You can tell a lot about someone by what they find funny. Do they favor sophisticated humor worthy of George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch? Do they prefer dumb laughs to lift their spirits? Do sight gags and slapstick ring their bells? Do they like their jokes spiked with political satire? How about some pop tunes to further sweeten their viewing experience? Or do they secretly hunger for some pathos alongside the expected rib ticklers?
There are about as many styles of comedies as there are comic sensibilities. The generational gap is certainly an important factor in what one would consider a successful example of the genre. But when you're trying to keep your head above water during a deadly pandemic, humor can become a unifying force, despite its myriad facets. So what are you streaming when you're looking to wind down and turn your mind away from the dispiriting news cycle? Your fearless reviewer has been doing a lot of COVID viewing, but rather than grapple with the classic cinema and arthouse fare that I've been catching up on (believe me, there's been plenty of that), this week, let's take a look at three new comedies jostling for your streaming time, as well as an indie gem from late 2019 that is well worth discovering.
“Palm Springs”: Andy Samberg's odd-duck screen presence triggers contradicting thoughts. From one angle, he's the disarming boy next door you can't help but root for, even when his wisecracks test your goodwill. But from another angle, especially when that crap-eating grin spreads across his face, he comes across as a mix between an obnoxious class clown and a great-aunt you visit on holidays and is only tolerable in small doses.
So whenever the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and the other two members of the comedy trio The Lonely Island, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, put out a new movie, it's difficult to tell whether the results are going to be genial and clever, or a gallery of flash-in-the-pan jabs masquerading as a full narrative. The answer, as their buzzy rom-com showcases throughout, is a little of both, but here the comedians' m.o. is elevated by an existential curiosity that makes it all go down surprisingly easy.
That's not to say this attractively lensed millennial riff on “Groundhog Day” had me at hello, mostly because director Max Barbakow, who is making his feature debut, keeps thrusting the material's ties to its “Twilight Zone”-on-laughing-gas inspiration early and often.
This Hulu release is set on the day before, during and after a wedding celebration for Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin) in the titular California desert location. Amid this backdrop of bourgeois leisure and heteronormative homogeneity comes disaffected lush Nyles (Samberg) to disrupt, unsettle and party hard. He comes to the aid of Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the bride's sister, when he realizes she's completely unprepared to give the maid-of-honor toast. Sarah, the black sheep of her conspicuously well-to-do clan, finds herself drawn to Nyles' impish insouciance, but an increasingly outandish series of events leads to an ill-fated visit to a nearby cave with a space-time continuum-altering secret.
And so it begins, and begins, and begins, and begins. Sarah wakes up at the resort, and it's always Nov. 9, always the day of her sister's nuptials. That's how she discovers Nyles has been stuck in the same time loop for so long, details of his life before becoming stuck in this cosmic broken record are either hazy or forgotten. What ensues closely adheres to the rom-com mold, but Barbakow, working from a formulaic but effective screenplay by Andy Siara, peppers the film's shopworn trajectory with weighty conversations about the meaning of life and how we fall into patterns that are no less toxic just because they're comforting. (Think of a Richard Linklater gabfest, only broader and goofier.)
Forcing the characters to relive the same day over and over again underlines how society encourages you to follow an often moth-balled script and frowns on straying from the norm, especially when it comes to a venerated ritual like matrimony.
It all would crumble like a house of cards if there was no chemistry between the leads, but Samberg and Milioti sneak their way into our good graces. (Surprise! Samberg is more appealing than grating here.) Watching the characters drop their defenses wears down our own in return. There's still room for intellectual growth for The Lonely Island and the other makers of “Palm Springs,” but they've made an intriguing leap forward and, in a time of self-isolation where most days feel identical and blur into one another, their fizzy concoction makes an ideal quarantine pick-me-up.
“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”: It's been a popular season for “SNL” vets. Just before “Palm Springs” became a runaway sensation for Hulu, Netflix viewers tuned in, in large numbers, to Will Ferrell's latest screen misadventure. This time, kitsch meets absurdity to uneven but winsome effect, but unlike some of the “Elf” star's biggest hits, his character is one of the least interesting aspects.
He plays aspiring pop performer Lars Erickssong (get it, get it?), one half of the Icelandic small town duo Fire Saga, alongside childhood friend and sort-of girlfriend Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams, one of several overqualified players here). Lars has been obsessed with Eurovision, that campiest of international music competitions, ever since he saw ABBA perform “Waterloo” in 1974. Flash forward to present day, and Lars is still dead set on entering the renowned showcase, his drive so blinding that he can't see Sigrit for the gifted musician and ideal life partner standing right in front of him. A series of contrived, improbable and surprisingly violent events later, they wind up being their homeland's official Eurovision entry. (This is my shocked face.)
Director David Dobkin (“Shanghai Knights,” “Fred Claus”) tends to go big when mapping out his comedies, as is more often than not the case with Ferrell vehicles, and at 123 minutes, that expanisve approach allows for too many tangential elements, often preventing the central story from receive the attention it needs. McAdams, who starred in Dobkin's “Wedding Crashers,” does most of the heavy lifting here.
