2015: The Year Women Took Over the Comedy Box Office

trainwreckIf there is one thing that stands out about movies in 2015, it is this: 2015 was the year women finally dominated the summer on screen. 2015 may have been “The Summer of Amy Schumer,” but it was also The Summer of Female-Driven Comedies in General, and really, tabling genre for a minute, it was The Summer of Female Heroines, Period. Yes, we got Spy, an action comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a, well, you know; female buddy cop comedy Hot Pursuit; and Trainwreck, Amy Schumer’s anxiously awaited romcom collaboration with Judd Apatow – maybe the clearest examples of the so-called “Bridesmaids Effect.”

But we also got Inside Out, a universally lauded animated film, about the difficult beauty of having feelings, featuring one of Pixar’s few heroines, and Pitch Perfect 2, the summer’s top-grossing comedy that starred actual humans. The indies, meanwhile, gave us Lily Tomlin in Grandma and Greta Gerwig in Mistress America (which she also co-wrote) — both films that had male characters, but barely. There was Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People; there was the Kristen Wiig-led, Shira Piven-directed Welcome to Me. And then there was the very special category-defying Magic Mike XXL, a movie made mostly by men, but designed for the female gaze. All told, by The Wrap’s count, more than half the summer’s movies were “aimed at and/or produced mainly by women,” which, for reference, is more than double, and sometimes closer to triple, the counts of the last four years. And — importantly — these movies made money. “A battle for the future of Hollywood will be waged at the box office this weekend,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Inkoo Kang the weekend Spy and Entourage both opened. If it was indeed a battle, then Spy won, which bodes well for the future: the summer’s women-driven comedies needed to prove they could make money, and they did.

Lest we get smug here: the numbers for women in Hollywood are still pretty depressing, as Maureen Dowd noted, in horrifying detail, in her recent New York Times Magazine piece. In 2013 and 2014, women accounted for 1.9 percent of directors for the 100 top-grossing films; in 2014, 95 percent of cinematographers and 89 percent of screenwriters were men. Even the long-awaited, definitely-worth-celebrating female comedy boom has a dark side: “Comedy and horror are really two of the only genres where women can get a voice now,” Leslye Headland told Rolling Stone. Still, for women in comedy (and also viewers who enjoy jokes), it was a good summer, even if it feels a little bit sad to have to be so excited about something that, as Paul Feig put it to Entertainment Weekly, still isn’t enough, and also “should have happened years and years and years ago.” Amen. On that note, let’s move on to Paul Feig.

Feig’s Spy came out easily on top of the year’s blockbuster comedies — “comedies” here defined as big studio laugh-em-ups that are unequivocally comedies, and not, say, The Martian, a space adventure I learned was a comedy when it was controversially classified as one for Golden Globe consideration. Capitalizing on the formidable talents of its star, Spy suggested that maybe if you break with tradition just a little bit — say, by doing a slightly absurd, frothy, slapstick spy sendup that just happens to be so casually feminist that it feels, as A.O. Scott put it in his review for the Times, “at once revolutionary and like no big deal” — you can come out on top critically (93% on Rotten Tomatoes) and at the box office.

As for the season’s woman-driven romcoms, if they were revolutionary, it was a quiet revolution. Structurally, at least, romcom DNA remained essentially unchanged. But if the basic arcs stayed the same, and the last-ditch grand gesture lives on, some of the details got an important overhaul. Both Trainwreck’s Amy (Amy Schumer) and Sleeping’s Lanie (Alison Brie) were flawed, difficult, complicated, and frequently self-sabotaging — so, you know, people. They owned their desires, sexually and professionally, and they didn’t have to magically become other, simpler, sunnier, more together versions of themselves to get their happy endings, and that’s not a small triumph, even if the specific type of alt-romcom heroine we’re into at the moment is starting to feel just a little bit like A Trope of Her Own. (If you wanted a romcom that followed a different arc this year, you were better off with TV — which makes a certain degree of sense, since the two-hour meet-cute fundamentally doesn’t work when you have to extend it over a season or more, and necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.)

