Comedy is subjective. What’s funny to you may not be funny to me, and vice versa. People recommend comedies to you all the time; you watch them and you don’t get it. You tell other movie fans about how much you laughed at a farce and they sit through the movie and have nothing but horrible things to say afterwards—about the movie and you.
So we’re going out on a limb here, and recommending six quirky comedies from the last 30 years you may have missed. Please don’t hold it against us if you don’t laugh hysterically at these. But they made us laugh and appreciate their wit and offbeat nature, even though none of them really clicked at the box-office.
Held Up (2000)
Premise: Jamie Foxx spends a load of money on a cool retro car. Angry fiancee Nia Long storms outs, leaving him with the car—that is then stolen. He’s stuck at a desert convenience store that is about to be robbed by a Latino gang. Bumbling crooks, goofy cops and dim-witted townsfolk populate the proceedings as Foxx tries to stop Long before she gets on a plane home in Las Vegas.
Why it’s Funny: Foxx’s charisma goes a long way here, but he’s helped by a group of off-the-wall supporting characters brought to life by a game supporting cast that includes John Cullum, Barry Corbin, Jake Busey, Sarah Poulson and Sam Gifaldi as a video game addict who thinks Foxx’s character is really “Puff Daddy.”
Sample Review We Totally Disagree With: “What follows is a hostage comedy that resembles faxes of ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ‘Quick Change’ and ‘Clerks’ on a day when the toner was low. The caricatures swerve all over the map, and the movie is passable entertainment only when Foxx, who at various turns is mistaken for Puffy Combs and Mike Tyson, launches into his routine.”– Wesley Morris, San Francisco Chronicle
Quick Change (1990)
Premise: Aggravated NYC city planner Grimm (Bill Murray) decides to pull off a daring robbery in clown makeup and flee with help from his girlfriend (Geena Davis) and his goofball associate (Randy Quaid). The problem is they can’t seem to get out of town, encountering an about-to-retire police chief (Jason Robards, Jr.), an incomprehensible cabbie (Tony Shalhoub) and a bus driver demanding the exact change (Philip Bosco).
Why it’s Funny: The best way to describe this fractured farce, heavy on the deadpan comic moments, may be Dog Day Afternoon meets After Hours. It’s an “I Hate New York” commercial chockfull of the city’s annoyances, which also happen to be among Quick Changes funniest elements. At the center of it all is Murray (who co-directed) as a miserable jester, in a tour-de-force tune-up for later works like Groundhog Day and Lost in Translation. Paired with Davis as his devoted girlfriend and wild card Quaid as his equally devoted longtime friend, this is a perfect trio of comic whack jobs to pull off a bank job, stealing some big laughs along the way.
Sample Review We Totally Disagree With: “In films like Quick Change, he (Murray) is bogged down by scripts that don’t begin to match his comic imagination. Even though he chose and developed Quick Change himself, Bill Murray deserves better than this clunky, stereotypical comedy.”—Caryn James, the New York Times
Premise: Oliver (Craig Roberts), a Welsh high school student, thinks he has found first love with schoolmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a depressive with a desire to start fires. At the same he tries to save his parents’ (Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor) faltering marriage and stop his mother’s affair with an old flame (Paddy Considine) who has moved nearby.
Why it’s Funny: On paper, Submarine doesn’t seem that much different than any other coming-of-age film we’ve seen before. But there’s a fresh quality here, from the newcomers in the lead to the setting of a small town in Wales to the terrific score by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys to the memorably off-kilter direction of Richard Ayoade, the actor (The IT Crowd) making an impressive filmmaking debut here. The most recent entrée on this list is last year’s most overlooked film, a winning and inventive coming-of-age saga that is sharply observed, poignant and off-handedly humorous.
Sample Review We Totally Disagree With: “The film is so self-conscious it seems to be dictating your every reaction.”—Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly
Safe Men (1998)
Premise: Through a case of mistaken identity, third-rate Providence, RI entertainers Sam (Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Steve Zahn) become safecrackers and are enlisted by mobster Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner) to pull off a couple of heists. During their crime sprees, they also encounter Good Stuff Leo (Harvey Fierstein), a powerful fence.
