The newly released Sexy Beast (20th Century Fox) got plenty of press last year - enough we mightn't mention it here - but it arrived in stores amid a little flurry of films that mine a similar territory, black comedy. I'm not talking about the Ice Cube vehicle Friday - I'm talking about films that make you laugh along with that which terrifies, repulses, or offends you. Humor is subjective enough, but this kind of thing can be impossible to nail down, making one viewer bust a gut while his date walks out in disgust.
Almost everyone I know agrees that Beast's Ben Kingsley is outrageously funny. His malicious gangster Don Logan is a Caruso of profanity; his streams of invective are so imaginatively delivered I can't help but giggle. Add to that the fact that Logan's menace is embodied by the man who played Gandhi ... Even if the movie weren't a fantastic psycho-drama (it is), it would be worthwhile for this performance.
On the other hand, I have always had to leaven my recommendations of 1989's Vampire's Kiss (MGM) with caveats like "you've gotta have a very specific sense of humor" and "if you're in the right mood ..."Many reviewers at the time were clearly not in the mood; the film got some eviscerating reviews, and seen in many lights it is incoherent and ridiculous. But I prefer to think that the cast and crew were in on the joke - you don't dress Nicholas Cage up in cheap vampire fangs if you're trying to make a conventional film.
The idea is that Cage, a shallow publishing exec with the lamese faux-European accent you've ever heard, picks up a spike-heeled bimbo who turns him into a vampire. Or does she? Doesn't much matter to Cage's character, who spirals into a destructive depression in which he does some truly awful things. This was back before Cage went Hollywood, and he allows himself to become fully, gorgeously bizarre. If you hate it, you hate it - but an entire floor of my dorm saw it many times over in 1989. (And I just tested it on an unsuspecting subject, who laughed in all the right places.)
Two other recent releases also cry out for warnings and qualifications, though these two have a fair bit of critical weight on their side, whatever that's worth. Todd Solondz' Storytelling (New Line) is, as the director readily admits, least understood by those who laugh the hardest at it. Though a superficial viewing delivers bleak, mean-spirited laughs at characters so empty they couldn't be real, Solondz wraps his plots up with resolutions so downbeat you have to reconsider your reaction. One starts to ask what, if anything, is being mocked here: characters? audience? director?
Storytelling is also obsessed with the problematic nature of what we call "documentary" filmmaking. If you listen to the men behind the decade-old Belgian film Man Bites Dog (Criterion), you'd think that's the sole topic of their story. They claim that they could have made the same sort of film with a door-to-door salesman as the subject of this mockumentary, instead of a heartless killer. That's outrageous; the film is so soaked in blood, so stickily mucked-up with its killer's engaging, often hilarious personality, that it raises issues that are, frankly, above the filmmakers' heads. As a piece of provocation, Man Bites Dog is a huge success - you cannot watch it unmoved. But you never feel like the movie takes a coherent position on the issues it raises; given the thorny nature of representations of violence in entertainment and news, and the way those two things are often the same thing, it's understandable that three film students couldn't wrap it up neatly.
This column would be downhearted if it couldn't give an unambiguous, enthusiastic thumbs up to some deserving film out there, so here you go: John Hughes can go to hell (or at least suburbia) - Better off Dead (Paramount) is the '80s teen comedy to top them all. With a babyfaced John Cusack as a guy who decides to end it all when his preppie girlfriend dumps him, it's a compendium of high school worst-case-scenario fantasies. Cusack is Everyguy surrounded by pitch-perfect stereotypes and other characters so odd they'll never be mimicked, and the story's rich with running jokes, sight gags, and bits of embarrassing '80s novelty like a claymation cheeseburger lip-synching Van Halen. After a week of laughing at killers, vampires, and rapists, who couldn't use a sesame-seed David Lee Roth?