What 2015 was not was a year for the buddy comedy — or at least, not in the traditional Hangover-style dudes-having-zany-dude-antics vein. Permanent fixtures Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart each had two movies in the category this year, including their joint venture, Get Hard. Reviews of the racially charged buddy comedy with lots and lots of prison rape jokes were pretty abysmal (“Some of the ugliest gay-panic humor to befoul a studio release in recent memory,” wrote Justin Chang at Variety; 28% on Rotten Tomatoes), but the box office numbers told a different story ($90,411,453, just behind Trainwreck), as they so often do. Hart’s The Wedding Ringer, in which he plays a best-man-for-hire opposite groom Josh Gad, had a similar critical/box office divide; Ferrell’s Daddy’s Home, a family comedy about competitive fatherhood and falling down a lot, isn’t out until Christmas Day. Jonathan Levine’s The Night Before, this year’s entry into the goofy-sweet neo-Apatowian canon of 30-something coming-of-age comedies, fared better critically (67% currently), but while it has a top-notch cast (Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), it’s not likely to be considered any of their best work. The same could likely be said for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters (62%), another holiday release. Jason Segel, meanwhile, took on his first major dramatic role in The End of the Tour, a movie that had some of the trappings of a buddy comedy — two dudes, a road trip — but wasn’t. Also, the Entourage movie happened, and is over now.

But if it wasn’t, in general, a banner year for traditional buddies, it was a fantastic year for unconventional comedic (dramedic?) duos on screen. Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a madcap, dizzying, iPhone-shot comedy about two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor was bleak, warm, hilarious, and among the best of the year. Mistress America, one of Noah Baumbach’s two comedies this year (along with While We’re Young), was a darker-than-it-seems, screwball-in-New-York comedy, with a manically radiant Greta Gerwig playing unstable mentor to the younger but more grounded Lola Kirke. Grandma, gave us Lily Tomlin and Julia Garner driving around LA trying to cobble together money — a buddy comedy set-up, except with a teenager and her lesbian grandma, and the money’s for an abortion.

Some of the year’s most exciting comedies blurred the lines of genre and butted right up against (and sometimes into) tragedy. Welcome To Me made bold use of Kristen Wiig’s comedic talents to do something much, much darker. Following an Oprah-obsessed mentally ill woman who wins the lottery and buys herself a talk show (Wiig), it was tonally ambitious, hovering between uncomfortable humor and uncomfortable pain. Adam McKay’s transcendent The Big Short was a much bigger project, but it also capitalized on the comedy chops of its star, Steve Carell, to capture a haunting American tragedy — fantastically unglamorous, sometimes hilarious, and gut-punch emotional, it was the financial crisis “comedy” we all deserve, and may have been my favorite movie of the year. Steve Carell plays a certain kind of business man with convictions better than anyone else. On The Office, he was usually wrong, and it was hilarious. The tragic difference in The Big Short is that he’s right.

Like every other year, 2015 had a smattering of sequels beyond Pitch Perfect’s a cappella empire, most of which — predictably — flailed in the ratings but soared at the box office. Ted 2 (46%) failed to replicate the original’s unexpected critical success, but it did just fine at the box office, as did Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (a shocking 5%). Also in the top-grossing 100 was The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It wasn’t quite as good as the first best (78% vs 63% on the Tomatometer), but then, they tell you that right there in the name.

And then, as always, there were the gems that got comparatively overlooked: People, Places, Things was a kind-hearted melancholy meander through the post-divorce life of a middle-aged cartoonist, played with characteristic charm by Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords fame. Indiewire says Damián Szifron’s “scorching satire” Wild Tales was criminally overlooked (indeed, I missed it). Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl was a Sundance breakout (with another notable performance from Kristen Wiig), as was Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, which Vulture described as a “Go meets Risky Business meets True Romance meets Fingers, with a little bit of Boyz n the Hood and We Are the Best! thrown in.” Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, starring Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, and Taylor Schilling, wasn’t exactly a secret, but it was sharper, more nuanced, and more complicated than one might expect. My personal vote goes to Results, mumblecore king Andrew Bujalski’s fitness comedy, which was categorically an indie romcom, but felt so much more complicated and surprising than that. (Also, it featured the best comedic performance by a cat of 2015, YouTube excluded.)

2015: the year Lily Tomlin came back to the big screen, Jason Sudeikis demonstrated female masturbation on a juice bottle, Phyllis Smith gave voice to all our sadness, and maybe — hopefully — the beginnings of a genuine, lasting shift in whose stories get told on the big screen, and who gets to tell them.

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