Is Today's Film Comedy in the Toilet?

Judging by what I've seen recently, I think the answer is "yes." Yet even so, some of our (supposedly) finest critics still find reasons to celebrate.

Truth be told, I have a bone to pick with New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis -- a big one.

In her maddening write-up of an execrable movie called Bad Teacher ("When The Teacher Gets High Marks In The Raunchy And Profane", 6/23), she not only gives a glowing assessment of Cameron Diaz's innate comedic flair, but suggests that the actress's portrayal of the title character -- a superficial, gold-digging, amoral woman who ignores her students and wants a breast enhancement so she can marry rich -- is somehow a step forward for feminism, in terms of the kinds of roles it makes possible for women.

Excuse me?

Now I hold the Times, my hometown paper, to a pretty high standard, and have most always given their movie reviews, particularly those penned by A.O. Scott, the benefit of the doubt.

I've also followed Dargis, and while she writes well, I've had some reason to question her critical acumen before. (For instance, she grandly described the latest deafening Transformers installment as "the apotheosis of a type of contemporary industrial filmmaking... that combines commercialism... and militarism.")

Hmmm... is that a good thing?

This same kind of lofty, seemingly laudatory language is peppered throughout her totally wrong-headed Bad Teacher review. While in fairness she fell short of designating it a "Critic's Pick," her piece really was pretty admiring. Read it and see.

Still, I had another reason for being curious about Bad Teacher.

We're in the midst of a month-long tribute to Barbara Stanwyck on our website, profiling two classic screwball comedies she did back-to-back -- The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball Of Fire (1941). I also just introduced a wildly successful screening of Midnight (1939), another hilarious comedy written by Billy Wilder, and starring the gossamer Claudette Colbert.

In light of this, I asked myself the following intriguing question: what film actresses serve as today's answer to the likes of Stanwyck and Colbert -- or for that matter, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard and Rosalind Russell?

Though I've never warmed that much to Jennifer Aniston, I'd always thought Reese Witherspoon might make the grade... but could it be that Cameron Diaz might also qualify? I had to find out.

So -- with my twenty-two-year-old daughter gamely tagging along, we ventured forth to see Bad Teacher.

Now, to reiterate: I'm not a traditional critic but an advocate for great movies. I try to find the best films available -- old and new -- to put on my site and promote in my writing.

So, like other discerning viewers, I hate -- HATE -- spending twelve dollars and two hours of my life to see unmitigated, total dreck, which -- excuse me, Ms. Dargis -- this movie is. (For the record, my daughter hated it too.) And yes -- I feel angry at being misled by The New York Times.

Frankly I'd be astonished if its stars -- Ms. Diaz (who was actually good in Being John Malkovich) and Justin Timberlake (who held his own in The Social Network) would not acknowledge the lameness of this picture, at least in private. Mr. Timberlake's role as a milquetoast was particularly strained.

But then again there's a lot of self-denial going on in Hollywood, particularly when mass distribution (approximately 3,000 screens for Teacher), splashy ad campaigns, and a woefully undemanding public cause the film to generate close to $90 million at the box office. It's all about the money, folks.

I led this piece by remarking that today's film comedy had gone into the toilet. This was in fact a not-so-veiled reference to another sad reality.

Beyond being pathetically unfunny, Bad Teacher is unspeakably vulgar. There are very few base and offensive areas not covered in this movie -- social (child abuse), sexual, and of course, scatological.

Have we forgotten -- gross does not always equal funny. Or maybe today it does.

Bad Teacher is not the sole offender here... there's a coarse little entry that's currently number three at the box office called Horrible Bosses, which gleefully traffics in murder, racial stereotypes, sexual perversion and jokes about obese and handicapped people. A.O. Scott, drinking the Kool-Aid, admits it's "foul-mouthed" but also "frequently funny."

Then there's the matter of Bridesmaids, probably the best Hollywood comedy I've seen in a while, and the movie that finally showed me a worthy successor to Stanwyck and Lombard in producer/writer/star Kristen Wiig.

Even in this instance though, the film's pervasive charm is occasionally undermined by obvious, over-the-top gags involving bodily functions, oral sex, foul-mouthed parents and their kids.

These "gross-out" detours -- so expected in movies like this (one reason I marvel that A.O. Scott of all people still finds them funny) -- aren't really what make this comedy memorable. Rather, it's the moments that almost could have happened in the classic screwballs of yore- in particular a scene on board a plane (with expletives softened) -- that elevate this work. Or at least I think so...

I continue to be nostalgic for the type of comedy that doesn't require constant profanity or a surfeit of fart gags to succeed, that relies instead on subtle, clever scripts and witty dialogue; movies that in the end give their audiences some credit for brains and taste -- a quaint notion perhaps.

I suppose it's unavoidable that I sound a trifle prudish and out of step here. But as the great Billy Wilder famously said in 1976: "They say Wilder is out of touch with his times. Frankly, I regard it as a compliment. Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?"

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