Dramedies: Sacrificing Humor in the Name of Drama

Shapan: Comedies are being churned out all the time in modern cinema, and why not? Laughter, after all, is the best medicine. Nowadays, it’s tough to find a comedy that doesn’t include at least one of the actors from the popular “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy.” Of course, that film had little intellectual purpose, but it was the perfect laugh. Memorable characters, hilarious jokes and a story you didn’t have to worry about keeping up with. Good times, right? Wrong.

Hollywood comedy blockbusters have started raising the bar on their sentimentality and the humor has been sacrificed. I don’t mind nostalgia at all; part of nostalgia is what made “Superbad” such an awesome movie, but that movie was based around a great script and funny, funny characters. Director Greg Mottola followed that excellent movie with his sappy “Adventureland,” based on two relatively serious characters whose main purpose in the “comedy” is to distract from the humor of the underused supporting cast. Yes, I know Jesse Eisenberg is a little quirky and looks a hell of a lot like Andy Samberg, but that doesn’t make him funny.

Why shy away from the gags and move toward sweet, adorable sentiment? Well, maybe that’s what’s selling these days. Director Kevin Smith’s last movie, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” is arguably the cult director’s most critically acclaimed movie during this decade. While the film had its laugh-out-loud moments, they came too few and far between during a long and tedious romance between the two leads. All this excessive sweetness should be saved for the hundred other chick flicks out there. And Smith is the same guy whose claim to fame is “Clerks,” a movie that’s pretty much just a comical dialogue between two guys running a convenience store.

Relationships are a necessary part of movies, but in a comedy, everything should be geared toward humor. One of Judd Apatow’s more successful productions, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” had an important romantic relationship between two of the better leads paired together in a comedy, but the movie rarely suffered because of the romance. There were a couple of mushy lines, but the movie had laughs at all times. And there is no way one of the mushy lines would ever be quoted in casual conversation by one of your buddies, especially if that buddy is talking about how he likes Coldplay.

Credibility is all-important for people in Hollywood. There’s only so long you want to be part of a running gag if you’re in the business. But comedy is a running gag. I don’t go to see a movie that has “From the director of Superbad” tagged on it to see something heart-warming for half of it. I watch comedies to laugh, action movies for the action and dramas for the emotion. Let’s keep it that way, please.
What do you think Pat?

Pat: Perhaps the problem with the latest run of top comedies has to do with the bottom-of-the-barrel films. In other words, that swamp of two-bit, cash-in comedies such as the parody film series — “Scary Movie,” “Epic Movie,” “Dance Flick” and so forth. I suspect that the deluge of utterly unfunny filth appealing to the lowest common denominator has scared the experienced artists into seeking legitimacy by way of “dramedy.”

Kevin Smith has been at this a lot longer than ‘Zack and Miri.’ He presents a modern first instance of a funny director turned sappy with “Chasing Amy.” The dialogue was strong and the chemistry felt genuine. However, the exposition is as confused as Alyssa, the bisexual lead character; Smith pivots, somewhat awkwardly, from the hilarious, juvenile banter of “Clerks” and “Mallrats” to his clumsy but sensitive love story.

There really has been a trend in the last decade or so toward the “genuine” romantic comedy — a curious hybrid genre that has sprung its legitimacy from the incongruity between the drama and comedy genres itself. In other words, one seems to find such films novel because they can neither be classified as stupid comedy, melodramatic romance, nor romantic comedy. Does that make them good?

Sometimes. Incongruity is, of course, a pillar of comedy, but the problem with the “dramedy” is that its freshness derives almost entirely from the fact that its component genres — comedy, drama, romantic comedy — have lost direction and become riddled with clichés and cash-ins.

Still, a truly skilled director like Greg Mottola can fashion a genius comedy like “Superbad” out of this circumstance. The real strength of the film is that it rings true, recalling all the scatological humor, petty melodrama and awkward romance of high school. Together with a cast that resembles every archetype of the high school lunch hour, the genuine script creates a piece of cinematic gold.

However, since “Superbad” is more an innovative comedy and less a milquetoast dramedy, Mottola has taken his art of rendering genuine nuances of emotion — such as the awkward kiss or fumbled pick-up line — and created an awkward dramedy with “Adventureland.” Perhaps my biggest problem with the movie is that it is billed as a comedy by referencing “Superbad” in its promotional material.

Mottola is successful at capturing the awkward romances of a group of recent college grads, but the film expresses a consistent desire to break the awkward tension with slapstick, and it rarely succeeds. This leaves the viewer wanting more laughs and never receiving them, which speaks to a lack of balance, a flaw “Superbad” didn’t have.

Nevertheless, the romance is believable and sensitive, capturing the genuine, awkward vicissitudes of lower middle-class, 20-something relationships and melodrama.

Maybe “Adventureland” would have been more successful if the director had struck a better balance between drama and comedy, or even just billed the movie appropriately; had I gone in expecting a romance, I may have left more satisfied. I suspect that directors need more time to define and advertise this emerging genre before it comes into its own and embodies a new standard for comedy film.