Comedy is arguably the least respected film genre — although horror could certainly make a strong case. Whether it be due to the fact most comedies do not strive to say anything of great significance, or that often the filmmaking is not on par with other genres, there is no denying that comedic films do not enjoy the same level of respect that do other films.
Of course great comedies are the exception to the rule, and would be unfair for all comedies to be put in the same bracket as films like Just Go With It, but it still seems strange that highly respected auteurs would decide to explore the comedy genre.
Comedy is the film genre that studios consistently push out without care, making it hard to find great comedies in the flood of mediocre to bad films. Often, the great comedies are directed by filmmakers unfamiliar with the genre. Auteur-directed comedies are instantly recognizable, and while even great auteurs can fail when they decide to dive into comedy, they bring a unique approach to a genre too often cut from a mold.
From the very beginnings of both film and comedy, filmmakers have tried to explore the boundaries of comedy in cinema. Early filmmakers like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin worked almost exclusively in the genre, leaving an indelible stamp. Since then, many auteurs have explored the possibilities of film within the comedy genre, and others have devoted much of their career to this exploration.
By definition an auteur will break away from the norms of a genre; that is why so often comedies by such filmmakers are not labelled as comedies. Woody Allen has produced some of the iconic characters and scenes in movie history in his comedies, yet is rarely considered a comedy director. Allen does not try to hide his influences, his classic romantic comedy, Manhattan, is clearly inspired by the films of Bergman. Like Allen, many auteurs working in comedy take their influences from unconventional places. For example, Stanley Kubrick, one of the most highly respected filmmakers of all time, saw the absurdity of the Cold War and made the classic Dr. Strangelove in response. Similarly, Robert Altman took inspiration from the Vietnam War and made the satirical, dark comedy MASH.
In the past decade we have seen many auteurs, such as Paul Thomas Anderson and David Gordon Green, experimenting with comedy. Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love took low-brow comedy star Adam Sandler and put him in a brilliantly directed, oddball romantic comedy. The film is bittersweet, odd and most of all very funny. The sadness of the film is most likely what keeps many from labelling it a comedy. In 2009, the Coen Brother’s released A Serious Man, a film which is both very dark and hysterically funny. It is undoubtedly my favourite Coen film, as well as a film I am constantly having to defend as a comedy. Many see it as an endlessly depressing film; however it is really a very funny film which tells a sad story. Like Punch Drunk Love, the underlying sadness keeps many from seeing the fact it is a comedy. Happiness does not make a comedy, laughter does, and because of that both of these films are comedies, just as Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful is a comedy.
Too often, Hollywood’s cookie cutter approach to comedies creates the expectation that all comedies should be alike. It takes the unique comedies of true cinematic auteurs to show that the genre can be much more than just about laughter, they can also be well made pieces of significant cinema.