A while back I watched Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as President Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon as the smallest rugby captain I’ve ever seen. (I know Invictus isn’t a comedy, but bear with me.)
I haven’t read the script (written by Anthony Peckham), but what I do know is that the resulting movie (directed by Clint Eastwood) was just okay. Fundamentally, it didn’t really know what kind of movie it wanted to be.
There were scenes of:
- political struggle, suggestive of an inspiring story of great leadership… However, the Mandela in this movie seemed to only have one master plan — hope to hell that the national rugby team would win and therefore unite the country.
- a rugby team striving to become winners, suggestive of an inspiring tale of underdogs that triumph against all odds… However, we only ever really got to know one character on the team. We also got a lot of inexplicable moments where somebody on some team would do something that we were supposed to care about. But if you have no idea what the rules of rugby are, you might as well be watching Blernsball.
- security personnel working hard to keep Mandela safe, suggestive of a political assassination thriller… However, there were no real threats depicted in the movie. It was all contrived misdirection to add tension to otherwise tepid sequences.
Despite all that, the movie rates a 7.5 on IMDB.com. That’s fine. My beef isn’t with the Invictus rating per se — it’s with the fact that many of the best comedy movies of all time rank lower.
A Few Case Studies
Here are ten of my favorite comedies off the top of my head, sorted in descending order of IMDB Score. Only two of them beat Invictus.
- Groundhog Day (IMDB Score: 8.2)
- Airplane! (IMDB Score: 7.8)
- Planes, Trains & Automobiles (IMDB Score: 7.5)
- Vacation (IMDB Score: 7.3)
- Caddyshack (IMDB Score: 7.3)
- Wedding Crashers (IMDB Score: 7.2)
- There’s Something About Mary (IMDB Score: 7.2)
- The Jerk (IMDB Score: 6.9)
- Ruthless People (IMDB Score: 6.8)
- Fletch (IMDB Score: 6.7)
Most of these movies routinely appear on “best comedies of all time” lists, were all box office successes, and produced some of the most quoted lines ever.
So why the low ratings for these, and other, comedy powerhouses?
Perceived Level of Difficulty
In gymnastics, routines are judged based on the level of difficulty exhibited. If the level of difficulty of the moves being performed is high enough, the gymnast is eligible to receive a maximum score of 10. If the level of difficulty is lower, however, the gymnast may start out with a maximum score of 9 or 8.
Even though it’s a widely held truth in the film industry that the comedy genre is the most difficult to write (and get right), perhaps the perceived level of difficulty is lower than for other movies. After all, “It’s just a bunch of guys telling jokes and acting like idiots.”
When many people rate comedy movies, do they have a set hypothetical maximum score that’s less than 10?
Invictus (IMDB Score: 7.5) tells (or tries to tell) the story of an inspirational South African leader’s journey to unite his country. There’s Something About Mary (IMDB Score: 7.2) is about a bunch of guys who want to bone a hot chick.
The Road (IMDB Score: 7.5) is bleak story about a father and son struggling to survive in a post apocalyptic world. Wedding Crashers (IMDB Score: 7.2) is about a couple of guys who crash weddings so they can bone hot chicks.
Does a more serious plot imbue a movie with a greater perceived importance and qualify it for a higher score? (Or does a “boning hot chick(s)” main plot necessitate a sub 7.5 score?)
Hitting the Right Emotional and Intellectual Chords
Maybe it’s not the plot. Maybe it’s the emotional and intellectual range of the movie.
Groundhog Day — the highest scoring movie on my spur-of-the-moment list — takes us on a complete journey with the Bill Murray character. When he’s trapped in his recurring day, we go through all five stages of grief with him — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. We also feel sad for an old man who dies, warmed by the romance of the two leads and enlightened by the main character’s journey.
Perhaps strictly tickling our funny bones isn’t nearly as satisfying as pulling our heart strings and other emotional or intellectual chords. But then again Airplane! scores a 7.8, and that movie only has one speed — fast and furious comic gags.
Subjective Nature of Comedy
Many people look at a Jackson Pollock painting and see pure genius. I just see paint dribbles. Who’s right? Art appreciation is subjective and so is comedy.
For every person who roared with laughter when Cameron Diaz used Ben Stiller’s… hair gel in There’s Something About Mary, perhaps there were just as many who found the comedy puerile and crass (in a bad way).
Do the rating scales tend to balance out for even the funniest comedies?
There are some great comedies that do indeed score higher than Invictus — Toy Story 3 (IMDB Score: 9.0), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (IMDB Score: 8.4), Back to the Future (IMDB Score: 8.4), The Princess Bride (IMDB Score: 8.1), The Hangover (IMDB Score: 7.9)… but they are few and far between.
Invariably when you ask someone what their favorite kind of movies are, they’ll include on the list, “comedies.” Yet, for whatever reason, comedy movies just don’t get the respect they deserve when it comes to ratings.
Do you have a favorite comedy that I haven’t mentioned? Punch it into IMDB. You may be surprised by its score. Conversely, would you rate your favorite comedy movies a 10? No? Why not?
As a rule, are the best comedies just not as good as the best non-comedies? I certainly don’t think that’s the case.
What are your thoughts? Do the best movies rise to the top of the ratings heap regardless of genre? Or are comedies judged more harshly than other movies?
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I agree with you. Comparing ratings across genres though is about as tricky as comparing criminal sentences: the small-time thief getting 10 years vs. the murderer getting 8 years doesn’t compute.
We have to ask what is being rated? Does the best qualified political candidate always win, or is it the most popular? Has the Academy every given an award based on sentimentality (as blasphemous as it now sounds, Paul Newman for The Color of Money was widely derided) rather than merit?
Groundhog Day was the highest rated on your list (and probably mine) because it got closer to a burning universal truth than most comedies don’t. It didn’t just settle for finding love, but also the meaning in our existence. Hard to do without being preachy. Bill Murray even gets close to that level again with the meaning-of-life comedy Razor’s Edge – I mean, Scrooged.
Invictus asks ‘how do you inspire people to be greater than even they think they are?’ (paraphrase) and then shows us the gentle (dry?) way Mandela does it by planting a seed that Damon’s character only later realizes. Then add the fact that the guy asking the question was unjustly imprisoned for 30 years by the people he now leads… just point a camera at that *!@& and you’ll be walking the red carpet.
And for knocking a Clint movie? You must feel lucky today, well don’t ya? 😉
Quick note on Jackson Pollock, his paint drippings exhibited fractals, subconciously pleasing to humans, thus great order under the apparent chaos. In sociology, I learned three people interaction is much, much more complex than two people interaction, and I think comedy scripts are the same, they have to do everything other scripts do, and then transcend an entire level to mine the tremendously subjective field that is comedy. I suspect comedy is easy to do badly and very very hard to do well.
@Scott — Very insightful (and laugh-out-loud funny) thoughts on the subject. Thanks! I’m always happy to step up to the .44 Magnum when the iconoclastic cause is right. 🙂
@Stampy fan — Good call on the complexity of comedy scripts. I agree. I’m not sure I believe the Pollock/fractal connection though. Fractals are so exact. Perhaps some of his work is merely “fractal-esque”?
I agree about _Invictus_. The documentary, OTOH, was fantastic and inspiring.
Hey Brad, thanks for the note and the tip. I’ve no doubt the documentary is fantastic. I’m looking forward to checking it out.