Is Paul Feig the Current King of Comedy?
The marketing team for Paul Feig’s most recent film, Spy, should really reconsider their occupation: this was one of my first thoughts as the credits for the film rolled and I began to head for the exit. The trailers and posters for the film made it seem like little more than Paulina Blart:
The marketing team for Paul Feig’s most recent film, Spy, should really reconsider their occupation: this was one of my first thoughts as the credits for the film rolled and I began to head for the exit. The trailers and posters for the film made it seem like little more than Paulina Blart: Secret Agent Mall Cop. Melissa McCarthy had begun to lose the goodwill she earned in movies like Bridesmaids, This is 40, and The Heat. McCarthy-vehicles like Identity Thief and Tammy were missteps at best, and it was quickly becoming the consensus that she was incapable of being the driving force of any movie.
It seemed that The Melissa McCarthy Experiment had failed, and she was destined to return to her lucrative (but middling) sitcom and a steady flow of supporting roles. That was, until her savior, Paul Feig, pulled her out from the quicksand of constant prat falls and yelling to re-establish her as one of comedy’s leading ladies, and it further established Feig as the current King of Comedy.
Watch the Throne
Film’s popular comedic voices seem to fade as quickly as they appear in most cases. The Comedy Championship Belt is rarely defended for more than a few years. It is so rare for a comedy writer to transcend generations and connect with large audiences for more than a few years. For every Mel Brooks or Woody Allen, there are three directors like David Dobkins (you know, the guy who directed Wedding Crashers? Don’t worry, I had to look it up, too. Thanks, IMDB.).
It is very hard for comedy writers and/or directors to evolve with the masses. Humor is something inherently in the now. It is a very topical form of art that requires the audience to have knowledge of some things ahead of time. Dr. Strangelove is a great example of this. There was no better time to play on the fear of nuclear war than at the moment when that fear was most prevalent. And when you watch it today, the knowledge of this time in history is the only way to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced.
Obviously, a spoof of spy films isn’t as politically relevant, but Spy works best if you are aware of the tropes and trends of spy films of the past. It is not a movie that could have existed before Sean Connery started requesting that his martinis be shaken rather than stirred. With the resurgence of 007 since the introduction of Daniel Craig to the franchise, now is a perfect time to make a movie like this. Similarly, the inclusion of Jason Statham is a tongue-in-cheek play on the roles he normally takes on (by the way, I cannot overstate how great he is in Spy. Between Spy, Snatch., and Crank 2, it is clear that he has some great comedic chops). In 30 years, Statham’s presence will not have the same effect.
What Feig is able to do in Spy is create not just a great comedy, but a great action movie at the same time. Some of the set pieces in the film outdo most of Hollywood’s blockbusters. Melissa McCarthy is not just a chubby, incompetent, dumb-dumb with a propensity for falling down. She grows into a strong, confident badass. She transforms from Kevin James into a foul-mouthed Ronda Rousey, and it actually works within the plot. She had CIA training in the past, but lost her edge when she began working as an analyst. In movies like Tammy, she is a caricature of herself, but she is capable of so much more (see St. Vincent for evidence).
What Feig does that others have failed to do is reel McCarthy in a little bit. She is a brilliant improviser and physical performer, but her rants and falls should not be central to the character. In a genre riddled with one-dimensional characters and lacking any sort of narrative structure, Feig makes films with many moving parts and characters that define themselves through strong dialogue, with the improvised bits being ancillary to the characters, rather than their entirety. Feig’s films are smart without alienating certain audience members and they are uproariously funny. In 2011, he burst onto the scene with Bridesmaids, which is one of the best comedies of the last decade, and has churned out two very, very good comedies since, with 2013’s The Heat and, now, Spy.
What Makes a King?
Feig makes great comedies. So what? There are lots of good comedies being made right now. Filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright, and Judd Apatow are doing the same thing. The difference is that Feig combines quality with quantity… of dollars. Bridesmaids raked in a ridiculous $288 million worldwide, The Heat brought in $230 million, and Spy collected $205 million. For comparison, each of these three films made more money than each film from Anderson, Wright, and Apatow, with the exception of Apatow’s Knocked Up, which made $219 million, a touch more than Spy.
This is the audience connection: everyone wants to see Feig’s movies. Movie buffs love Anderson and Wright, but they aren’t for everybody. Someone like me has very much enjoyed their work and any film of theirs that comes out is instant appointment viewing for me (even though I have a burning hatred for the twee-fest that was Moonrise Kingdom and think The World’s End was pretty overrated, but that’s a story for another piece), but I completely understand why some people can’t get into their films in that way.
But if money were the only factor, Feig still wouldn’t be King. After all, the abomination that was Todd Phillips’ The Hangover Part II made almost $600 million in the same year that Bridesmaids came out. The difference is that nobody liked The Hangover Part II and Phillips hasn’t made a halfway decent film in six years. That film was so commercially panned that Part III saw a significant dip in box office receipts (although it still made $362 million, which is infuriating). Similarly, Adam Sandler’s buddy, Dennis Dugan (who has directed film’s like Jack and Jill and the Grown Ups series) brings in money but doesn’t have critical support that Feig has. There aren’t many moviegoers who left Jack and Jill proclaiming that we are living in the golden age of cinema. Feig has managed to connect the critical world and the mass of moviegoers. His films make money and his work is appointment viewing. He is occupying rarefied air.
People are always looking for something different, even if they don’t know what that different thing is. Apparently, what filmgoers want are female-driven comedies. The modern woman has become more outspoken and independent than ever and Feig’s movies represent feminine progress. At the same time, men are excited that this feminine progress is being made and seeing Feig’s films was a breath of fresh air for them, as well.
When Bridesmaids came out, it was the first time I had ever seen an R-rated comedy with all female leads. The film was cast absolutely perfectly and the freshness of the film drew audiences in in droves. People were ready for women to say “fuck” and make Nazi jokes, and Feig was the first director to put things like this in a very strong script. But what his films also do are create relatable, human stories.
Don’t get me wrong, I love movies like Step Brothers, but I don’t see myself in any of the characters in that film. Movies like that are Saturday morning cartoons for adults. It takes a very special director to create a raunchy movie with touching moments, and right now no one mixes that cocktail better than Paul Feig. That alone is enough to create a comedy, but the feminine themes are what really put his films over the top and connect with modern audiences like no other comedies do.
So what’s next for the King of Comedy? A little movie called Ghostbusters. Maybe you’ve heard of it. But, as you’d expect, this is a female-driven reboot. Feig stalwarts Melissa McCarthy and Kristin Wiig will star and every little leak from the film so far has been nothing but encouraging. After all, when you need a hit comedy, who ya gonna call? Paul Feig, that’s who.
Do you think Feig is worthy of this title? What are your expectations for his Ghostbusters reboot? Let us know below!
(top image: Bridesmaids (2011) – source: Universal Pictures)
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