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Loosen up, Oscars

Comedies get little respect from the movie academy, and that's a serious problem.

October 28, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

When I was at an early screening of the upcoming comedy "Role Models" the other night, I found myself thinking about the Academy Awards, wondering what I always wonder when I see a good new comedy: Why on Earth shouldn't the Oscars recognize good work in comedy the same way they do in drama, animation, cinematography, editing and all the other great movie crafts? Shockingly, comedy is so thoroughly ignored by Oscar voters that it's been more than 30 years (yes, count 'em -- thirty) since a true comedy -- Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" -- won the Oscar for best picture.

To say this is a disgrace would be an understatement. I hate to bore you with a recitation of film history, but movies began as a comic medium. A generation of Americans grew up falling in love with the cinema, largely thanks to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and a host of other inspired silent movie comics. A second generation of moviegoers survived the Great Depression, thanks to the wonderful screwball comedies of the 1930s, from "My Man Godfrey" to "The Awful Truth" to "It Happened One Night" to "Midnight," not to mention the great Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields movies of the period.

The comedies of the '30s remain the true pillar of movie art from that era, immensely watchable even today, as many of the dramas and gangster films of the period have lost much of their thrill and allure. Comedy often tells us more about our time than the most acclaimed drama. In fact, I'd argue that if future cultural historians wanted the best window into the contemporary mores of the early 21st century, they wouldn't find much help from most of our recent Oscar winners ("Crash" aside), which tend to be set in the past, looking back in time for lessons about earlier eras. For the best analysis of people's anxieties, quirks and fears in 2008, you'd start by watching Judd Apatow movies, which have more to say about our time than "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," James Bond or even thoughtful art films like "Atonement" or "There Will Be Blood."

Directed by David Wain, who did 2001's "Wet Hot American Summer," "Role Models," which is being released by Universal Pictures Nov. 7, has no weighty message to deliver. It's simply loaded with shrewd comedy writing and slyly funny performances. Penned by a quartet of writers, including Wain, the film's costar Paul Rudd, Ken Marino (who plays a comically clueless stepdad in the film) and original writer Timothy Dowling, it follows the misadventures of two mismatched young guys -- Rudd and Seann William Scott -- who find themselves forced to become mentors to a pair of unhappy young boys in a Big Brothers-style community service program.

The Apatow influence is inescapable, since the film is populated with various actors, starting with Rudd and costar Elizabeth Banks, who are best known for their work in Apatow films. The project has an intriguing history. It was originally at Fox, which put it in turnaround. Producer Mary Parent, now MGM's production chief but then a producing partner with Scott Stuber, picked it up, believing it was a timely comic premise: "I loved the concept of these two guys -- one of them totally cynical, the other completely living in his imagination -- who were forced to learn how to step out of themselves and help other people."

In Dowling's original script, the guys were raffish beer salesman, which Parent felt was too close to the characters in "Wedding Crashers." There was also a big high school football game in the film's third act, which was tossed out during script rewrites, replaced by a comical medieval-style battle reenactment.

The project was transformed in numerous other ways. The original director, Luke Greenfield, got the ax during preproduction, replaced by Wain, who had worked with Rudd on "Wet Hot American Summer." The film lost its original title, "Big Brothers," when the real-life organization nixed the idea. For a while, the movie went under "Little Big Man," which the filmmakers dropped, worried that it would require too much explanation for moviegoers. "Role Models" was relatively generic, but it gave Universal a good hook to base its marketing material around.

There are a host of stellar performances in the film, but none better than the one given by Rudd, who gives his character a wryly poignant spin rarely seen in comic buddy films. Played by Rudd, Danny Donahue is smart, cynical and thoroughly disappointed in himself, shrewd enough to see that he's going nowhere in life but not resourceful enough to stop himself from spinning his wheels.

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