Somehow Anchorman 2 can’t get made. Despite being the sequel to a huge cult classic, and despite featuring three actors who most of our readers would consider ‘famous,’ Paramount has opted not to throw money into the future adventures of Ron Burgundy.
This looks like the latest sign that the bloom is off the comedy rose. For a while there the movie comedy landscape was great – there were smart, funny, raunchy movies being made with incredible ensembles and new stars were rising almost weekly. But lately the surefire formulas that put Judd Apatow and Adam McKay into the mainstream haven’t been working quite the same. And many of the newly minted stars are looking like they’re not really stars at all. And meanwhile, Kevin James keeps making lots of money.
I’ll pretty much bet that the Adam Sandler/Chris Rock/David Spade/Rob Schneider/Kevin James shitstorm Grown Ups makes more money than better, funnier movies starring the likes of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Danny McBride. I wouldn’t be shocked if it wildly outgrossed the very excellent looking The Other Guys. And in fact I’ll bet that those other non-Sandler movies will mostly underperform. What the heck happened? I think it’s three things:
- Oversaturation. How many movies have there been from ‘The Guys Who Brought You Superbad?’ Too many. How many movies can Will Ferrell appear in? Most of them, it seems. What’s the biggest hurdle facing Scott Pilgrim vs the World? The fact that audiences are sort of sick of seeing Michael Cera. In the five years since The 40 Year Old Virgin there have been 11 films that have been branded as “Judd Apatow” movies. I think probably 10 of those 11 are at least really, really good, but that’s still a flood of films. Interestingly Apatow has backed off lately; Get Him to the Greek may be sold as a “From the Guys Who” movie, but he doesn’t have anything else in the immediate pipeline until the 2011 Kristen Wiig film, which is outside of his ‘brand’ enough to feel fresh. Apatow has a bunch of other movies in various stages of development, but I bet 2010 is a pretty quiet year for him, one where he lets his name rebuild some meaning. But is it too late?
- Not ready for primetime stars. I really like Jonah Hill. I think he’s very funny, I think he’s smart and I think he’s a nice person in real life. I’m not convinced he’s a movie star yet. There’s been a trend to throw promising young comic actors right into the spotlight in the last few years as opposed to growing them in supporting roles. The problem that Michael Cera faces right now is that he’s been thrust out as a leading man when maybe the audience wasn’t quite craving that from him just yet. It’s not a good sign when your film career is about three years old and people are tired of seeing you already; the key to building new talent is to leave audiences wanting more from them. Audiences should see a performer’s name in the credits and be excited about having them onscreen, not dreading a return of their schtick. Look for Zach Galifianakis to be the next guy whose name in a casting announcement draws groans. Of course it’s hard to judge these things – Eddie Murphy blew up pretty much immediately, but not every comic is Eddie Murphy. The latest ‘new discovery’ who seems like he’s doing it right is Aziz Ansari; by appearing on a weekly TV series (aka the Steve Carell Method) he’s allowing audiences to get to know him before jumping into a leading feature role.
- The mainstream audience is stupid. And here’s the most damning part of all. The reality is that the great comic actors and filmmakers who have blossomed over the last few years are frankly too smart for the mainstream. I think it’s undeniable that Jody Hill is a genius, but he’s not the kind of genius who sells tickets. At least not enough tickets to justify a big budget feature. And that’s too bad because I think Hill’s smart, dark sensibilities would real blossom with some money behind them. But the tale is in the tape when it comes to the competing mall cop movies: Observe & Report, a truly brilliant, subversive and thrilling comedy, made off with $24 million. Paul Blart raked in $143 million. The reality is that the ‘alternative’ comedy guys will always be more interesting, more fun, and smarter… but that’s not what the flyover states want in their comedies. They don’t want to think, they don’t want to be challenged, they don’t want the unfamiliar. Judd Apatow and the mainstream briefly met each other for a couple of years, but Funny People indicates the mainstream isn’t willing to follow Apatow wherever he wants to go, especially if he’s going places that are dark and meaningful. Danny McBride is an incredible comic actor, but it appears that the mainstream doesn’t really ‘get’ him.
There’s sort of a subset to that last one, by the way: many of these filmmakers and actors are taking risks right now. They got some money and they got some clout and they’ve actually begun using it. Observe & Report is a great example; while I’m disappointed it didn’t do better I can’t help but think no one who made the movie expected it to really explode. Seth Rogen had a moment in time when he could get that movie made and he took that moment and ended up with a great movie that didn’t connect with the multiplex. It’ll be interesting to see what he does if The Green Hornet suffers the same fate. Step Brothers is a movie that almost continuously alienates the audience, while Land of the Lost was a $200 million film apparently aimed at about .7% of the population. Apatow also took a chance with Funny People, and David Gordon Green is using the power he got from Pineapple Express to make Your Highness, which is surely going to be the weirdest movie of 2011. It features an anatomically correct naked minotaur, after all. So it isn’t just that the mainstream audience is stupid, it’s that these guys have made conscious decisions not to go after them with their latest projects.
But Hollywood’s memory is short. If Get Him to the Greek doesn’t work and Grown Ups does, expect to see a shift back to the toothless, stupid, ‘yelling is a punchline’ comedy films of the 90s. I’m glad that these guys took their moment and did work that they believed in and that was great. I just hope that it wasn’t their last moment. It’s been fun looking forward to big screen comedies again.