It's often said that American humor and British humor (sorry, humour) are two different creatures, and many people get one, but not the other. I haven't found all British humor a riot (I've never cared much for Benny Hill -- but then, I wasn't a huge fan of the Three Stooges), but overall, for the most part, I've always loved it. Right now, in fact, I have in my DVR the second disk of a hilarious British, mock-documentary series, People Like Us. The show is drier than the Sahara Desert and one of the funniest things I've seen.
But for perhaps the first time, I'm stumped. Gob-smacked bewildered.
On Sunday, the Writers Guild Film Society ran a small British film that I hadn't heard of, Sightseers, so I decided to check up on it a bit, to see if it was worth making the trip. I don't like reading much if anything about a movie beforehand, but I made a slight exception in this case. Not much about the plot, but just whether it was a drama, comedy or what, and what was the premise.
The poster that was shown raved with high praise about how hilarious it was. "Laugh Out-Loud Funny." "The Best British Comedy Since Four Lions." "Absolutely Hilarious...A True Original." "Funny as Hell."
Okay. It's a comedy. Perhaps quirky. But I like that. British quirky comedies are...well, my cup of tea. Even though it was a major flop in the U.S., I absolutely loved original British comedy, Death at a Funeral. (Not the American remake.) I know some people left scratching there heads. No me. I was laughing my head off.
But Sightseers not only had me scratching my head, but utterly bewildered. It's not that I didn't find it funny in the slightest -- I did find there to be some very good quirky humor in it -- but that for the life of me, I don't even begin to grasp how people were referring to this movie overall as a comedy. Period. I understand comedy okay -- I write it for a living. And I understand the concept of black humor, dark humor, brooding humor, and there was definitely some of all that in this. But as Shakespeare said, "'some of that' doth not a comedy make." I'm not saying it wasn't good -- it was sort of okay, and basically I kind of liked it somewhat a bit. (How's that for equivocation...?!) But to me, this was largely a British version of Bonnie and Clyde. That movie had a couple of smiles in it, too, but no one would surely ever even think of classifying Bonnie and Clyde as a comedy. The smiles in that psychological gangster film (with an emphasis on the "pyscho") were more comic relief to break the tension, or to juxtapose a moment with ironic contrast. That was also sort of the case at times with Sightseers. To me at least. But occasional ironic contrast is quite different to me than, "Absolutely hilarious."
The description on the iMBD website is -- "Chris wants to show girlfriend Tina his world, but events soon conspire against the couple and their dream caravan holiday takes a very wrong turn." That sounds like a madcap series of misadventures. Actually, what goes "very wrong" is far worse. And brutal. And gruesome. And repetitive. And it's not done for laughs.
I'm sure there are people who would happily explain to me all the underpinning hilarity that I missed and why this is actually not only "the best British comedy since...", but a comedy at all. But man, you have to dig really, really, really deep to mine the "this is a comedy" nuggets here, as far as I'm concerned.
I want to be clear about something. I'm not saying, "I didn't get the humor." I'm saying I didn't understand why this is considered a comedy. Those are two very different things. I don't especially get the humor of Benny Hill, as I said, but I fully grasp that it's comedy. But with this, with Sightseers, I am searching every nook and cranny to find out why this was thought to be a comedy, period.
I know I'm not alone. There weren't a whole lot of "laugh out-loud" guffaws in the WGA Theater. There certainly were laughs -- but most of them came early, when it looked like the film was sort of setting us up for a slight, sad, ironic comedy of sorts. What came later were a lot of walk-outs. I understood the walk-outs, though I don't think it's because they thought the movie was bad (it wasn't) -- but rather because they were expecting a comedy. And it wasn't. Also, they probably didn't care much for all the...well, gruesome brutality. After all, most of the walk-outs came after those sequences.
I thought of leaving, too, since it wasn't what I was expecting, or generally like -- and I had things to do -- but stuck it out. It was done fairly well, and I was curious how they'd resolve things. It was a fair, reasonable resolution, probably appropriate, though not what I had stuck around for.
But one day I hope to sit down with one of those critics who thought this was "Funny as hell" and have them explain to me -- not why the liked it, because I get that -- but why they saw this as a comedy, rather than as a dark, sad, psychological tale of two lives unraveling in unleashed violence.
I don't think of this as an American humor and British humor thing. I think it's more a case of alternative life forces.
Actually, I'd like to talk to the two screenwriters, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who star in the movie as the couple, and ask them, "Were you shocked when people saw this as a comedy???"
Maybe they did. But I just don't grasp it at all.
Then again, the day before I saw the movie, Oblivion, and I'm hoping someone could explain the insane third act to me, as well.
It was a rough weekend for movies...
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
If you plan on seeing the movie, you should stop reading now. Otherwise, for the curious amongst us -- and those who expect never to see the movie, or don't care if they know -- read on, MacDuff.
So, then, here are some of the things that happen in the film that go...er, "very wrong." --
The guy accidentally drives his van over a man who he found annoying, killing him as blood gushes from his throat.
The guy viciously bludgeons to bloody death a nice, campground neighbor with a rock and pushes him over a cliff.
The girl pushes a soon-to-be bride over a cliff to her death, during her wedding shower at a pub.
The girl speeds up and drives the van over a bicycle rider, flattening him to death.
The guy brutally bludgeons to death a hiker who criticized him, after first getting his girlfriend to trump up claims of abuse.
The girl pushes a helpless man over a cliff, crushing him on the jagged rocks below.
And even more frivolity. Less violent, to be sure, though still cruel.
Again, I wasn't offended by it. I didn't dislike the movie. I just don't grasp how anyone calls this a hilarious comedy. Let alone a comedy at all. Whatever the culture.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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