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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Gross! Hollywood Gross-out Flicks

The Heartbreak Kid is the Farreley’s remake of the classic 1972 Elaine May comedy starring Sybil Shephard and Charles Grodin. While it’s better than Shallow Hal, it’s only about a tenth as good as its source material. Good Luck Chuck is an original from first-time director Mark Helfrich. It takes a good idea and runs it dutifully into the ground.

Both Good Luck Chuck and The Heartbreak Kid have good basic plots. Good Luck Chuck features a protagonist who is burdened with a curse that makes every woman he sleeps with run off and marry someone else; Heartbreak Kid features a leading man who unknowingly marries a harpy and then meets his real dream woman while on honeymoon. Both are good setups for comedies and both feature decent comic talent (although let’s face it: Dane Cook isn’t as funny as he thinks he is and Ben Stiller, while immensely talented, is no Charles Grodin). In the end, however, both prove to be nothing more than C+ gross-out flicks.

“Gross-out” is a subgenre of film characterized by disgusting and disturbing material, such as sexual or scatalogical humor (or some combination of the two). I actually enjoy quite a number of gross-out films: Animal House, Scary Movie, Stripes, Pink Flamingos, Kingpin and Superbad to name a few. But what makes a film like Superbad funnier than Good Luck Chuck? What makes There’s Something About Mary so much better than The Sweetest Thing?

In this writer’s opinion, there are three main reasons why gross-out comedies fail. First, you have to be able to root for someone in the movie. This is a notable problem with The Heartbreak Kid. You can’t root for Ben Stiller because he’s kind of an asshole. You can’t root for his wife because she’s awful. You can’t root for his real love because she’s underdeveloped as a character. The same was true of Me, Myself and Irene, a film that could have sorely used a more relatable protagonist (Jim Carey, usually a master of the lovable oaf, failed to come through with his Stanley character). When we the audience love and empathize with the main character, however, we wind up actually caring what happens to him/her, which makes the gross-out humor more effective in provoking the desired response (shock, laughter, awe, etc.). In other words, There’s Something about Mary worked because there actually was something about Mary.

Which brings me to my next reason why gross-out flicks fail: the gags are too gross, not gross enough or simply so ridiculous that they snap the suspension cable of disbelief. A perfect example can be seen in The Sweetest Thing a film that features women I can’t relate to doing things I don’t believe anyone would do, ever. The gags aren’t quite gross enough and some scenes, such as the scene in which Selma Blair’s throat gets stuck around a guy’s Prince Albert, are simply too unbelievable to garner any sympathy laughter. Of course I laughed when Steve Carrel snaps himself in the balls while putting on a condom in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Why? Because that really happens. There is enough embarrassing horrible stuff that can happen in life to fill a thousand 90-minute gross-out films; to just make up an impossible gross situation is soulless and, quite frankly, just plain lazy.

The final and most important factor in the success of a gross-out film is the plot. Simply, is this plot going to make a good breeding ground for gross humor, or is the plot so incongruous that the gags distract from what’s going on? Fusing the romantic comedy with the gross-out film is tricky because there are so many elements that don’t mesh; simply put the sweetness can be seriously tainted by the nasty factor (e.g. Along Came Polly). Historically, successful gross-out films have either had plots that work well in the gross-out vein (such as the frat-boy antics Animal House or the awkward teen sex scenes of American Pie) or writers who were brilliant enough to make totally orthogonal elements work (Bad Santa, Team America). In the end, the best gross-out films have all of these elements. Sadly, many writers and directors go for cheap and easy gross-out laughs because they know they can at least break even and appeal to the lowest common denominator. That’s a shame, because gross-out humor, if done well, possesses the potential to penetrate and proliferate in American popular culture.


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