Every couple of weeks, the OFCS polls its members with a question related to movies. It can be serious or amusing, but each member is given the opportunity to submit a short response to the question, which we will then post on Thursday mornings. Here is this week’s query.
Essay Question #19:
What is the difference between an effective black comedy and just a mean-spirited film? Give examples of each.
Question Submitted by: Jeremy Kibler @ The Artful Critic
Edwin Davies @ A Mighty Fine Blog
The key difference as far as I am concerned is that a black comedy has at least some affection for its characters, or at least enough that you feel a modicum of sympathy for the people involved, where as a mean-spirited film has contempt for everyone involved.
Bending the rules, the best example of a black comedy I could think of was the TV series Nathan Barley, which aired on Channel 4 in the UK in 2005. It is one of the most relentlessly bleak comedies ever made, one in which every character is somewhat reprehensible and misfortune upon misfortune falls on Dan (Julian Barratt), a writer who finds himself working for a grotesquely hip magazine run by people he hates. But the show does give a sense that Dan could do good if he was willing to make an effort, he’s just weak willed. In that instance, black comedy is only a few laughs away from tragedy.
A mean-spirited film, by contrast, would be Very Bad Things, a film which has no sympathy for any of its unlikable characters, and which treats their awfulness as the sole reason for the film’s existence.
Marilyn Ferdinand @ Ferdy on Films
An effective black comedy is one that chooses its targets well and treats their foibles with genuine wit. One black comedy that comes immediately to most minds is Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The title itself announces the film’s intention to examine the grotesque fetishization of the atomic bomb and all those connected with controlling its deadly potential, and the film delivers a genuinely funny critique of a very serious issue.
A mean-spirited film does not choose its targets well and demonstrates no wit at all. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan decides that small countries are a worthy goal for ridicule, with a Google Translate title that takes a potshot at people whose English isn’t perfect – not funny. Borat isn’t a real person exaggerated for social commentary, he’s a witless stereotype, both in the comedic and human sense. Offensive is not necessarily funny, as it is not with this film.
Kristen Lopez @ Awards Circuit
I think an effective black comedy is one that gives you characters you can relate to in some way, or at least their situation warrants the black spirited humor. A great example is Drop Dead Gorgeous, a film where the characters are expected to act evilly, yet their situation is exaggerated as a means of showing the satire of the situation. You can still identify with the heroine, yet can’t blame her for resorting to the negative antics of her peers.
A film I found meanspirited for the sake of it was The Hangover Part 3. You had characters from the first film who, despite being self-centered, were still likeable enough and their adventures weren’t insane. By the third part, you had a hard time wondering how they were all still friends! If you can’t believe these people would like each other, and are just being mean to each other as a means of ending the friendship, that’s a mean spirited comedy.
Frank Ochieng @ SF Crowsnest
Black comedies are rooted in shrewdly introspective commentary, astute observation and an off-kilter sense of truthfulness and tawdriness that actively resonates with the movie audience’s cynicism and intelligence. Clearly, the black comedy gives us legitimate permission to peek into the darkly humorous aspects of the absurd. The basic mean-spirited film has no considerable foundation to explore the topical matter at hand other than to exploit the cheap-minded shock value of its smirking boundaries.
Sure, some black comedies can border on the side of being insufferable as they closely walk the line of tasteless cruelty. Still, the black comedy—no matter how effective or ineffective—looks to delve into the nonsensical notions of everyday situations that can range from racial intolerance to political strife. When tackling various issues with delicate implications attached (i.e. divorce, abortion, parenting, alternative lifestyles, sex, drugs, etc.) the black comedy can force one to cryptically laugh and examine the outrageousness of one’s (or others) belief systems. The mean-spirited comedy, in contrast, is a lazy and convenient way to deliver senseless, caustic humility at any desperate cost.
Case in point: THE TOPIC AT HAND…drug-induced/alcoholic slackers
BLACK COMEDY (social-minded insight): “Dazed and Confused” (1983)
MEAN-SPIRITED FILM (without solid merit): “Half-Baked” (1998)
COMBO BETWEEN BLACK COMEDY AND MEAN-SPIRITED FILM: “Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke” (1978)