Means: Why comedy is king, or queen, at Sundance this year

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: January 25, 2013 01:43PM
Updated: May 5, 2013 11:33PM
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Sean P. Means

Independent film and, certainly, the Sundance Film Festival aren’t usually known for comedy.

No, it’s the dour and depressing movies that made Sundance’s early reputation, from the ’80s AIDS drama “Longtime Companion” to the ultraviolence of “Reservoir Dogs” to the sultry introspection of “sex, lies, and videotape.”

And for the purposes of this discussion, let’s not even talk about the documentaries — where, as moving and well-made as they are, somebody’s always dying of something.

Oh, sure, there always been some comedies, but even those were tinged with sadness. “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” anyone?

Or there are movies whose titles — as if to validate Marge Simpson’s observation that every Sundance film is the opposite of what it says it is — suggest humor that the movies don’t deliver. The opening-night film in 2003, “Levity,” centered on a paroled murderer (Billy Bob Thornton) seeking redemption from his victim’s sister (Holly Hunter). Last year, “The Comedy” delivered a humorless look at some Brooklyn douchebags, two of them played by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (of the weird and funny “Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job!”).

But a funny thing is happening at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival: The movies that are getting a lot of attention, being talked about on the shuttle buses and the pass-holder lines, are out-and-out comedies.

Two of the big deal-making films in the Premieres section — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, “Don Jon’s Addiction,” and the coming-of-age story “The Way, Way Back,” starring Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell — were comedies.

And the U.S. Dramatic competition gave us these four sharp comedies:

• Jerusha Hess’ “Austenland,” the adaptation of South Jordan author Shannon Hale’s romp about a Jane Austen obsessive (Keri Russell) visiting a Regency-era tourist attraction.

• Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “C.O.G.,” a dark comedy — the first movie ever adapted from a David Sedaris essay — about a spoiled college kid (Jonathan Groff) learning how the other half lives in rural Oregon.

• Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Toy’s House,” a coming-of-age comedy about three high-school boys (Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias) who run away from home and build their own house in the woods.

• And actress Lake Bell’s directing/writing debut, “In a World … ,” a sweet and smart story of an aspiring voiceover star (played by Bell) trying to break through the movie-trailer world’s glass ceiling.

Why is comedy king at Sundance this year?

Part of it, as festival director John Cooper told me a while back, is that tough times often bring out the funny in people.

It’s not exactly a new sentiment. It’s the same idea Preston Sturges documented in his 1941 classic “Sullivan’s Travels,” when his lead character, filmmaker John L. Sullivan, noted: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

Another reason for all the good comedies at Sundance is that the general quality of independent films has improved over the past two decades. And, as the 19th-century actor Edmund Keen is alleged to have said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Sean P. Means writes the Culture Vulture in daily blog form, at blogs.sltrib.com/vulture. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com. Follow him on Twitter at @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.