Working in the tradition of David Thomson and his Biographical Dictionary of Film, critic Saul Austerlitz sets down in Another Fine Mess: A History of American Comedy a comprehensive yet reader-friendly account of celluloid LOLs, from the early days of raucous pie-throwing to the modern-day "bromance." Austerlitz has pored over the filmographies of 30 "major" (Austerlitz's distinction) and more than 100 other players performing in the ever-popular if often critically undervalued field of comedy, and he guides both expert and novice film enthusiasts through them with impressive confidence.
Starting with the Big Three of the slapstick silents (Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd) and proceeding chronologically, the book's first section consists of essay-length entries on the life and movies of the comic titans of the American screen, while the second contains shorter entries listed in alphabetical order. Almost everyone who makes the cut for the first section (the Marx Brothers, Preston Sturges, Cary Grant, Woody Allen) deserves it, and though the ranking of these legends' efforts cleaves close to popular consensus (City Lights is Chaplin's masterpiece, Some Like It Hot Billy Wilder's), Austerlitz offers sharp ways of thinking about old favorites. Discussing Ernst Lubitsch's democratic approach to comedy, he writes, "Perhaps that is ultimately Lubitsch's secret: There are no supporting characters here, only protagonists with less screen time." Explaining Mae West's winking lasciviousness, he comes up with another fine summation: "Her delivery is clipped but muddy, her words slurred, as if by an excess of desire." Dustin Hoffman's influence is measured not only in regard to current Semitic actors nervously stammering in his footsteps (think Ben Stiller; Will Ferrell, he argues, is our W.C. Fields), but also in regard to New Hollywood heartthrobs like Warren Beatty and Robert Redford, whose more subtle self-deprecation and vulnerability owe something to The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock.
As Another Fine Mess treads further into the modern era, its subjects' status as classic becomes increasingly debatable. Austerlitz provides particularly insightful considerations of legacies still in the making. Serving more as a critical history than a nonpartisan one, Austerlitz's personal evaluations are best used to stimulate healthy movie debate or else to compare one's tastes. While I can't muster his enthusiasm for Judd Apatow, and though his opinions of Charlie Kaufman ("fatally self-conscious") and Wes Anderson ("the most gifted, playful, near-miraculous filmmaker currently at work in the United States") run in direct opposition to my own — to the point where the only film I find tolerable from the latter, The Darjeeling Limited, is the only one he feels a letdown — Austerlitz's observations are consistently challenging and always enlightening.
Certain entries are simply spot-on. Julia Roberts is "flint, and more than a bit testy. Famous for her dazzling smile, she is a cold performer, inhabiting the frame without illuminating it." Paul Rudd is "forever misrepresenting himself, a thick layer of fraternal bonhomie pitted in sections by regret and a workaday brand of hilariously forthright melancholy."
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Thus Austerlitz more than earns the moments where he goes out on a limb: I was especially glad to see him use the word genius in describing the unfairly discredited Chevy Chase, whose arrogant blitheness in Fletch and self-sabotaging doltishness in the Vacation series are remarkable executions of a unique physical and comic sensibility.
There are, however, a few missed opportunities in Another Fine Mess. More attention might have been drawn to watershed innovations, like the ones Lubitsch used to make possible the just-born musical comedy in the early years of the sound film, when technological advancement often caused aesthetic regression. Otherwise-great entries fail to cite a director's or actor's most intriguingly under-the-radar work (Schizopolis in the case of Steven Soderbergh, Donovan's Reef in the case of the lighter side of John Wayne). Also overlooked are some of the last two decades' more interesting comic voices: Robert Downey Jr., Mike Judge and Todd Solondz, among others, should be given appropriate space when the time for the second edition of Another Fine Mess rolls around.
But Austerlitz gets it absolutely right when he paints the big picture, which is what makes American comedy quintessentially American. According to him, it is not only the outsiders — the immigrants (Lubitsch), the minorities (Richard Pryor), the women (Katharine Hepburn) — who have fueled the country's subversive comic tendency but also the innovators, the artists like Fields, Robert Altman and Bill Murray, who saw the world askew and used their genius to skew it further rather than set it straight.
ANOTHER FINE MESS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN COMEDY: (Chicago Review Press; $24.95) is available now.