Hollywood playing politics: Tinseltown's new taboo-busters

Israel, the 'war on terror', small-town American values – after the huge success of Borat, everything is fair game for today's film satirists. Guy Adams reports from Los Angeles on a glut of political and social comedies coming out of the major studios

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:58
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Ever wondered if Barack Obama's wife would outperform John McCain's in the bedroom? Adam Sandler certainly has. The comic actor's latest film, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, features an extended skit on that very subject. Having considered Hillary Clinton's "ass" and Michelle Obama's "killer legs", he eventually plumps for Cindy McCain, "because you know she's not been getting any!"

In the same film, Sandler's character, an Israeli secret agent who moves to America to follow his dream of becoming a hairdresser, starts a kung fu fight with a Palestinian militant. Cue a sharp exchange about the Arab-Israeli crisis. "So we are the bad guys?" the Arab asks, tongue-in-cheek. "I'm just saying: it's not always so cut and dried!"

Later, as the plot reaches its denouement, a group of Middle Eastern immigrants on a New York street lament their lot in life. "Everybody thinks we are all terrorists," moans an Arab shopkeeper. "You think that's bad," replies a local Jew. "Well, everyone thinks that we are you!" You may – or may not – find these jokes funny, but they could persuade you to book seats when Zohan arrives in the UK in August; they could, equally, leave you cold (most American critics thought the latter, though I enjoyed the McCain gag).

What cannot be denied, though, is that Sandler's release marks a new departure for mainstream Hollywood comedy. Until now, modern big-budget American cinema simply didn't "do" satirical, news-based jokes. It certainly didn't deal in punch-lines about Zionism, particularly ones that might be considered sensitive to the Palestinian cause. You don't have to be Mel Gibson to recognise that making jokes that subvert Israel has for years been one of Tinseltown's taboos.

Yet here is Sandler doing just that. And in a big film, too: Zohan cost an estimated $90m to make, and its launch was supported by tens of millions more in advertising. On its US opening this month, it went to No 2 in the box-office chart, making $40m in three days. It's still at No 4, having grossed almost $70m. And its subversive undercurrent represents a fascinating taste of things to come.

This summer, Hollywood will send in the clowns. In the coming weeks, American audiences face a wave of comic capers: a new Mike Myers film, The Love Guru; a spy flick, Get Smart (starring Steve Carell of the American version of The Office); and Step Brothers, featuring Will Ferrell. Later in the year, Ben Stiller and Jack Black star in a war farce called Tropic Thunder, while Kevin Costner will be wheeled out for Swing Vote, a comedy about a farcical presidential election. "It's a comedy, but it has a message; that every cote counts, and that people should turn out in November," says a studio spokesman.

The films all boast large budgets and are slated for worldwide release. Most are wacky and surreal, and feature silly hairdos, goofy voices and bizarre plot twists: Sandler's Zohan parades around in Daisy Duke jean shorts and catches bullets in his nostril; Myers's Love Guru sports a ludicrous beard and travels on a motorised cushion. In tone, at least, they seem to represent standard summer fare; so far, so normal.

Or not. Because this new breed of "madcap" comedies – to give them their old-fashioned name – will also subject viewers to a dose of politics to go with their popcorn. In fact, they all share an aspiration to spoof modern global anxieties. Zohan cocks a snook at Israel; The Love Guru will send-up Eastern mysticism; Get Smart will make fun of US security agencies; and Tropic Thunder intends to provide the funniest critique of Uncle Sam's modern militarism since Team America.

To an industry that has recently relied on subtle "regular guy" hits to advance social issues through humour – think Knocked Up or Juno – this represents a seismic shift. The "in your face" brand of comedy provided by Myers, Sandler, Ferrell and colleagues has traditionally steered clear of politics – or any other kind of "message" – in favour of noisy farce. Why? Because of the money. "Since the 1970s, major film studios have tended to avoid anything topical," says Tim Gray, the editor of the Hollywood newspaper Variety. "They have been owned by major conglomerates, who want to appeal to the widest possible audience with the lowest common denominator, and not offend anyone.

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"That has tended to mean that mainstream comedies have only really tried to shock people with, say, graphic depictions of sex, like in There's Something About Mary. But Zohan is a comedy that deals with Israel in a way that some will find shocking, because it suggests that both sides in the conflict might be crazy. There's even jokes about the Six-Day War in there."

