2015 was an abysmal year for comedy. Some may immediately point to films like Spy or Trainwreck to argue, but one should immediately point out that neither of those two were necessarily grand films. No, this was a year that saw the release of Vacation, Mortdecai, The Wedding Ringer, The DUFF, Aloha, The Ridiculous 6, Get Hard, Hot Pursuit, Unfinished Business, Pixels, and American Ultra. 2015 tried really, really hard to make us laugh, and instead it left us in tears.
Except in two notable cases. There were two (and perhaps only two) comedy films released in 2015 that were indisputably funny, left everyone in a good mood, and dealt with corny old jokes in wonderful new ways. Also, neither of these films were too long. As William Shatner once said, brevity is the soul of wit. So any light comedy that runs over 115 minutes is pretty much disqualified. Spy ran 119 minutes (with a 130-minute director’s cut in the works) and Trainwreck ran 125. Snappy, guys. Get snappy.
Here are the two that were snappy. And damn funny.
The Case for What We Do in the Shadows:
Based on the 2005 short by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary about a quartet of vampires un-living in a dingy flat in New Zealand. The youngest of the group is over a century old, while the oldest is a rat-like Nosferatu that’s rounding 4000. The vampires do have a system of getting about in the world, but they don’t really seem to know how it works – they haven’t bothered to research what this “the internet” is, and are still keen on 16th-century hedonism. The joke comes from the (quite common) juxtaposition of ancient mannerisms and violent monster magic against modern beige apartment banality.
The juxtaposition of the extraordinary and the quotidian is, of course, a hugely common comedy trope. But something about What We Do in the Shadows ups the ante. It knows that a lot of well-known vampire lore is absurd, and wrings every detail of the public’s knowledge of vampires for every laugh it’s worth. How, for instance, does a vampire dress himself if he casts no reflection in a mirror? How does the whole “familiar” thing work in the modern day? And if vampires are forced to room together, who does the bloody dishes (in this case, actually caked with blood)?
What We Do in the Shadows is refreshingly direct. It feels casual and loose, but is going to be sure that the gags come fast and furious. We’re not going to wait through extended periods of riffing to get to the gold. This is a film that cuts away all the chaff and goes for the jugular, as it were.
The Case for Pitch Perfect 2:
Even though it’s not a part of any discussions about the best films of 2015, it should be acknowledged that Elizabeth Banks’ comedy musical Pitch Perfect 2 was amongst the highest-grossing films of the year. It also had a higher laugh-to-groan ratio than most other comedy films in 2015, which few seem to recall. Pitch Perfect 2 follows an all-girl college a cappella choir as they attempt to win back their college’s good graces by winning global singing competition. Hilarity, and no small number of fun a cappella arrangements of well-known pop hits, ensue.
Pitch Perfect 2, unlike many comedies about young women, allows its characters to be buffoons. While some of them are smart, and a few of them are genuinely emotionally conflicted about moving on from college, they’re all broad, silly lasses who do and say some hilariously dumb things from time to time. They can be slapstick weirdos just as well as any men. We’re given a team of women whom we can kind of laugh at, but whom we still sympathize with; they’re allowed to be complex, sexual, interested in a variety of things. That’s no easy task.
But gender politics aside, Pitch Perfect 2 is a blast. The pacing is loose (it barely squeaks in at the requisite 115 minutes) and the story isn’t at all complex, but there is a simple, silly joy to the comedy that was absent from other comedies of the year. It also has some really fun, funny music, all compiled on what might be one of the best soundtrack records of the year. And, if a “furthermore” is needed, it even eventually gets a little wistful about friendship, moving on, and the importance college plays in one’s life.
The Winner: What We Do in the Shadows
All apologies to Pitch Perfect 2, but What We Do in the Shadows is, at the end of the day, just the funnier film. It’s tighter and the gags come faster. The characters are stranger and sillier. You’ll laugh more. And that’s the most important gauge in judging a comedy, right?
What We Do in the Shadows is one of the only films in 2015 that focused 100% on being a comedy first. It’s not hinging on the riff talents of a known comedy icon: even though Jemaine Clement is well-known in cult comedy circles, Shadows is not reliant entirely on him. It’s about the jokes, and it’s about the ensemble. It’s about the manner. You can tell the off-the-cuff naturalism of the film was carefully planned, and that the jokes needed to be told in a certain way. Shadows nails it.
Top Photo: Madman Entertainment and Universal Pictures
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.