where have all the witty movies gone?

The British box office numbers for last weekend are in, and perhaps it would have been better if they’d remained unknown: the weekend was absolutely abysmal, down 66 percent from the same weekend last year. Get Him to the Greek was the top film, and the only new movie in the top 5 (in the top 6, actually), earning £1.6 million — basically comparable to its North American opening of $17.5 million earlier this month — and the only movie with a per-screen average over £1,000. Simply put, hardly anyone in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland went to the movies last weekend. Charles Gant at the Guardian’s Film blog blames “a triple whammy of the World Cup, blazing sunshine and weak product.”

Another new comedy, When in Rome, tanked with takings of £61,512, after opening to more than $12 million in North America… which should have translated into a U.K. opening of around £1.2 million.

Ben Walsh in The Independent — who might well have looked at what was on offer at his local cinema this past weekend and thrown up his hands in despair — laments how “Hollywood comedies just aren’t funny anymore”:

They no longer feel the need to contain any, you know, jokes.

“Look at this. You’re the only man in the world with clenched hair,” Walter Matthau berates Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple. See, that’s a joke. “Not many people know it, but the Führer was a terrific dancer,” from The Producers. Another joke. “Don’t knock masturbation! It’s sex with someone I love,” confesses Woody Allen in Annie Hall. And that’s another one.

Now, it seems, we have a succession of dismal vanity projects in which, more often than not, two men tediously riff about being, well, a man, about being a bit, you know, lost and about being a bit in love with the other man. This, of course, has been the platform for many exquisite comedies from Some Like It Hot to Trading Places to Midnight Run, but the difference now is that the writers seem to think they can get away with not providing any detectable gags.

What Walsh is really missing is verbal humor. The Hollywood comedy has plenty of “jokes,” it’s just that they’re of the physical variety, and typically involve a bodily fluid ending up somewhere it’s not supposed to be, or else Kevin James falling on his ass because the gravity is different around fat men, perhaps.

Perhaps we truly have entered a postliterate society. Verbal humor depends upon puns and and wordplay and other things that require thought and a vocabulary. Perhaps we shall have to redefine “verbal humor” to include anything that demands a response of “ewwwww.”

I feel Walsh’s pain. And he hasn’t even seen Grown Ups yet.

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Wed, Jun 30, 2010 5:47pm

There have been great American comedies recently. They’ve just all been on TV.

Wed, Jun 30, 2010 6:05pm

I need to go watch Airplane! and Real Genius again. Now those were comedies.

Tonio Kruger
Wed, Jun 30, 2010 6:15pm

Where have all the witty movies gone?

The same place where “movies with interesting roles for women” have gone. Perhaps there’s a connection.

Wed, Jun 30, 2010 6:45pm

They’re all animated

Tom H
Tom H
Wed, Jun 30, 2010 7:11pm

There was talk of an Arrested Development movie. If that comes to pass then we should have at least one decent comedy that doesn’t depend on bodily fluids.

Wed, Jun 30, 2010 8:25pm

they’re holding them until the end of the World Cup

vamos Argetina!!!

Wed, Jun 30, 2010 9:00pm

Verbal humor seems to have migrated from the ostensible “comedies” to other genres. There’s wit and wordplay and verbal sparring in, say, animation (as Nate pointed out), the Iron Man films, POTC, the Hellboy films, the latest Bond films, Serenity, Sherlock Holmes. Some of them have physical and/or gross-out humor too–and action and fantasy and everything else–but verbal wit hasn’t been exiled entirely.

Comedies are in trouble when the non-comedies are smarter and wittier than they are.

Ryan H
Ryan H
Wed, Jun 30, 2010 9:38pm

I’m so tired of these humiliation ‘comedies’. So sick of seeing advertisements for films that want me to laugh at instead of laugh with. It’s degrading that the people making these think there is something uplifting about watching the most pathetic people imaginable sink even lower into their own despair.

Wed, Jun 30, 2010 11:42pm

I find that what’s also lacking is the more unspoken and subtle humors. I’m reminded of a scene from a children’s movie where a boy is told to grab an axe from a shed outside. In the hectic situation he tries to open the shed, but can’t, so he picks up a nearby axe and begins pounding on the shed door with the axe…so he can get the axe in the shed. The boy stops, looks in his hands after having hit the door several times and then goes running back into the house. No commentary, no sight gags or physical humor, nooverexplaining of why the scenario is funny. Not a single word is said or even used. The audience is simply assumed to get what the joke is.