Gray believes Hollywood could be about to enter one of its periodic eras when there are concerted mainstream efforts to make light of political and diplomatic hot potatoes. In the 1940s, a brief flurry of such films saw Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be make fun of Hitler's rise to power. In the 1960s, Dr Strangelove and Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three chucked a comic bucket of water over the Cold War.

Steve Vineberg, a film historian and author of High Comedy in American Movies, tends to agree with Gray. He puts the current shift in studio attitudes to political comedy down to the unlikely success of Borat, one of the most shocking, and successful, films of recent years.

"The reason periods of success for satire are so far apart is probably because films of that nature tend not to make money," he says. "So Hollywood has never really done political or social satire. But Borat was one such film, and it had enormous success, which I think gave people permission to be a little more daring. As a film-maker, Sacha Baron Cohen has pushed the envelope in that respect."......... V C The last real golden age for satirical comedies was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vineberg says, when the commercial success of M*A*S*H was followed by a slew of titles pegged to international affairs, including Alice's Restaurant and The Landlord. By comparison, more modern efforts to teach people a political lesson with their popcorn have ended in disaster: think Warren Beatty's 1998 turkey Bulworth, which came out at the same time as the soon-forgotten Primary Colors.

"You tend to get satire in abundance only in periods where there is a more tolerant audience and a more liberal industry," Vineberg says. "In the Thirties and Forties, America had a weird isolationist period when Europe was slipping into war, and there were several high-comedy titles that from a studio's point of view were hard sells: more delicate, complex, and tough to pull off."

Today, global turmoil approaching the scale of that which inspired Chaplin's Great Dictator may be providing ammunition for comic film-makers. While a slew of serious recent films about the "war on terror" have been commercial flops (not least Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah, which starred Tommy Lee Jones), there are signs that lighter treatment of similar subjects may have box-office potential.

Earlier this year, the smaller-budget farce Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay cleared the path for its bigger rivals when it became a surprise hit in the US. It's currently on release in the UK.

If a comic revolution does take place, it may also owe its success to wholesale changes in the industry surrounding Hollywood comedy. In recent years, the advance of the internet has transformed the film industry's approach to making people laugh, and the way in which they test material. A new era in subversive humour may be the first symptom of that online creative democratisation.

Take, for example, the eternal hunt for fresh talent. Traditionally, new comedy voices have been discovered by film studios in the stand-up circuit, or through small-time radio or television presenting gigs. Recently, they have started to arrive via sites such as YouTube, or Ferrell's funnyordie.com. Aspiring performers can now reach global audiences of millions by posting low-budget films online – and the money men are starting to take notice.

This week, the TV channel HBO signed a deal with Ferrell to provide 10 hours of fresh programming for its autumn schedule, straight from his website. It could be a smart move, as Funny or Die is the ultimate comic meritocracy – a sort of virtual talent-show.

The website acts as a forum for aspiring film-makers to screen new material, alongside video clips and sketches from professional funnymen. The highest-rated video clips get showcased prominently. Others become sidelined. And the current cream of the website's crop – which this week includes a splendid Bruce Springsteen spoof, in which the musician rejects his working-class values – are as sharp as any fresh comedy being created in the traditional forums.

The internet recently helped Wayne McClammy, a virtually unknown sketch-writer and director, to become an overnight star when two film shorts he had produced – I'm Fucking Matt Damon and I'm Fucking Ben Affleck – went viral on YouTube.

Last week, McClammy hit the big time and was signed up by 20th Century Fox to direct Cool School, a film about thirty-something advertising executives who are sent back to high school to find out how to be "cool" again. It's due out late in 2009.

He won't be the last sudden success-story, either. At the fashionable Beverly Hills offices of United Talent Agency, one of Tinseltown's foremost management firms, an entire department of agents, UTA Online, has been created to scour the internet looking to find and sign up future stars. Similar groups already exist at Endeavour and Creative Artists Agency.

The independence of spirit engendered by such outfits might mean that future comedy hits may not, for the first time in Hollywood history, emerge via the conveyor belt of the big studios, with their rigid development structures and obsession with mainstream public opinion.

And for the major producers that are making comedy, recent innovation provides excuses to be more daring. Forums such as Funny or Die and YouTube also give them a chance to make and distribute short pilot films for a few thousand – rather than millions – of dollars and to test audience reaction overnight.