Her character might be saddled with a heavy and distracting accent (she's from ICELAND, ja?), but she still registers strongly as a passionate performer who has something to say, dammit, and the chops to do it well. Ferrell, on the other hand, is stuck playing another stubborn man-child who learns to be a better person the hard way. They're both upstaged by a deeee-licious Dan Stevens, playing a flamboyant Russian pop god whose music channels '80s pop group Dead or Alive. He's such a hoot that it's easy to forgive the movie's overlength and frequently half-assed staging. The “Downton Abbey” star is as golden as his character's costumes.
Which brings me to the soundtrack, a grab-bag of retro pop that oscillates between the forgettable and the irresitibly catchy. (Fire Saga's popular bar ditty, “Jaja Ding Dong” is the earworm that keeps on giving/won't stop giving.) One is left wishing the filmmakers had gone all out and made a full musical, or at the very least, something in the vein of the first “Pitch Perfect.” Instead, it settles for being a decent Ferrell vehicle. Not that I'm complaining (all that much). This Netflix programmer still brings on the giggles.
“Irresistible”: On the other hand, Jon Stewart hits that sophomore slump so hard, you can almost feel the earth tremble. His amiably tone-deaf second feature, mostly set in a small Wisconsin town, attempts to put a Capraesque spin on the election cycle and its dehumanizing toll. On paper, this might look like the ideal project for the former “Daily Show” host, but the feeble dialogue and plodding pace conspire to torpedo any potential this fish-out-of-water story had of being any good.
Alas, Stewart takes a lot of good people down with him. Steve Carell, his former Comedy Central colleague, stars as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic strategist who catches wind of Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a plainspoken farmer whose rant against town officials, which has gone viral on YouTube, makes him come across as a Democratic answer to Joe the Plumber. Off he goes to the heartland to convince the retired Marine colonel to run for mayor. Influential media outlets pick up on the David-versus-Goliath narrative, drawing the attention of Gary's frequent rival, Republican campaigner Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, by far the best thing about this well-intentioned fiasco).
Like much of “Irresistible,” Gary and Faith's game of oneupmanship fails to catch fire and too often fights for screen time with Stewart's tendency to get on a soapbox through his characters, making an already unfunny movie a chore to sit through. Not even some capable camerawork by the esteemed Bobby Bukowski (“Arlington Road,” “Saved!”) can conceal how wan and flavorless it is. There's something to be said for speaking truth to power, especially when pointing out the systemic rot in this country's two-party system, but Stewart is just going through the motions. His wet blanket of a satire lacks the very quality that Zimmer yearns for: conviction. There's zero joy in it.
“Cubby”: If you want to buck the trends and seek out a comedy that feels fresh and vibrant, look no further than this endearing first feature from star/screenwriter/co-director Mark Blane. Reminiscent of a '90s/early '00s indie New York comedy, the film leads with its characters' quirks before unearthing an array of layers, including a frank yet loopy portrait of living with mental illness, all within its compact 83-minute running time.
Blane, who can currently be seen in the Apple TV+ series “Little Voice,” plays Mark Nabel, a Midwestern transplant to the Big Apple in his twenties who, unbeknownst to his overprotective, boisterous mom (Patricia Richardson), doesn't really have a job lined up at an art gallery like he claims but is dead set on fulfilling his aspiration to be successful artist. Instead, he looks up his old college roommate to find a place to crash and lands a job as a nanny for Milo (Joseph Seuffert), the shy, precocious son of biracial couple Annie Tao (Jeanine Serralles) and Charles Tao (Peter Y. Kim).
At “Cubby's” core is the friendship that develops between the boy and his new caretaker, one that brings much-needed stability to the chaos that is the rest of Mark's life. It is also unable to prevent him from going off his meds, at which point a leather daddy (Christian Patrick) appears before him to give guidance. Yes, this movie has a fairy godfather.
Blane and co-director Ben Mankoff deftly juxtapose the reality of Mark's predicament with his flights of fancy, to the point that we experience his precarious state of mind, quite the feat when taking into consideration most of the characters come across as off-kilter in their own ways. That includes Russell (Rodney Richardson), a potential romantic interest for Mark, whose courtship is bumbling and awkward in all kinds of refreshing ways.
Mark's journey ends up turning into a struggle with his demons to find his voice, both as an artist and as a man. When Mark drawings come to animated life, it feels of a piece with the rest of the film. This is a warm and beguiling character study in the tradition of “Muriel's Wedding” and Miguel Arteta's “Chuck & Buck,” works that refuse to let their imperfect protagonists be wholly defined by their arrested development. You keep rooting for Blane and Mankoff to sustain their tonal high-wire act, even as you grow apprehensive about the many ways this could go awry. But “Cubby” gets just about everything right, thanks to its committed cast and its makers' indefatigable creativity.
“Cubby” made the festival rounds in 2019 prior to its commercial release in the fall. It is now available to stream free of charge for Amazon Prime members. “Irresistible” is available for digital rental on various platforms, including iTunes, Prime, Vudu and Google Play. “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is now available to stream on Netflix. “Palm Springs,” which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is now available to stream on Hulu. Happy streaming, everybody.