Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Proper Comedy in Film
Take This Movie.. Please
The Smart Alecky subtitle of this section, refers not to Last of the Red Hot Lovers, which I think is a fantastic comedy, and a useful teaching aid for communicating what proper comedy in film is, or should be.
No, what I am referring to, here, is a film from 2015, starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart: Get Hard.
Now, the first thing to say is that there is a difference between a comedic film, which is fundamentally funny (or "ironic") at the story level, whose gags and pratfalls arise organically within the story, are manifestations of the story (which Last of the Red Hot Lovers is) --- and an allegedly comedic film in which the gags and pratfalls serve as ends in themselves, absent of a story that is funny, ironic, or even interesting (which Get Hard is, in my opinion).
Does that make sense, so far?
What is funny? What makes a thing funny? What is a joke?
Believe it or not, I do think that the very nature of this basic, human component is worth reviewing.
Since I do not mean this piece to be some kind of extended philosophical discourse, let me save time and skip several steps by providing a working definition of "funny."
Let us say that a thing is "funny" that: sets up a respectable expectation and then undermines or undercuts it, in a clever way, which then creates a "cognitive dissonance," in the minds of the hearers of the joke, which we must relieve by laughing, or at least smiling.
Let me explain myself by way of an example.
Take the comedy classic, Airplane! (1980).
The respectable expectation that is set up is that we are looking at the operation of a large, professional corporate organization, an American airline. We have a certain expectation of "professionalism." We are presented with this outer shell of professionalism.
But this expectation is undermined when we are shown the inner workings of this particular airline. Internally, the workings of the airline appear to be absolutely "bonkers," to use a technical term. The momentum of the "bonkers" happening builds until we are left wondering, in amazement, at just how the planes manage to stay in the air, in this particular organization.
This "amazement" is the "cognitive dissonance," I referred to earlier.
But let's get into this on a deeper level by looking at Get Hard.
What is the respectable expectation that is being undermined in that film?
Well, the story is that Will Ferrell plays a wealthy, white American, hedge fund manager, who is wrongly convicted of fraud and sentenced to a prison term.
We have the "respectable" or understandable, or straightforward "expectation" that this is what is going to happen: Wealthy, white American hedge fund manager, wrongly convicted of fraud is going to prison.
Nothing is going to prevent this; Will Ferrell is going to prison.
Now, he wants to survive the experience physically and psychologically intact, and without being sexually violated. His brilliant idea (sarcasm) is to hire a black man, Kevin Hart's character, to teach him how to survive in prison, without being sexually violated.
Kevin Hart's character has never been in trouble with the law, and has, therefore, never been incarcerated. Will Ferrell simply assumes that Hart has been in prison because he is black.
Stay with me
There is nothing "funny" here yet. Yes, we do have our "respectable expectation," with Will Ferrell's situation. But it has not been undercut in a clever way.
That expectation has been serviced with an appeal to a stereotype about black men in America.
Are you with me?
The interesting and sad thing about Kevin Hart's character, is that, despite never having been incarcerated, he does ultimately agree to help; and does his sincere best to give Will Ferrell advice which will help him survive prison intact and, hopefully, without being sexually violated.
Question: From what knowledge base does Kevin Hart draw on to dispense this advice and training?
The answer (none) is the first thing that is wrong with this "comedy." The premise is not "funny," in the way we have defined the concept.
Blah, blah, blah... etc., etc., so on and so forth... snore!
Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell have an adventure in which they discover the true villain behind everything, the true perpetrator of fraud in the company's name, and all that. They clear his name, but Will Ferrell does have a spend a very short amount of time in prison for something else I can't be bothered to recall.
Will Ferrell gets out of prison and a happy ending is enjoyed by all. With the fee he pays to his "coach," Kevin Hart, the latter opens up his own car wash business. He's very happy... blah, blah, blah...
Anyway... The End... and so what?
In between a story, with a premise which is not undercut in a clever way, and the happy ending, we have gags and pratfalls that serve as ends in themselves.
The "stereotyping" itself is not a problem. The problem, for me, is simply that it was not cleverly done.
Just off the top of my head, here's my proposal for what would have been a funnier approach to Get Hard.
Let's have Will Ferrell, just as before, turn to Kevin Hart, the black man that he knows, to train him in how to survive prison, intact and without being sexually violated.
Let's have Kevin Hart, who has never been incarcerated, just as before, ultimately, agree to train him, with one difference.
In this universe, Kevin Hart is secretly outraged that Will Ferrell would make such an assumption about him. Therefore, instead of giving Ferrell sincere advice on how to survive prison, Kevin Hart gives him advice which guarantees just the opposite: that Will Ferrell will have a very, very, very rough and traumatizing time in the Big House.
But Kevin Hart is subtle about it; there is nothing obvious about his training, which would arose the suspicions of a man like Will Ferrell.
We should then have a parallel scene going on in prison: an old, veteran inmate, taking an incoming "freshman" under his wing, giving him real advice on how to survive prison intact, and, hopefully, without being sexually violated.
The frame should cut back and forth between Kevin Hart telling Will Ferrell one thing (secretly guaranteed to get him traumatized in prison) and the old veteran inmate telling his young charge the very opposite (honestly meant to help the young man survive his experience intact and, hopefully, without being sexually violated).
Let's have Will Ferrell go to prison, implement Kevin Hart's fraudulent advice, and only avoid being brutally assaulted, each and every time, through Inspector Gadget-type bumbling and moronic super-luck.
But what about the obligatory adventure to clear Will Ferrell's good name?
