I made a big mistake last weekend. I went to see “Central Intelligence.” A better title would be “Central Stupidity.”
After reading a couple of critics’ positive reviews last Friday and taking note of the “Fresh” rating at the aggregate movie review website Rotten Tomatoes (albeit at a middling 64 percent), and since the comedy is rated PG-13 and its trailers seem to target the family trade, my wife and I rolled the dice.
Unfortunately, for us at least, they came up snake eyes.
I say “for us” because most of the audience in the packed multiplex auditorium laughed heartily at quite a few of the film’s gags. But they just made us … well … gag.
The coarse humor, of which there was way too much, centered far too often around sex, in particular a certain male body part, and it was all so juvenile that it’s amazing such jokes are still referred to as “adult” humor.
But aside from that, the characterizations are weak; the structure, especially of the sight gags, is flabby; and in some cases, the comic timing is just way off. And while the charismatic Dwayne Johnson is all in with his performance, it’s never clear whether his geeky persona is a Clark Kent-type secret identity to conceal his CIA abilities, or whether his expressed love of unicorns and devotion to Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles” is the character’s true nature.
While watching “Central Intelligence,” I began to think about other recent comedies that also seem to have been made without any real comic artistry, and the filmmakers and stars who often brag about bringing their improvisational skills to bear while the camera is filming.
Maybe that’s the problem. It all seems so undisciplined. Do any modern directors really understand comic timing anymore? Especially the kind required for sight gags?
“Central Intelligence” is filled with slapstick, but it’s the kind of falling, tripping and frenetic screaming and running around that gives slapstick a bad name.
Contrary to popular belief, slapstick is not just slipping on a banana peel.
I dare say most young people today have no idea what slapstick is supposed to look like when it’s intricately choreographed and performed with precision. Done correctly, slapstick is every bit as artistic and mesmerizing as ballet, if ballet were designed to provoke laughter.
Look at filmmaker Buster Keaton in “The General” (a film you can find on YouTube), and pay attention to how meticulous he is about creating the wide array of physical gags that build to a comic crescendo, even as he develops characters the audience cares about. Or Harold Lloyd in “Why Worry?” Or Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.” Or Peter Sellers in “A Shot in the Dark.”
Yeah, I know, I’m stuck in the past. But so is good slapstick.
Who today has inherited the comic-genius mantle of Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin and Sellers? Adam Sandler? Will Ferrell? Melissa McCarthy? Kevin Hart? Ay-yi-yi.
Following the era of silent comedy and after the collapse of the studio system, as we moved into the late 1960s and the ’70s and ’80s, Woody Allen’s earliest movies and bits and pieces of the “Airplane!” and “Naked Gun” franchises seemed to have been carefully crafted for maximum comic value.
But those films also marked our entry into a freer, lazier, anything-goes age of comedy moviemaking, when throwing in something crude for shock effect was easier than coming up with something more creative and subtle.
In ensuing decades, the vulgarity factor only escalated, from “Dumb and Dumber” to “Meet the Parents” to just about the entire comedy genre. Fast-forward to the age of “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover,” and it’s all about sleaze and shock.
And along the way, this settling for easy, sleazy gags led to filmmakers losing the ability to craft clever physical bits of business.
Family friendly attempts at slapstick — “Home Alone,” “Flubber” the “Pink Panther” remake, etc. — have morphed into clumsy, free-for-all chaos, with none of the grace and aplomb of the comedians of yore. And that continues today, although “family” comedies are really just “children’s” comedies now (including “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and the Paul Blart and Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchises, among others).
Funnily enough, the best comic timing these days, with inventive physical jokes that recall the golden age of slapstick — and which appeal to both children and adults — is pretty much the exclusive purview of cartoon features.
Not all of them, certainly, but you can see excellent examples of how to work out hilarious visual gags in Disney’s “Zootopia” or Aardman’s “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” or Universal’s “Despicable Me” or Dreamworks’ “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” or Pixar’s … actually, anything by Pixar.
Back in the olden, golden studio era of movies, one of the staples was the gagman. Each movie studio’s staff included a gaggle of gagmen who worked as consultants, contributing myriad funny bits of business to a variety of films in every genre, from full-blown comedies to more serious pictures that required moments of comic relief, from snappy patter to simple sight gags.
So here’s an idea. Let’s get the animated-feature directors to take on part-time gigs as gagmen. They know how to spice up modern comedies and make them laugh-out-loud funny without having to fall back on scatological or sexual material.
Movies will be funnier, they’ll contain less coarseness, and slapstick will be nurtured instead of tripped over.
It's a win-win.