in this way, is always a double move.
For this reason I personally find such one-note movies like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, The Mask, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Dude, Where's My Car? and others, virtually unwatchable. That is because life, and I daresay, art, is about variety and contrast: different sights, sounds, smells, colors, shades, and textures. When a movie is all of one thing---anything---it can become weary-making.
Jim Carey and the late Robin Williams are two performers, whose dramatic work I have always enjoyed immensely more than their comedy. I suppose it is well known, now, just what Robin Williams could do in dark and dramatic roles. But Jim Carey has serious acting 'chops,' and has had them for quite some time.
If you're curious and would like to get some indication of what Mr. Carey can do, check out a little movie he did supporting actor work in, years ago, called Doing Time on Maple Drive (1). That movie is a drama, nothing funny about it. Carey plays a brilliant but flawed young man, seemingly struggling in vain for his father's approval. Anyway, Carey 'killed it,' as they say.
A Quick Word About The Plot
I don't want to give too much away, and you can get a plot summary from anywhere. But the story is this: Jim Carey is an executive on the rise at a multinational corporation called Globadyne. The CEO played by Alec Baldwin, did some financial shenanigans, driving the organization into the ground, throwing thousands onto the street, while escaping with a 'golden parachute,' and all that. Jim Carey loses his job and his family faced economic strain.
The arc of the plot is: What do Jim Carey and Tea Leoni do to, at least, temporarily mitigate their hardship? The answer to this really is very funny. What do the duo do to take revenge on the greedy CEO and set things right for the discharged employees of Globadyne? They do something. It is very funny and it works. The ending is very 'heartwarming' and 'life-affirming' and all that.
Thank you for reading.
More by this Author
This essay is a review of the 2008 movie, Hancock, which will focus on two areas: Jason Bateman as an old school 'straight man' performer; and what I call the Kryptonite motif.
This is a movie review of the Mel Brooks farce, High Anxiety (1977).
I am going to defend Hayden Christensen's performance in the two prequels.