There’s an implicit view in the criticism of art, one which has even been expressed explicitly as an aesthetic theory, that comedy is of innately lower value than tragedy or drama – that serious films are by their very nature more worthwhile than funny films. This view is deeply ingrained in the way we talk about art – the last comedy to win Best Picture at the Oscars was Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977. Leaving aside the debate in general (there seems something fundamentally pointless about ranking the merits of different genres) I’ll make the case for comedy with four films that are as moving, poignant and thought-provoking as they are funny, and fully deserve to be considered on the same terms as any drama.
The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)
Dark comedy doesn’t come much darker than The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s chilling depiction of a man whose entire life is a façade constructed for the purposes of reality television. “We accept the reality with which we’re presented”, says Christof, the show’s sociopathic creator – played to perfection by Ed Harris – and this is the tragedy which underpins Truman’s whole existence. Everything he holds dear – his friendships, his marriage, his memories – is a sham created for the enjoyment of others. The Truman Show is a satire at heart, savagely taking aim at the media, the entertainment industry and celebrity culture. Like many great satirical works, the film was incredibly prophetic – the rise in reality television over the last twenty years has been quite astounding, and shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way Is Essex have further blurred the line between real life and entertainment. Despite the somewhat disturbing subject matter, the film is genuinely hilarious, with much of the comedy to be found in the detail of how Truman’s world is constructed, and the increasingly bizarre situations which arise as it gradually begins to unravel.
Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010)
Chris Morris’ directorial debut was never likely to be anything but controversial. Morris rose to notoriety with the satirical news programme, Brass Eye, which poked fun at the right-wing media – and their tendency towards sensationalism – in quite outrageous fashion, ruffling a fair few feathers in the process. Like Brass Eye, Four Lions takes on a topic that would not generally be considered good material for comedy: terrorism. The film follows four British amateur jihadists, whose bungling attempts to carry out a serious suicide mission end repeatedly in failure due to their own bumbling idiocy. The characters are not portrayed as villains and are, for the most part, fairly likeable – the main protagonist, Omar, is shown in various scenes to be a loving husband and a caring father. Rather, through the stupidity of the characters, Morris wants to comment on the way that extremist ideologies prey on the weak and the vulnerable to advance their purposes. Ultimately, the film succeeds in making the genuinely terrifying seem merely absurd.
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)
Blue Jasmine is arguably the finest film that Woody Allen has made since his phenomenal hot streak in the 70s and 80s, which saw the release of classics such as Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s a wonderful script, full of classic Allen wit and humour, but it’s brought to life by two exceptional performances from Sally Hawkins and, particularly, Cate Blanchett. Blanchett plays the neurotic, spoilt and conceited Jasmine, who suddenly finds herself in need of the hospitality of her sister, Ginger, after the breakdown of her marriage to a lavishly wealthy, but morally corrupt businessman. The film is a perfectly executed deconstruction of the entitlement and pretentiousness of Jasmine’s character, contrasting it with the humility and modesty of her downtrodden sister, Ginger. There are some wonderful supporting performances as well, notably from Alec Baldwin as Jasmine’s sleazy but charming ex-husband, Hal, whose various infidelities and dodgy business dealings are revealed through flashbacks which dovetail with the present-day narrative.
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
Perhaps more than any of these films, Calvary plays with the boundaries of traditional comedy, pushing them about as far as they will go. The follow-up to John Michael McDonagh’s hilarious Tarantino-esque debut The Guard, Calvary aims for something higher, dealing with themes like death, religion, suicide and sin, and filtering them all through the pitch-black comedy that has become the McDonagh family’s trademark. The story centres around a Catholic priest, played with typical understated brilliance by Brendan Gleeson, who learns in the opening scene that one of his congregation intends to kill him as punishment for the abuse he suffered from a priest as a child. This opening scene sets the tone for the film, and the characters we meet from this point on are all disturbed and unhappy in their own way – none more so than Father James’ daughter, Fiona, who has travelled to Ireland to stay with her father after a failed suicide attempt. It’s a film rich with metaphor and symbolism, and there are some incredibly powerful and moving moments as the story builds towards its spectacular, biblical climax.