Unlike 2010, a year that didn’t give us a whole lot of great comedies, 2011 was a step in the right direction. Since it takes a movie two years to make it from script to theaters, the comedies of 2011 were the movies greenlit in the wake of The Hangover’s unbridled success in 2009. While The Hangover’s monstrous box office gross is directly responsible for the release of its sequel this year, it also caused an influx in raunchy, R-rated comedies, making it seem like these were the only types of comedies that came out in 2011. This recent wave of R-rated comedy began when Wedding Crashers and Judd Apatow’s breakthrough film The 40 Year Old Virgin made a ton of money in 2005, with Apatow becoming the leading producer of ribald big-screen humor in the years that followed, but the wave really hit its crest this year with a batch of movies that were made in response to the original Hangover becoming one of the most financially successful comedies of all time.
In 2011, the three highest-grossing comedies (The Hangover Part II, Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses) were all rated R – the first time in history this has ever happened. In fact, out of 37 studio comedies released this year, more than half of them (20) earned an R rating from the MPAA. Let’s start with The Hangover II, the year’s biggest success story. The film drew a lot of criticism for being so brazenly similar to the original, but audiences didn’t seem to mind. Although The Hangover II’s box office receipts didn’t surpass those of its predecessor, it was still 2011’s most-watched comedy and made more than enough money to warrant a third installment.
Horrible Bosses was perhaps the most blatant attempt to recapture The Hangover’s success – taking The Hangover’s three guys in a series of vulgar shenanigans theme, mixing it with a Hitchockian plot, and counting on audiences to relate to the lead characters’ healthy, all-American hatred for one’s boss. Taking a nod from The Hangover, the producers of Horrible Bosses cast a trio of comedic performers who have been hanging around in movies and TV for a while but weren’t major movie stars yet as the leads. This strategy of relying on lesser-known comedic actors instead of A-listers worked with The Hangover and it worked here, too, making Horrible Bosses one of the year’s third most successful comedies.
The R-rated comedies this year also took an interesting turn in that they started to skew female. Bridesmaids was billed as a “female Hangover,” but proved to be much more than that, with its deep, well-drawn characters echoing producer Judd Apatow’s other films more than they do Todd Phillips's 2009 bachelor party behemoth. Bridesmaids was a rampant, deserved success that even netted Kristen Wiig and the film itself a pair of Golden Globe nods and spurred talk about adding a comedy category to the Oscars. Besides Bridesmaids, other popular female-driven hard R comedies this year included Bad Teacher and the blatantly-similar fuckbuddy rom-coms No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits.
Every year, the movie industry releases more and more sequels and remakes, but comedies aren’t as affected by this trend as, say, sci-fi or action films. Nevertheless, there were some significant remakes and sequels amongst this year’s comedy films. As mentioned above, 2011’s highest-grossing comedy was a sequel, but retreads didn’t fare too well outside of The Hangover II and Jason Segel's Muppets redux, which scored big with audiences and critics (unlike Hangover II) and was the most critically-acclaimed comedy of the year, according to RottenTomatoes' numbers. Russell Brand’s bastardization of the 1981 Dudley Moore classic Arthur, the third (and hopefully last) installment in Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma’s House trilogy, and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas failed to live up to the popularity of their predecessors.
Audiences ushered in some new movie stars this year, with Kristen Wiig, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis all enjoying their first successful lead movie roles. These three have been playing supporting parts in TV and movies for years, and it’s about time they got this kind of recognition. Wiig’s Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy also had a great year and earned rave reviews for her performance, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her pop up as a lead in some major comedies soon enough. While I’m happy for Kristen Wiig, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis, it’s a shame that Nick Swardson, Danny McBride, and Aziz Ansari didn’t fare as well with their first name-above-the-title movies underperforming. These three all starred in 30 Minutes or Less together, which didn’t win over audiences, while Swardson and McBride each had one bomb a piece outside of 30 Minutes (Bucky Larson and Your Highness, respectively).
