There may be spoilers here
Hollywood and mainstream western cinema isn’t a mature medium. Film is built on this premise to provide a means of ‘escape’, and so there has been, and always will be, a film made for laughs. Or so it seems, because while a film can be funny it also has to be bankable, and something that does not necessarily have an all-star, or proven cast is unlikely to take off. There is no one way to tell a joke of course, but there is seemingly a set of formulas.
Three films this year have set about on a quest to make one laugh.
Melissa McCarthy is a three-dimensional actress. She’s started out on something similar to Will Ferell, playing a kind of conjecture to the film and real world – normal people in not-so-normal situations, though I think she is infinitely better at adapting it and making it appear fresh. This dissonance causes a lot of the humour, but Ferrell has shown how it can quickly become tiresome. McCarthy has since looked at more dynamic films and roles and recently so in ‘The Boss’. The problem with ‘The Boss’ though is that it gets caught in this need to provide a predictable moment of soul searching or realisation either by that character or those around them: justice will either be served for them or too them. Most depressingly in ‘The Boss’, everything that film appears to reject at the beginning, instead re-works and rejoices in it by the end.
Before this though, was ‘Deadpool’ enjoying its success as the first R-rated superhero film. Without dwelling too much on it, the reason that the film was given a 15 rating in the UK is because that is the age it clearly levels its jokes at. And Marvel fans. It’s a deluge of Marvel references and Inbetweeners-on-heat-like puns, innuendos and imagery of masturbation and sex. There’s an odd amount of anal jokes, including one scene where Ryan Reynolds character is taken from behind by his girlfriend (i’ll allow you to figure out how). And despite the film being highly self-referential, it carries on with its unrelenting belief in the Marvel formula; origin story, damsel in distress, near death for both protagonist and girlfriend, then resurrection, all the while Deadpool makes his smart-sounding jokes on breaking fourth walls.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. I wasn’t too familiar with the television series but I was vaguely aware of its premise. Two drunken, drug-taking PR managers played by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, who did most of their work in the nineties set out to be the height of fashion, PR and sexual conquests. I went to the film on the back of several “If you’re a fan of the tv show you’ll love it, otherwise…” reviews, and indeed it was all there for the fan of the TV show. But there were also what appeared to be inversions of the reviews given to the likes of ‘The Boss’; Ab-Fab was instead uneven, falls apart, and that there are too many cameos. Arguably these are all part of the product as Edina and Pasty’s endeavours take them to a fashion event attended by their dream client – Kate Moss – and finally relinquishing them of Lulu’s services. But what makes these in-jokes become jokes for those on the outside, unlike the Marvel films, is that to be part of these in-jokes is like admitting your part of this club that was once quite acceptable but clearly isn’t any more. And you have the ability to laugh a long with. These in-jokes make you reflect inward, whilst Marvel’s in-jokes reflect outwad- haha, you won’t get this because you weren’t here in the first place.
Surrounding this though, intentional or not, is a veil of tackiness, and not just a fakery in the sense of the characters, but of the actual film itself, as if it was something made in another era . The London skyline for instance behind Kate Moss and the balcony she is sat on before her plunge, looks fake. And so if Edina and Patsy were of date then in their style and actions, they’re even more so now and that is the underlying irony of the film. Kate Moss even feels like she belongs to a previous decade, and there’s not many people who’ve enjoyed some kind of British comedy coverage in the past twenty or thirty years who doesn’t make a cameo. Its criticisms it has received therefore seem to be what it is striving for. The whole film is a failed PR exercise, like one run by Edina and Patsy and it feels like a Thomas Pynchon novel with all those ridiculously named, one-scene characters. It’s a non-event, because when it’s on the verge of any moral or abiding lesson it averts way with a hilarious, snarling cynicism. Money and fame is all they want and all they need; you may feel sick and repulsed by their actions to get it, but at least you won’t have a nauseous after-taste of a moral shoved down your throat like a desert you know you don’t want but feel too rude to reject.
It’s a film therefore hinged with a ropey, tenuous plot and without some kind of moral to prop it up. It doesn’t mean anything, or rather wants to mean nothing. Look at the continual jokes on gender and race which have been classic examples of floating or empty signifiers. Witness continual jokes and plays on gender (this I am told, is a continuation of a joke from the series where there are rumours that Patsy used to be a man). Nothing effectively adds up and what would appear to signify something, reveals to be empty – nothing. This would appear to be the riff on gender, where somebody appears to be a certain sex, where all the signs add up, they are still revealed to be not ( the final joke on the film and Patsy’s eventual fate rests on this; or Barry Humphries both playing a man and his womanly alter ego Dame Edna Everage). But also watch the moment when Eddie’s daughter’s child goes on the run with Eddie and Patsy (her mixed heritage makes her the ‘perfect accessory’ by all accounts); Saffron comes to her daughter’s room and instead of her daughter, it is instead a fuzzy, afro-shaped wig. It’s a classic, film cliché but here it proves an ulterior point.
It is a film that is well aware of its vulgarness, its outdatedness, situated in a time where its values are even more out of date. It harks to when living on desires was acceptable and rewarded. And if we’re going to go back to the question of maturity, this film is a moment of real escape, allowing us to laugh at things that we shouldn’t and support Edina and Patsy’s desirous maraude, and revel in things just slightly beyond the remit of social acceptance or that we would not do in our day to day lives. We may dream and think about them, but doing is a different manner. That is escape. And although it might not feel like a cleansing experience it is oddly refreshing.