Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Natalie Portman deserves better

I recently re-watched ANNIE HALL. It was the best free movie that ON DEMAND was offering that night. (Seriously guys, we need a better selection. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were just offering shitty free movies so we’d be forced to pay for a better one.) But ANNIE HALL is one of my favorite flicks. I even recommended it once.

What struck me about it this time was this: It was a romantic comedy that assumed the audience had some intelligence. While still being funny it explored relationships in a meaningful, heartfelt way. Some of the subject matter was dated – there were more Jew jokes than in every movie over the last ten years combined – but the emotions and a lot of the comedy still rings true.

I bet I know what you’re thinking: Oh no, here’s another old guy ranting about how much better things were back in the day. There was no pollution and we had real movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford! No. That’s not where I’m going with this (although Mary Pickford was pretty hot).

When it was released, the target audience for ANNIE HALL was young people. Twentysomethings. I look at the movies geared for younger audiences today (like THE DILEMMA and LITTLE FOCKERS) and they’re just idiotic.

So here’s my point: I don’t think Hollywood gives young moviegoers enough credit for intelligence.

The big studio decision makers (most of whom are in the 50’s or 60’s and live in gated communities) seriously believe that the only way to attract young people is to dumb down their romantic comedies to where not only are there “you have shit on your face” jokes, but they appear in the trailer. That’s what gets you into the theaters they believe, along with pratfalls, buffoonish characters, and ridiculous high-concept premises.

I mean, Paul Rudd deserves more than just being Seth Rogen’s pal and Natalie Portman certainly deserves better than being in a dopey Fuck Buddies comedy with Ashton Kutcher.

I’m not saying all of today’s comedies are bad or have to be ANNIE HALL. I loved THE HANGOVER. I loved ROLE MODELS. But is Apatowesque the only genre we can see?

And when one of those movies doesn’t work – is there a worse piece of shit ever than GROWN UPS? It makes you yearn for the days when bad romantic comedies were just not funny.

I’m not saying you have to go back to the ‘70s when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Why can’t Hollywood also make comedies like SWINGERS? Or THE BREAKFAST CLUB? TOOTSIE? CHASING AMY? WHEN HARRY MET SALLY? GROUNDHOG DAY? RAISING ARIZONA? RUSHMORE? FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL? BIG? A FISH CALLED WANDA? JERRY MAGUIRE?

I think studios might be surprised that younger audiences are smarter and way more sophisticated than they think. So I suggest this. Just as a test. Make one. Make one comedy where the laughs come out of character and the situation is real and relatable.  Will it happen?  Here’s what I imagine:


The president and his VP in charge of production.

VP: So did you read Levine’s blog.

PRES: Yeah. Who the hell is he anyway?

VP: Some old writer. Who cares? But he makes some good points.

PRES: (begrudgingly) I guess. Yeah.  I like his Friday questions.  I've been thinking of asking what a three-act structure is for a movie.  I've always wondered.

VP: (staying on subject) What if we did do one sophisticated comedy?

PRES: I dunno. I could see if a FRASIER writer wants to do a rewrite on the Opie & Anthony project I just greenlit.

VP: I think we need more than that.

PRES: It’s too risky.  Can't we just take a sophisticated comedy from the past and do a sequel?

VP:  I think the whole point is to do something fresh and original.

PRES:  Now you're really starting to scare me.

VP: Think of it this way:  It could be a huge win-win.  If we do this and it works, we’ll corner the market. No other studio has an intelligent comedy in the works. 

PRES: That’s true.

VP: We might even win awards.

PRES: Real awards? Not Golden Globes?

VP: Real awards.

PRES: Well, it’s tempting, but still…

VP: One movie. That’s all.

The president considers for a long agonizing moment, then:

PRES: Oh alright. We’ll try it. One movie.  Damn that Kevin Levin or whoever the hell he is!

VP: Great! I think that’s a brilliant move.  And you're a visionary for thinking of it. 

PRES:  Okay.  But I’m hedging my bet. It has to be in 3-D.


lucifervandross said...

The IT crowd has a great "Shit on your face" joke.

I'm not sure if 20somethings really want sophistication now though. It seams like being raised on countless American Pie sequels has left them numb and only seeking things that are instantly recognizable and humor that is derivative of the same joke over and over again.

Mark B. Spiegel said...

When I first read this, my kneejerk reaction was that "Annie Hall" was a niche movie made for a niche audience (east & west coast and college town intellectuals) and didn't make much money, and therefore the large studios just wouldn't be interested today. However...

Apparently, "Annie Hall" did $38 million in domestic gross ALONE, and that's an inflation adjusted $137 million today! If you use the old rule of thumb that domestic gross is ultimately 1/3 of total revenue, Annie Hall made over $400 million (inflation adjusted), and it cost just an inflation-adjusted $14 million to make!