While up-and-comers like Kristen Wiig and Charlie Day had a great year, things were a little tougher for a lot of established movie stars. Kevin James, Adam Sandler, and Vince Vaughn have been sure-fire box office performers for ages, but 2011 was not this trio’s year. James and Vaughn starred in the blandly-titled The Dilemma, which drew criticism for needlessly featuring a homophobic joke in its trailer and slipped in and out of theaters with little response from audiences. Kevin James also starred in Zookeeper for Adam Sandler’s production company, but the film wasn’t nearly as popular as James’s previous solo outing Paul Blart. Although it was a minor success at the box office, Zookeeper failed to meet studio expectations, didn’t make a profit, and fell short of the typical Sandler/James box office results. Adam Sandler’s Just Go With It, which starred him and Jennifer Aniston, was one of the year’s most successful movies, but his follow-up Jack and Jill drew the worst reviews for any Adam Sandler vehicle ever, which is really saying something since his films aren’t exactly well-regarded by critics to begin with. Other major movie stars whose comedies underperformed this year were Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, whose birdwatching buddy movie The Big Year flew in and out of theaters unnoticed, as did Tom Hanks’s Larry Crowne and Jim Carrey’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins. This trend of well-known actors underperforming could be audiences rejecting overexposed movie stars, or it could be that big-name actors don’t usually make as ambitious films as newcomers.
Despite audiences ignoring the latest releases from some well-known comedic actors, two of comedy’s best-known filmmakers experienced their biggest successes yet in 2011. Midnight in Paris and Bridesmaids were the highest-grossing films ever for Woody Allen and Judd Apatow, respectively, and also drew each of their best reviews in years. To be fair, though, Annie Hall and Manhattan are Woody Allen’s two highest-grossing films by a long shot when you account for ticket price inflation, but Midnight in Paris is still a late period high for the living comedy legend. Judd Apatow served as only a producer on Bridesmaids, but the film was still his most profitable yet and its success has helped him to fight back against misguided critics who have complained about sexism in his work (these Apatow critics oddly enough never take shots at Todd Phillips, whose films can legitimately be called sexist).
As is often the case, some great comedies were overlooked this year, with 50/50, Crazy, Stupid, Love, and Paul being some of the most glaring examples. The cancer-themed dramedy 50/50’s heavy subject matter may be to blame for it failing to make a big dent at the box office, but it’s an immensely enjoyable film that skillfully blends comedy and drama and boasts a winning supporting performance from Seth Rogen in his best movie since Superbad (No offense, Green Hornet!). The film rightfully earned a pair of Golden Globe nominations this past month, which should partially make up for the public ignoring it. Crazy, Stupid, Love earned favorable reviews from critics and was a modest success at the box office, but it has four likable leads, a great script, and the mass appeal to have been one of the year’s highest-grossing films. Paul, written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, pales in comparison to the duo’s other films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (as well as the prior efforts of director Greg Mottola, who helmed Superbad and Adventureland), but it’s still a fun and original comedy with a once-in-a-lifetime cast. Pegg and Frost are joined by Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Jane Lynch, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Sigourney Weaver, and the voice of Seth Rogen.
2011 also saw the release of some high-quality independent and limited-release comedies. Submarine, a coming of age comedy-drama and the debut film from British director Richard Ayoade (who plays Maurice on The IT Crowd and starred in/wrote/directed Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace), stands out for Ayoade’s remarkable script and directing style, the strong lead performances from young actors Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige, and its excellent soundtrack from the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. Also worth checking out are writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s Win Win starring Paul Giamatti, the overlooked Ed Helms vehicle Cedar Rapids, The Trip starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (edited into a film from a six-part UK TV series), the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, and the Irish comedy The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle.
A lot of comedians made successful attempts at drama this past year. Two curly-haired, Jewish comedy writer/actors who are a couple generations apart, Albert Brooks and Jonah Hill, each earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for their turns in Drive and Moneyball, respectively, which should set them each up for a shot at an Oscar nod. Some other comedic actors and actresses went dramatic this year, too, including Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go, Patton Oswalt in Young Adult, and Rachael Harris in Natural Selection. The Descendants, from director Alexander Payne, was written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who plays Dean Pelton on Community). Payne, Faxon, and Rash are contenders for an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, which means we may see Dean Pelton up at the podium next year on Hollywood’s biggest night, which would be a welcome sight for Community fans longing for the show's return. Young Adult, from writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, and The Descendants are two comedy-dramas that will be getting a lot of awards attention in the next few months.
That was 2011 – a year of new highs, new lows, and Jack and Jill, a film that redefined the term “new low.” 2011 was the comedy world's hangover from The Hangover – a blurry year that left the movie industry with a splitting headache, an upset stomach, and foggy memories of some big mistakes (I remember something about a woman that looked like Adam Sandler). Look for 2012 and 2013 to be chock-full of R-rated comedies, many of which will feature female characters prominently, with these female characters being played by women instead of men.
(Numbers from Best-Reviewed Chart are from RottenTomatoes.com).
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.