Jeff York

Comedies Like “Good Boys” Mine Laughs But Fail to Cut Deeper

Comedies Like “Good Boys” Mine Laughs But Fail to Cut Deeper
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How funny you found the film Good Boys that opened this past weekend likely depended upon how hysterical you regard the word “f*ck.” In this new raucous comedy, a trio of sixth graders mouth it a lot, as does everyone else around them. The word can be a stitch, but by the time the kids have said it for the fiftieth time, not so much. Still, the promise of kids acting naughty inspired enough adults to trek to the Cineplex and enable the new comedy to take the top box office prize. Swearing like sailors, and making dozens upon dozens of dick jokes, is low-hanging fruit. The opportunity to cut deeper evaded the filmmakers here, and while Good Boys may be a hit, it could have achieved the same results with material that bit deeper.

There has been a trend in comedy for some time now to keep raising the bar of outrageousness. After Ben Stiller’s character got his “franks and beans” caught in his zipper, not to mention Cameron Diaz’s character unknowingly used semen as hair gel in 1998’s There’s Something About Mary, filmmakers have felt inspired to be more and more raunchy. You can tick off those moments since then in quick fashion. Steve Carrell and his cronies talk about all kinds of sexual proclivities, including Cincinnati Bow-Ties and Cleveland Steamers, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). A baby’s head is shown crowning out of Katherine Heigl’s character’s vagina in glorious close-up in Knocked Up (2007). Ken Jeong’s penis flops about in a nude scene, and Zach Galifianakis receives head from an older Asian woman in an elevator in The Hangover. Thus, the kids in Good Boys unwittingly use sex toys as defensive instruments.

It’s all hilarious, sure, but those movies before Good Boys also cut deeper regarding character with deeper emotions and recognizable foibles. It’s hard to get a handle on just who these kids are when they drop F-bombs and talk about sex like there’s no tomorrow, yet aren’t mature enough to even know how to search “how to kiss” on Google.

Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary

Even if your argument is yes, and you know first-hand from parenting, that still doesn’t excuse the film for showcasing the kids being so utterly clueless about things that anyone would see no matter what age. They can’t open childproof vitamin bottles, they saunter across highway traffic even if it is at a stand-still, and they misread the word “anal” and think anal beads are ninja nunchucks. It gets easy laughs, but such gags lack intelligence or at least accuracy.

Where Good Boys does do well is in adding sweetness to these boys, who are, after all, immature and uneasy around girls, authority figures, and the adult world. Jacob Tremblay, who plays Max, is an excellent reactive performer, letting us know what his character is thinking without saying a word. He matched Oscar-winner Brie Larson scene-for-scene in Room back in 2015, and here, he manages to add pathos to his part beyond the page.

Keith L. Williams is a real find as a young actor, getting laughs with his worry-wart delivery, and some tears too when he frets about being a kid whose parents are about to divorce. His character of Lucas is written to be too naïve, as he blurts out confessions to adults that he should be savvier to keep to himself, but Williams at least knows how to spin a straining line, so it’s not so egregious.

Brady Noon’s Thor character is written to be a walking contradiction. He loves to sing and is a theater maven, yet he’s also the crudest and rudest of the three, one who lies, insults, and is prone to confrontation to the point of assault. A theater nerd? In what world? Granted, maybe the writers attempt to shake up a stereotype, but by the end of the film, I still wasn’t sure exactly whom or what Noon was playing. (The name Thor doesn’t help either. Indeed, his name should have been more interesting, or at least less derivative.)

John Vernon in National Lampoon’s Animal House

With talented kids throughout the cast of Good Boys, it’s a shame that the film doesn’t try harder. Despite their bona fides, the list of other landmark gross-out comedies managed to cut deep too, mining pathos and a more sophisticated sense of narrative drama. Despite being a knock-out, Mary (Cameron Diaz) was a quirky, unusual ingenue, one longing for the right fit romantically in There’s Something About Mary. Judd Apatow ensured that we always laughed with his emotionally-stunted characters in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and Knocked Up, not at them. And while The Hangover pushed a lot of boundaries, perhaps the greatest one was playing the comedy as a detective story. What made it unique wasn’t just the R-rated extremes it went to for laughs, but the sly, backward mystery that the trio of partying man-children had to solve to find their missing friend.

In the bigger picture, it would seem that a lot of large-screen comedy doesn’t care even to try to cut deeper. It’s happy to be silly and outrageous, like the kind of comedy that Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell consistently make. There’s nothing wrong with movies bordering on farce, but where are the sharper, black comedies that could slice through our chaotic times? There are few of those in the Cineplex, but at least TV shows like Veep, Black-ish, and GLOW have valiantly taken on societal issues and ills in the past few years.

But in these times, where are the political comedies? There’s precious little that resembles anything like the “slobs vs. the snobs” comedy stylings that National Lampoon’s Animal House ushered in back in 1978. Taking a page from the playbooks of the Marx Bros., the filmmakers behind that landmark comedy went anti-establishment whole hog in addition to plumbing the comedic depths of nudity, sex jokes, and foul language. It may have been what some have deemed the first “gross-out comedy, but as political satire, it cut close to the bone in a similar fashion to revolutionary dark comedies of that era like Dr. Strangelove and The Candidate.

While Animal House popularized various sorts of chicanery, including food fights and toga parties, all while dropping a dozen or more lines into the lexicon (“See if you can guess…what I am now.”), in actuality, the period piece taking place in 1962, was a searing indictment of Nixon and the elite, white establishment.

Look no further than the character of Dean Wormer (played with Machiavellian glee by veteran character actor John Vernon) and his Nixonian machinations throughout the film. Throughout the story, he strategizes in an almost militaristic fashion just how to eradicate the Delta house frat expel all its misfit members. His ultimate trump card after their expulsion was to notify their local draft boards and let them know that these young men are now “all, all eligible for military service.” Wormer condemns the failing students to certain death in the jungles of ‘Nam and can barely contain his glee. Wormer is a devil in a three-piece suit with Nixon’s rumble in his voice and the sneer in his smile.

Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot

Of course, the little guys in that film banded together to not only defeat Wormer but destroy half the town when they crash the homecoming parade and take down all the phonies and charlatans. It reflected a time when youth could take down the powerful, and radically change the nation by ending a senseless war, forcing the passage of civil rights legislation, and not letting sinners get away with it, no matter how rich or powerful they were. It’s a kind of comedy too rare these days.

Interestingly, the comedy that has come closest to mirroring some of the rages against the machine like that in Animal House and echoing the current climate of political outrage was in Long Shot, another Seth Rogen film from earlier this year. He only produced Good Boys, but produced and starred in the romantic comedy with Charlize Theron. In that film, he plays a liberally-minded reporter who ends up in a relationship with the Secretary of State (Theron). And while it pursues many of the tropes of the “slobs vs. snobs” type of comedies, it takes a strong stance against how politics and the press feed off each other to create an enabling relationship that often loses the electorate in all such machinations.

Of course, such a high-minded comedy, one of the best rom-coms in a long time, failed at the box office. Perhaps it was too smart for its own good, or at least for broader audiences. Thus, Hollywood is likely to resist plowing more of such territory. It shouldn’t though, as comedies that cut to the bone, not just the funny bone, tend to be more memorable. The best Good Boys can say is it’s amusing and that little kids today are both sweet and sour. That’s fine, but even sixth graders deserve more depth.

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