LOL, no WONDER people kept financing Woody for so many (losing) years after that!

benson said...

More than ever, all creative decisions are driven now only by money.

My fiance made me watch "The Ugly Truth" last night. What a piece of crap. Some funny dialogue, but mostly filthy language for filth sake. Predictable outcome.

Is our society really that much in love with Two and a Half Men type crudeness?

I guess I have become an old fart, too. "Get off my lawn"

Eduardo Jencarelli said...
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Eduardo Jencarelli said...

As a twentysomething person myself, I can safely say I crave not only sophisticated comedies, but also more original material.

I would kill for films like A Fish called Wanda and Breakfast Club these days (though I admit I somewhat enjoyed the first couple of American Pie films).

I didn't even watch Grown Ups. The trailer already made me groan. Hell, I watch trailers weekly, and they're beyond the realm of predictability, especially the comedies.

And the best part of this post is the "has to be 3-D" punch line.

By the way, is it just me, or does Natalie Portman look a lot like Keira Knightley on that photo? I recall Keira was one of her doubles on Star Wars.

Jim S said...


I blame two seminal movies of my youth for this trend - Animal House and Airplane. They both cost $2.60 and made huge fortunes for the studios.

Unfortunately, the lesson Hollywood took from these movies is that dumb and vulgar pay off. Only on the surface are these movies dumb and vulgar. Yes Animal House had exposed breast and butts.

Yes, Airplane surely had its dumb humor (Don't call me Shirley). But that's surface. They had heart, funny performances and they were SMART. Bits like Robert Stack looking into the mirror at his home and then walking out of it depended on old-school Hollywood tricks and is just clever. The visual and verbal puns, the dead serious performances, the direction and writing were all smart. The film just looks dumb.

Same with Animal House. There is a story there between the food fights and horse in the dean's office jokes. They weren't afraid to make fun of everyone, including the Delta House people. (Do you mind if we dance with your dates?)

Sadly, the lesson learned there is let's do Porky's and Meet the Spartans, not good comedy is smart even when it's being dumb.

danrydell said...

I love a good stupid movie just as much as the next guy. But I really wish there were more funny / smart movies. AND NOT funny as in "here's a joke so subtle, you'll wonder if you're supposed to laugh or not, but aren't we clever?"

When Harry Met Sally and movies like it should be the gold standard for studios, as far as I'm concerned.

RCP said...

Excellent point. I'm usually struck by the disconnect between the teenagers and twentysomethings I meet - most of whom are surprisingly mature and very much interested in the world around them - and the way they tend to be portrayed on television and in films, i.e., "Duh, that blowed up real good!"

Tim W. said...

Ugh! Thank you. Movie comedies have been horrible lately. You now what the best comedies have been lately? Animated movies. And the only time I see an animated movie is with my kids.

And just to add a couple to your list, Ken. In The Loop and Hot Fuzz were very funny movies. The British still know how to do smart comedies, thank goodness.

John said...

Writing a successful comedy like "Annie Hall" is hard. So it writing a successful comedy like "Animal House", to go back to another film from the 1970s. But the latter seems so much easier to do, since you can just take a few key plot ideas, throw in some new characters/situations and get a plot that will at least have 1-2 gross out gags that will work on first-time (but not multiple) viewing.

That's the problem -- once the standards were dumbed down to the point that not just fart jokes but jokes about accidental cum eating were perfectly acceptable, why try to go for a higher common denominator when it's way, way easier just to base a laugh or a premise on something that will play well for the yutes in the theater during the previews (it's also the same reason why some films nowadays also seem to avoid camera shots lasting more than five seconds -- the longer you go with a stagnent shot or with a two-shot, the more you actually have to think of stuff to put in there to make the audience forget nothing's moving much on screen. Much easier to mimic the old Wang Chung video and change the shot every 16 frames).

Steve Zeoli said...

I just watched what I consider a sophisticated romantic comedy -- although I suspect it is an indie film: TiMER.

The premise is a little off beat, that a gizmo attached to your wrist can tell you the day you'll meet your soulmate. But that just opens the door for some very interesting explorations about what love is. TiMER is also, by the way, funny. And it features two very fetching leads in Emma Caulfield and Michelle Borth.

Of course, this exception to the rule does not derail your point, Ken, that the studios seem to suck at making decent romantic comedies.

Max Clarke said...
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Max Clarke said...

The MP3 audio track for Annie Hall is on my iPod, I still enjoy listening to it. Though dated here and there, most of it holds up well, and the lines are still funny ("I forgot my mantra.")