"Trying out things online is an extension of the traditional Hollywood paranoia about wanting to make sure they have an audience before making a film," Vineberg says. "It's a way of avoiding risk. Over-testing like that does make me a little bit crazy, because art shouldn't be made in this way, but it's the way of the industry."

In fact, this year's most influential new farce may eventually turn out to be a still-obscure film that was made for the extraordinarily small budget of $35,000. The Foot Fist Way, chronicling a deluded martial-arts instructor's mid-life crisis, is tipped to become the biggest "sleeper" hit since Napoleon Dynamite. It was produced by three art-school graduates from North Carolina and shot in 19 days, mostly at a local shopping mall.

Although The Foot Fist Way made a minor splash at the 2006 Sundance Festival (some said it recalled a pilot version of The Office), it failed to sell and would have gone into cold storage had Ferrell not been passed a copy last year. He fell in love with its slapstick gags and snapped it up for his production firm, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Critics say that it's far from perfect, but Foot Fist is certainly funny – and word is spreading. It's currently being trailed in 15 cities across the US, and catchphrases authored by its deluded hero Fred Simmons, an overweight tae kwon do instructor, are providing water-cooler chat for Hollywood heavyweights. At the very least, it looks likely to turn the actor Danny McBride into a household name.

Most interestingly, much of the film's cult appeal, as clips and trailers getting thousands of views on YouTube attest, revolves around sending up and at the same time subverting small-town America and its value system. It's a farce with a message, and one that may jar with at least some of its potential audience.

So look out for The Foot Fist Way. And go and see Zohan and this summer's other "madcap" comedy capers. To an industry that has traditionally believed that audiences want nothing more than slapstick and escapism, their success may be a valuable lesson: that you can feed people politics with their popcorn – as long as you also make them laugh.

'Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay' is out now

Get Smart

Tagline: Saving the World. And Loving It

The 1960s spy spoof created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry has been retooled as a comedy vehicle for Steve Carell (everyman star of The 40-Year-Old Virgin) who plays the bumbling Maxwell Smart, with Anne Hathaway playing his glamorous sidekick Agent 99. The plot revolves around imminent national catastrophe and pokes relentless fun at the American security agencies and the Bush administration. On the eve of destruction, the President is shown reading Goodnight Moon to a first-grade class. The movie is released in the US today and is predicted to take a weekend box-office of $40m.

UK release: 22 August

The Love Guru

Tagline: His Karma is Huge

Released today in America, The Love Guru is the latest Mike Myers vehicle, with the usual array of starry support in Jessica Alba, Justin Timberlake and Ben Kingsley. Myers plays Maurice Pitka, an American who was abandoned by his parents at the gates of an ashram in India. Returning to the US, he plies his trade as an unorthodox self-help guru. It's already whipped up a global controversy as Hindu leaders (and one Jewish leader) have complained that it lampoons their religion and misuses sacred terms. They are threatening a boycott of all Paramount films.

UK release: 1 August

You Don't Mess with the Zohan

Tagline: Lather. Rinse. Save the World

"The finest post-Zionist action-hairdressing sex comedy I have ever seen," said The New York Times's AO Scott. Adam Sandler stars as Zohan Dvir, an Israeli counterterrorism commando who fakes his own death in order to become a hairdresser in New York. Written by Sandler and Judd Apatow in 2000, the movie, put on hold after September 11, pokes fun at the Middle East conflict, the Six-Day War and Israeli culture. Sandler was apparently inspired by a pair of former Israeli soldiers who run hair salons in Hollywood.

UK release: 15 August

Swing Vote

Tagline: One ordinary guy is giving the candidates a reason to run

Kevin Costner leads a mouthwatering cast – including Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper and Stanley Tucci – in this madcap political comedy. Costner plays Bud Johnson, an apathetic, apolitical, beer-swilling lout who, thanks to an improbable Hollywood chain of events, finds that the outcome of the presidential election comes down to his one vote. Cue some very heavy-handed campaigning.

UK release: 15 August

Tropic Thunder

Tagline: Shit blows up

This action comedy boasts the triumvirate of Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr, who play a group of self-indulgent actors filming a 'Nam war movie when their frustrated director dumps them in the middle of a real war. Among a great deal of political incorrectness on offer are Downey Jr's method actor character playing a black army sergeant, and more jokes about US warmongering than in Team America.

UK release: 19 September

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