Is Happy-Go-Lucky my favorite DVD release this week? Bloody right it is. As an American who loves British comedy, I was particularly pleased to see Mike Leigh's latest show up on so many 2008 "Top Ten" lists, not to mention its star, Sally Hawkins, considered for so many awards.
Typically, when a new disc like this gets me excited, it puts me in a mood for a home-brewed film fest, and this week I'm on a Britcom jag. Some of my favorite comedies from the UK -- saucy, silly, or satirical, highbrow or low -- are stacked up here in the Temple of Dude, and I'll be heading for the video store to rent more.
Trouble is, where do I start? And how many can I fit into my viewing time? Wikipedia's page of British comedy films lists nearly 300 titles and counting. Comedies are well represented on more exclusive lists such as the BFI 100, the British Film Institute's 100 favorite British films of the 20th century. (That list is conveniently reformatted at filmsite.org.) On the Users Top 100 list at britmovie.co.uk, comedies fill half the top ten slots. Making the selection more difficult and more fun at the same time, we find suggestions at sites such as TotalFilm, british-films.suite101.com, and the 50 Greatest Comedy Films poll at London's Channel 4.
Nonetheless, I've managed to narrow down a list of my own, and I'll be watching a fair number of them with some mates, some pints, and a batch of fish and chips. If you get the itch for a Britcom fest at your home, I guarantee you that these are the dog's bollocks. Go ahead and recommend other favorites in the comments box below. Let me know what I should add to the queue.
A Britcom fest without a big dose of Monty Python is unthinkable. Obvious choices here are Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python's Life of Brian, two films that always leave me quoting them in conversation for the next three days. In particular, Life of Brian is an extraordinary sampler from the long British tradition of smart, sharp satire, and it currently ranks #1 in the Channel 4 poll of Greatest Comedy Films.
Further obvious choices are films by Python veterans. Terry Gilliam made the world a better place with Time Bandits, Brazil (with fellow ex-Python Michael Palin), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (with fellow ex-Python Eric Idle). Meanwhile, John Cleese stars in the hilarious, sexy jewel-heist comedy A Fish Called Wanda, ably abetted by Palin again along with -- phwoar! -- Jamie Lee Curtis as a wily seductress and Kevin Kline in an Oscar-winning, psychotically comic turn.
Like your British wit in a more romantic vein? Then you'd better like Hugh Grant because he became his own Brom-Com subgenre with Love Actually, Bridget Jones's Diary, Notting Hill, and especially the hugely successful Four Weddings And A Funeral. All those adult romantic comedy hits came from the diverse talents of Richard Curtis, who is praised by British TV lovers for bringing the Blackadder series down from the mountaintop and introducing us to Rowan Atkinson.
Nobody understood love -- or comedy -- better than that quintessential English scriptwriter, William Shakespeare. The Best Picture Oscar-winner Shakespeare in Love remains a favorite blend of comedy, romance, and historical style that the British do so well.
On the other hand, if you like your English less frothy and more gritty, then raise a pint to Guy Ritchie's hyperkinetic crime caper comedies Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Both are bullet-paced, wildly stylized, and a hell of a lot of fun. In Snatch, co-starring with Jason Statham are Benicio Del Toro as "Franky Four Fingers" and Brad Pitt as a "pikey" Irish Traveler with an incomprehensible dialect. It's the sort of off-the-wall character role I wish Pitt would do more often. (And have your DVD's subtitles on for his scenes, as his regional brogue is as thick as a treacle pudding.)
British gangster comedies got another shot in the arm in 2008 with Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, which is as dark and snappy as a chocolate-covered tea biscuit. The film got a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards. Its stars, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, were each nominated for Golden Globe Awards in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical), with Farrell taking home the prize.
And you don't get grittier -- or grimier, at any rate -- than Withnail and I, one of the essential British "cult" films of the past generation. Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, and Richard Griffiths headline this dour farce, and it's one that shows how the British can blend the comic and the grim so well that you wonder how they could ever be separated. Withnail and I is to movie comedy what The Clash were to club rock.
There's something in the British DNA that makes them the Masters Cup Champions of wry, dry, understated humor with an anti-authoritarian backspin. Some of the funniest and best-loved British comedies that exemplify this quality were made at London's Ealing Studios in the years after World War II. Today, just say "Ealing comedies" and any British film fan worth his kippers knows exactly what you mean and smiles because of it. Anyone new to them will instantly recognize the familiar face and voice of Alec Guinness a generation before he became Obi-Wan Kenobi. Far and away the most famous Ealing classic is the elegant and cold-hearted masterpiece Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which Guinness plays all eight victims (including Lady Agatha) of the D'Ascoyne family as they're murdered one by one. Criterion has released an excellent DVD of Kind Hearts and Coronets, and the film holds the #6 spot on the BFI's list of 100 favorite British films.
A weekend of Ealing comedies must also include The Man in the White Suit (showcasing Guinness in the best science fiction film he ever starred in), The Lavender Hill Mob, Whisky Galore!, Passport to Pimlico, and Kind Hearts director Alexander Mackendrick's great The Ladykillers -- the original with Guinness, Herbert Lom, and a young and chubby Peter Sellers, not the Coen Brothers' weak remake with Tom Hanks.
You don't need kids or a South Croydon address to love the Ealing-inspired Wallace and Gromit films, or Chicken Run, or anything else from the Aardman Animation studios. They may just be the most successful British exports since The Beatles.
And speaking of Peter Sellers, the comedy that made him an international star is timely again. It's a brittle satire on economic gear-grinding, I'm All Right Jack. After that, pour yourself a straight shot of Sellers' first and best Inspector Clouseau outing, A Shot In The Dark, then chase that down with, of course, Dr. Strangelove, because only the black-marrowed British funny bone can make the end of the world so frighteningly, beautifully funny.
To lighten up after nuclear Doomsday, we have The Full Monty, a bawdy blockbuster from the wave of British comedies that crashed our shores in the 1990s. That wave also brought us Trainspotting by Danny Boyle, who is riding high again after his Slumdog Millionaire success story.
Finally, I sure would like to clink a bottle of bitters with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg to thank them for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and the TV series Spaced. These gents entertain us with the rare spoofs that don't mistake stupid for clever or believe that easy pop culture references just -- bang! -- automatically equal funny. Shaun of the Dead put a suburban London spin on familiar old horror-movie tropes, and Hot Fuzz took the piss out of not only the Michael Bay/Lethal Weapon/Die Hard/Firing-Two-Guns-Whilst-Jumping-Through-the-Air action-thriller genre, but also the distinctively English genre of "Quaint Country Village Hides a Terrible Secret Usually Involving Civic Leaders in Druid Robes and Also There's a Pub and Very Likely an Old Church With a Bad Vicar." These guys are smart and affectionate and, blimey, fold-over funny -- without being insulting, stupid, or in any other way [Insert generic genre send-up] Movie about it.
That's plenty to get me started at least, and I'm feeling awfully chuffed about it. Please suggest more. Maybe tonight I'll start with one of those Hugh Grant romances. After all, the wife will be joining me on the couch, and, who knows?, maybe for a bit of how's-your-father. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.