When I was young, the movies I liked were smarter than I was, more creative, funnier than me. They gave me an experience of "felt life" which I would never have experienced. Many of those films had been staged plays, such as The Lion In Winter, A Man For All Seasons, and Play It Again Sam.

These movies were all strong stories, even the great silly comedies are usually also strong stories. The jokes adorn the story tree, they aren't the structure of it. Look at Pixar. Their movies are always beautiful, but they start with a story. JIM S is right about two smart/dumb movies, Animal House and Airplane.

Today, the studios have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, something about maximizing profits, so they will always steer toward a formula movie that could make a lot of money. Maybe studio executives define excellence differently than writers do. A wildly popular movie is excellent, even if it's crass and dumb, because it was seen by millions, and it keeps them employed.

Phillip B said...

One tip to conquer On Demand - use the power of your DVR.

My guide allows me to sort movies based on star ratings. I've seen most that get rated 4 stars but those I haven't go into the queue along with those I would like to see again.

Enjoyed a wonderful mini Preston Sturges festival while avoiding the first 6 hours of Super Bowl previews. Had nightmares about Ben Stiller's remake of "The Palm Beach Story" - but otherwise it was great....

ernie said...

I just watched a delightful little movie; New York, I Love You. It was full of romantic, quirky vingettes, one with Natalie Portman acting and another which she wrote & directed. The stories were likely written and directed by young, untested movie makers and the flick deserves to be seen and enjoyed.

Jonathan said...

This post was timely for me. Having had the pleasure of seeing not one but TWO trailers for "Just Go With It," I got to witness two "hit in the balls" gags and the old "How long have you two been married?" gag (you know, the one where they each give a different answer and then they each give the other answer and then exchange chagrined looks). Unless this is outright parody, we may be in for the absolute worst movie in decades.

RockGolf said...

The dumbest part of this is that when intelligent, funny adult comedies come along, they make a freakin' fortune! Well in excess of their costs.

The Hangover, Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, City Slickers, even My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Heck, even There's Something About Mary had plot and character and heart. My wife & I were over 40, saw it in a preview and laughed till the tears rolled down our faces. And I'm probably forgetting two dozen more.

brigadude said...

You don't know how right you are about "Just Go With It." Truly, truly dreadful. Funny you should mention it in regard to this column, for it is a remake of "Cactus Flower" from 1969--for which Goldie Hawn won her Oscar. I'm not saying that particular movie was an absolute gem, but Ingrid Bergman, Walter Matthau (and Hawn) were pretty darn good, and the screenplay stuck closely to the play upon which it was based.

Nathan said...

I won't debate your point, but Natalie Portman does have an agent. And she's probably not contractually obligated to follow his/her recommendations. It's not so much that she deserves better but "I thought she had so much better instincts".

And (OK, I lied a little), there have always been movies catering to the lowest common denominator. Just look at Troma Pictures' backlist.

(The only part of this argument I can't sustain is that I couldn't name last year's Annie Hall if you held a gun to my head.)

emily said...

I can't make it through a day without a dose of Kevin Levin...

-bee said...

"Annie Hall" is a very good movie, but I think it was a smash hit not entirely for its wit, but because there had been nothing like it: a woman having unmarried sex with different guys being treated as 'normal' without any snide snickering or implicit condemnation.

Young women (at least in my college town) loved it and dragged their often unwilling boyfriends to it multiple times. It really validated their self-image (let's say it was the "Sex in the City" of its day).

But in the bigger picture, I don't think there has been a steady stream of quality romantic comedies since maybe the 40's, probably because up till then adults went to movies in equal numbers to kids, not to mention I think women filmgoers outnumbered men. Now a lot of these adults stay home and watch TV, leaving movies to the kids and young adults.

In fact, most quality rom-coms nowadays are on TV, not in theaters.

Decent rom-coms DO pop up in theaters once in awhile, "500 Days of Summer" is one that comes to mind.

I have a theory that the steady stream of crap rom-coms in theaters is related to the steady stream of crap action movies - based on a kind of reciprocal revenge dynamic (boy to girlfriend: "this friday we are going to this car chase movie" girl: "OK, but then NEXT Friday I get to pick the movie" and this cycle repeats itself ad infinitum - couples choosing movies based more on asserting their power than desire to see the actual film).

Unknown said...

Also funny with an actual storyline rather than just a punchline: Real Genius, Better Off Dead, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I've been trying to remember the last time i laughed out loud at a comedy in any format (outside of Modern Family).

Tamara said...

Ken, this might be my most favorite post of yours ever.

Gary said...