Why it’s Funny: It takes a little while to get going, but when it does, this comical crime saga delivers big laughs in the oddest of circumstances. Consider: Rockwell and Zahn entertaining at a bingo night in a Polish nursing home; a Bar Mitzvah with a Stanley Cup ice sculpture—and the Stanley Cup!– and yarmulkes with the New York Rangers logo; and Veal Chop (Paul GIamatti), a weird gang enforcer who wears zebra jammer pants. Small details and characters’ reactions, not the plot, make Safe Men click, and there were enough funny, little moments to help the debut film from John Hamburg (I Love You, Man) amass a strong cult following after its quick retreat from theaters.
Sample Review We Totally Disagree With: “Safe Men whirls wildly from one bright idea to the next, trying to find a combo that will hold the movie together. No luck. This is one of those movies where you picture the author at his keyboard, chortling so loudly that he drowns out his own thoughts.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
The Big Picture (1989)
Premise: Recent film school graduate Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) has a dream project to make for his first feature movie, but Hollywood agents, producers and studio executives try to seduce him and corrupt him. Nick begins to get sucked into the Tinseltown lifestyle, leaving his girlfriend (Emily Longstreth) and close ally and cinematographer (Michael McKean) in the dust.
Why it’s Funny: Before Christopher Guest and his merry band of satirists gave us such terrific mockumentaries as Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, regulator collaborators Guest and McKean tackled selling out in Hollywood for this smart spoof of the way the business really goes down. The film is heavy on the anecdotal asides, but they are spot-on, from John Cleese’s bartender adjusting a TV set showing It’s a Wonderful Life to color—“the proper way”– to a number of film parodies including “Abe and the Babe,” about Abe Lincoln and Babe Ruth (!?). The supporting cast is first-rate, too: Teri Hatcher, Elliott Gould, the late J.T. Walsh and Martin Short as a zany talent agent. Caught in the crossfire of turbulence at Columbia Pictures, its distributor, The Big Picture made about as much as a price of a bag of popcorn in 1989.
Sample Review We Totally Disagree With: “This fails on almost all counts, hampered by poor pacing, sophomoric parodying, and for the most part lackluster performances by leads Kevin Bacon and Emily Longstreth. Though it begins well enough, the wit doesn’t last.”—TV Guide Online.
Death to Smoochy (2002)
Premise: Children’s TV show host Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams) is let go when he is found to be taking bribes from the parents of kids. Idealistic Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) is hired to replace him, playing a purple rhinoceros named Smoochy. Mopes enlists a high-powered agent (Danny DeVito, who also directed), but the increasingly despondent Smiley also wants his job back, and is willing to go to desperate lengths to get it.
Why it’s Funny: The Big Picture is a genial show biz satire compared to this pitch-black spoof. Barney, the purple dinosaur, so popular with the kiddies at that time, is the obvious model for Smoochy, but the film also takes aim at greed, back-stabbing, the state of what children watch, and how they are affected by it. While this fairly expensive farce bombed at the box-office, we’re happy to say that those who like their comedies cynical with lots of sting should give this a shot. The cast is game, too: Williams’ phony goody two-shoes; Norton’s sublimely naïve host; Catherine Keener’s groupie/TV exec; DeVito in typical slimeball mold; Jon Stewart as Smiley’s two-faced pal; Harvey Fierstein as a corrupt charity head; and Vincent Schiavelli as a heroin-addicted ex-kids’ show host hired to take Smoochy out during an ice show. Hey, that’s how this movie rolls.
Sample Review We Totally Disagree With: “Dreadfully, historically unfunny — a career low for DeVito, Williams (which is saying something) and certainly Norton.”—Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News
Do you have any underrated quirky comedies from the last 30 years you would like to recommend to other movie fans?