A New Kind of Comedy

Just don't expect to laugh. Woody Allen and Mike Leigh may have returned to form with their latest tragicomic films at Cannes, but Richard Porton finds they leave a bitter aftertaste.

In 1993, Mike Leigh, in the midst of discussing Naked, the film that won him a Best Director prize at Cannes that year, confessed to me that he has a penchant for finding the “tragicomic things in life.” The boundary between pathos and comedy is often thin and the Cannes premieres on Saturday of Leigh’s competition entry Another Year and Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, screened out of competition, proved this point with great succinctness.

Leigh began his career making television films that focused on the quirks of what are sometimes condescendingly termed “ordinary” working-class and middle-class Brits. Precisely because he refused to treat unglamorous individuals with kid gloves, Leigh was often unfairly accused of caricaturing his protagonists. Leigh still bristles at these accusations and claims that his films merely reflect his actors’ ability to capture the behavioral tics of complex, frequently eccentric characters.

Allen observed that the film’s happiest character is also its most deluded.

Another Year finds Leigh once more mining comic gold out of the antics of Brits behaving badly—and occasionally nobly. Following the travails of a closely knit group of Londoners during one year that spans from spring to winter, the emphasis is on characters who are living on the cusp between late middle age and senior citizenship. Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist, and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a counselor at a local medical center, are that rare commodity in Leigh’s work and cinema in general—a genuinely happy married couple. Two of the couple’s closest friends—Mary (Lesley Manville) and Ken (Peter Wight)—are far from well adjusted and the blatant misery on display in Another Year makes this gentle film truly disturbing. The audience finds itself laughing uproariously at abject loneliness and desperation.

Richard Porton on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Leigh’s skill in eliciting laughter through tears has always been abetted by the superb actors who choose to work with him; although Leigh is often prickly with journalists, his actors are positively gushy when talking about him and he always returns the compliments. In a cast that includes many Leigh veterans (Jim Broadbent, Peter Wight, Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen, Phil Davis, among others), Manville is the absolute standout. Playing a divorcee who becomes alternately flirtatious and despondent when tipsy, a lifetime of disappointment is etched on Manville’s face as she grimaces her way through a series of disastrous social encounters.

As in many Leigh films, the most instructively cringe-worthy moments come during social gatherings. A tea party where Mary is unable to conceal her jealousy when Tom and Gerri’s son (a man nearly half her age) shows up with his bubbly girlfriend is a cruel epiphany. The ludicrousness of it all inspires mixed emotions: We feel like cackling but are held back by empathy for a woman who gradually becomes aware that her life will only get worse.

Also set in London, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a considerably more mixed bag. Fortunately, it does represent a partial return to form for Allen after such recent lame attempts as Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, and Whatever Works. Unlike Leigh’s behavioral, naturalistic mode of comedy, which attempts to capture the nuances of everyday life, Allen’s style is more indebted to a tradition of farce where every character is an identifiable “type.” Yet beneath the gags and one-liners that pepper You Will Meet, a tragicomic pessimism is clearly obvious. At a packed Cannes press conference, Allen observed that the film’s happiest character is also its most deluded, a chatty woman of a certain age named Helena (Gemma Jones), whose every decision is inspired by the pronouncements of a fraudulent fortune teller.

If the scenes between the wacky Helena and her equally daffy psychic play like a modern reworking of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, the flimsy pipe dreams of subsidiary characters lead, despite the comic brio on display, to genuine misery. To a certain extent, this makes You Will Meet sound much grimmer than it actually is. Much of the material is, at least superficially, the stuff of screwball comedy. Something of a sexual comedy of errors, most of the characters believe that their lives can be rejuvenated if they find new partners—and then end up paying the consequences for their foolhardy optimism. The plight of Helena’s former husband Alfie (played with earthy gusto by Anthony Hopkins) is painted in especially broad strokes. Painfully lonely and hoping for the son he’s always dreamed of, he marries twentysomething Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a vivacious call girl, and then ends up in debt paying for her shopping sprees while she carries on with a gaggle of muscular young men.

Although Alfie’s cuckolding is mired in tried and true comic territory, Allen is aiming for something darker in his depiction of the marriage of Helena’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her tortured novelist husband Roy (Josh Brolin). Known as a one-book-wonder incapable of writing anything rivaling his acclaimed first novel, he callously seduces Dina (Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire fame) and then, in a shameless act of chicanery, tries to achieve renewed literary success by the most amoral route possible. There is something more than a little facile about the way Allen scripts Roy’s diabolical schemes; he comes off as more of a literary conceit than a believable scoundrel. And the convoluted subplot resembles a diluted version of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen’s most successful effort to emulate the brand of European art cinema pioneered by Ingmar Bergman in the 1960s.

What ultimately links Leigh and Allen’s new films is a shared interest in character-driven humor that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Comedies traditionally end with at least a tentative sense of affirmation. But Another Year ends with the camera lingering on the despairing Mary, who realizes as much as any ‘80s punk rocker that she has no future. And Allen sums up his new film’s impetus by paraphrasing Macbeth’s famous soliloquy: “It’s all sound and fury, and in the end it means nothing.” If audiences come to comedies expecting frothy entertainment, this sentiment will provide undeniably cold comfort.

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Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.