Sooooooooo, Mr. Levin, or whatever name you go by, Ben, why don't you and David get together with Levitan and Lloyd and Weiner and Pomerantz, and any other successful writers you might want to hang with, and write another movie comedy? I'm sure if you just asked, most of your loyal readers would be glad to be stock holders in such a venture.

Just don't cast Sandler or any of his retarded cronies in it, that would surely doom your efforts. And I'd insist that you return my dollar.

Compoundwriting said...

Ken, I completely agree about ANNIE HALL....Today I watched THE OTHER GUYS, the unfunniest film I've ever seen and a total insult to my intelligence - and I like Wahlberg.


PS: FRASIER is still awesome

Cap'n Bob said...

If nobody went to these turkeys they wouldn't make them. I think you have to blame the audience as well as the idiots who make this dreck.

Janet T said...

I hated Annie Hall- but I really just don’t like Woody Allen- loved the Hangover, Something about Mary, The 40 Year old Virgin, Tootsie, Lost in America, Broadcast News, Ferris Buellers’s Day Off, The Money Pit, Anchorman: the legend of Ron Burgundy (the only Will Ferrell movie I like), Zoolander, Parenthood, Beny & Joon, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and numerous other movies. Most of today’s comedies rely on bathroom humor and poorly executed slapstick. I will not watch a movie to see a certain actor and by the same token will not discount a movie because of an actor-Ben Stiller is a great example- while some of his movies made this list many, many, many did not. It seems that the lowest common denominators have become the standard plot. Some of the best and cleanest humor today comes out of the mouth of Captain Jack Sparrow.

cadavra said...

GROWN-UPS: $160 million.

MORNING GLORY: $30 million.

This is why we can't have nice things.

Greg Harbin said...

rGlad to see "Chasing Amy" mentioned as an intelligent comedy. That's a movie that gets easily overlooked for its Ben Affleck and its tiny budget. Easily, however, one of the best comedies of the 90s.

Tom Quigley said...

Today's intellectually challenged group of romcom producers not only couldn't make a movie the equal of Annie Hall, they'd probably spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy working to include double entendres of Mr. Allen's first name...

Anonymous said...

I hate Natalie Portman for a lot of reasons, but I agree, she does deserve better.

Then again, sometimes she makes movies like V For Vendetta and then I wonder if she really does...

Anonymous said...

And let's not forget Sideways.

Anonymous said...

I have a question, do you feel that syndication and the associated editing to put in ad space is killing reruns? I'm specifically wondering about Becker. I used to think it was very good, one of the few shows I made appointments to watch. Now I watch it and find it not funny, with characters issuing one-liners that make no sense why they would say that. I'm wondering if maybe there's been some stuff edited out.

Anonymous said...

Does Ashton wear man-wigs? Or is it him-weaves? Hair pieces or hair plugs? Something about his hair. I dunno. Something's fishy. And yes, Natalie Portman deserves better, indeed!!!

MattA said...

I can't believe nobody has mentioned any of Christopher Guest's movies: Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, etc.

Breadbaker said...

Don't forget the best of them all, A Mighty Wind. We saw the full cast in a road show. They sang every song live, and came close to reenacting the full movie on the stage of the Seattle Opera House. The guy we were sitting next to had been in the army with Parker Posey's dad.

Btw, I think American Pie also had character development and heart. Much like Airplane! and Animal House, the ostensible story wasn't about the people the really famous scenes were about.

VP81955 said...

But in the bigger picture, I don't think there has been a steady stream of quality romantic comedies since maybe the 40's, probably because up till then adults went to movies in equal numbers to kids, not to mention I think women filmgoers outnumbered men. Now a lot of these adults stay home and watch TV, leaving movies to the kids and young adults.

Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding! We've got a winner!

Until adults take back the multiplex, comedies will reflect the sophomoric sensibility of beer commercials.

MacGilroy said...

Back to the romantic comedy theme - I thought "Last Chance Harvey" was a good and funny and intelligent and made for actual adults. A lot of the films mentioned above still feature self-absorbed 20 somethings, or those who act like it. Grow up already!

Anonymous said...

Hey Joe Scuzzbrough, you realize your puppet (wife?) is NEARLY as mingery as you, right?

Sandy Koufax said...

Kevin Levin...hummm? Didn't he used to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Matt Patton said...

Personally, I find Natalie Portman to be rather dull, and the idea of this dull, studious young lady being given the lead in a romantic comedy is just--weird . . .

Last sort-of romantic comedy I really liked was Ghost Town with Tea Leoni and Ricky Gervais, and Greg Kinnear. All people over 40. A script with actual funny lines (and a boffo sight gag involving a Great Dane). Even the 'ghost' angle in it is un-annoying. Also, Kristen Wiig has a bit as a mithering psychopath of a surgeon that is truly paralyzing.