Ah! For that Will Ferrell should deploy the services of his "uncle," who, like Ferrell, is also a bigoted idiot, who, somehow, manages to "solve" most of his cases through sheer Inspector Gadget-type bumbling and moronic super-luck.
Will's "uncle" "solves" the case, identifies the "actual guilty party" (which is actually just a decoy, but its good enough for government work). Will Ferrell gets out of prison on this "new evidence."
Now then, to make this film really work, we need to take a page from the underrated film The Usual Suspects (1995). The ultimate villain, the man revealed to have been the puppet master behind everything needs to be revealed to be... wait for it... Kevin Hart.
The film should then cut to a scene that shows Kevin Hart dressed in a three thousand dollar, tailored Italian suit. He is holding a glass of brandy, sitting on a swivel chair in his office, at the top floor of a massive high-rise building. We see him scowling down through his window at the view.
You see, Kevin Hart is not who he appeared to be. He is, in fact, a business mega-titan, fantastically rich and unimaginably powerful and influential.
Kevin Hart secretly owns the corporation Will Ferrell worked for, through a complicated maze of fronts and shell companies and holding companies, and all that good stuff.
Kevin Hart engineered the scandal which landed Will Ferrell in prison --- where Hart had hoped that the latter would rot the rest of his life away.
Because Kevin Hart has been pursuing Will Ferrell for a long time, and plotting his revenge.
But, again, why for heaven's sake?!?!?
Do you see where I'm going with this? It is because Will Ferrell is --- wait for it --- KEVIN HART'S FATHER!!!!!!!
That's right, Will Ferrell is Kevin Hart's father, the same man who left Hart's mother pregnant, alone, and abandoned at the altar no less. From the moment he had heard the story, when he was old enough, Kevin Hart vowed revenge!
Perhaps the film could end with a car chase/shootout/Kung Fu duel between father and son.
Perhaps it could end Pulp Fiction-style, with the two of them fallen into the clutches of a male store owner, who just happens to be sexually predatory. He knocks the two of them out and ties them to chairs in the basement.
He calls up his cousin and tells him that he's got "something good" in his shop. The cousin comes over.
The movie ends with a four-hundred pound, six-foot-six, "King Kong Bundy" (real name: Christopher Alan Pallies), or someone like that, deciding which man --- Kevin Hart or Will Ferrell --- he will violate first.
Now that's comedy! Make it three hours and get Quentin Tarantino to direct, and you've got yourself a movie!
Last of the Red Hot Lovers
And now, finally, what about Last of the Red Hot Lovers and the way it exemplifies what I have called "proper comedy in film"?
Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) was originally a play. The story and screenplay was written by Neil Simon. The director, according to Google, was a gentleman called Gene Saks.
The film stars screen legend, Alan Arkin, as Bernie Cashman, a middle-aged seafood restaurateur, apparently having a mid-life crisis about his hum-drum life of stable predictability, with his stable, predictable, and not very exciting marriage, to a stable, predictable, not very exciting wife.
He has decided that what he needs is one --- just one --- glorious extramarital affair to make it all worthwhile, make him "feel alive," and so forth.
Here's the scenario
Bernie Cashman's mother has an apartment, which she is away from for most of the day, one day a week.
Mr. Cashman means to use that apartment, on that day, to arrange a tryst to remember.
Well, just like in baseball, he took three swings, with three different women he has arranged rendezvouses with at the apartment.
Now, the funny thing is that Bernie Cashman finds out that doing wrong is not so easy --- not easy at all.
In fact, he fails to "score" with all three women. Additional humor is provided by the very different ways that he fails to "score" with each woman:
- He fails with the first woman because he is too romantic and sentimental about the enterprise; he doesn't want the experience to be "sordid," or anything like that. He wants something beautiful, sweet, if clandestine, to hold forever as a cherished memory, of a time when he really lived, and all that. The woman is too coarse, jaded, and cynical; she just wants the carnal experience for and in itself, without any sentimentality.
- He fails with the second woman. Now, frustrated, he is more straightforward in his approach, willing to give up some of his earlier sentimentality. But there is a strange disconnect between the two of them. Let's just say, here, that Mr. Cashman does not hold his pot (marijuana) well.
- He fails with the third woman. Having "struck out" twice now, Bernie Cashman is practically in full bore carnal mode. In short, he fails with this woman because she seems to suddenly undergo a severe crisis of conscience.
Anyway, the pratfalls and gags that ensue are organic to the story, the inherently funny or ironic (perhaps all good humor is fundamentally ironic) story; they are never ends in themselves.
But here is the truly funny part of the movie: The film ends with Bernie Cashman calling up his wife from a pay phone (it was 1972, remember). He wants to arrange a romantic rendezvous with her, at his mother's apartment. We see him having an extremely hard time talking her into it; and indeed, have every reason to believe that he will fail to persuade his wife.
You see, the funny (and slightly sad) thing is that:
Bernie Cashman cannot even get "laid," as it were, by his own wife.
Bernie Cashman cannot even "score," so to speak, with his own wife.
This means that Bernie Cashman is, after a fashion, more pathetic than a 15-year old kid, trying to persuade Suzie something-or-other, who is in his tenth-grade science class, to come over to his house to "study," so that he might, God willing, "cop a feel," as they say --- and failing to do so.
And the fact that Bernie Cashman cannot even "score" with his own wife, sheds light on their relationship, and makes his previous foray in attempted adultery more understandable, if not excusable.
And that's funny!
Are we good?
Does that make sense?
Thank you for reading!