A belated Hidden Treasures post, this week taking a look at three underrated comedy films. More so than any other genre of film, comedy can be particularly divisive, but I expect that all three of these films have not yet been seen and appreciated by their full audiences.
MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY (2008) - BHARAT NALLURI
A tremendously enjoyable film, wafer-thin and feather-light, which may be why it never truly broke out when released almost five years ago. An accomplished ensemble, including the ideally-cast central duo of Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, flex their comic muscles with poise and dexterity, which is especially remarkable when one considers the pedigree of the film's director Bharat Nalluri: a few low-budget thriller features and episodes of minor TV shows. For Nalluri, this isn't just a clear creative high, but an anomaly! McDormand plays governess Guinevere Pettigrew, unjustly sacked from her job, who finds employment in the service of American actress and singer Delysia Lafosse (Adams). How could anyone resist two such-named characters inhabited by two superb actors, evidently having an utter ball? Essentially, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a period-piece rom-com, but with a generous dose of com, and a wryness to offset the rom. A bright, memorable cast includes Shirley Henderson (reason enough to see any film she's in), Ciaran Hinds and an unreasonably dashing Lee Pace. Production values are perfect, which is only to be expected from artists such as production designer Sarah Greenwood, and costume designer Michael O'Connor.
Two more rib-ticklers after the jump...
It won't be a popular opinion, I'm sure, but this is the performance that ought to have beaten Marlon Brando's Don Corleone in The Godfather to the 1972 Best Actor Oscar, and thus secured Peter O'Toole a richly deserved statuette, one which he has yet to be bestowed. In the guise of satire, and with a sure eye, you can pull off just about anything. The Ruling Class is a long, cynical, very British black comedy with inexplicable musical moments and even the occasional dash of horror-esque material. The satire works because the script, by Peter Barnes from his play, is so intelligent and so eloquent, and so well-attuned to the ways of the English upper-class in the mid-late 20th Century - not just a dying breed, more a band of the walking dead, drinking down the dregs of a defunct society rather than adapt to the new one being carved out around them. O'Toole is at his theatrical best as the 14th Earl of Gurney, a ludicrously good performance in a ludicrously ludicrous role, building to one unforgettable guttural utterance which alone confirms him as one of cinema's all-time great actors. The film is constructed almost completely around him, and yet is equally lively and entertaining. An alternative comedy indeed, and it'll prove an incredibly tough sit if you're not this way inclined, but it's surely worth a pop if you're into British comedy at its finest.
SMALL TIME CROOKS (2000) - WOODY ALLEN
It might seem odd to consider a Woody Allen film a 'hidden treasure', but I was surprised when I first saw it by its quality. Not being one of his most celebrated films, perhaps due to its thorough adherence to comedy. But I'm particularly partial to Allen's broadest comedies, and while Small Time Crooks may run out of steam part-way through its meandering plot, Allen's ever-reliable sense of humour, better delivered by no-one but the man himself, who stars here, keeps the film firmly attached to my funny bone throughout. In an inspired concept, quintessential Woody, ambition-rich but cash-poor crook Ray mounts a shoddy (and eventually botched) scheme to rob a bank, and his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullmann) provides a front by opening a cookie shop in the building next door. And wouldn't you know it, the cookie shop is such a success that the couple's fortunes rocket. Somewhere in there, there's a critique of wealth and a mockery of tastelessness... well, it's all over the film, but it's not the point. Refreshingly, it's the comedy that's the point. Allen is dedicated to it, as dedicated as he has been perhaps since Love and Death (my personal favourite of his). At 22 years his junior, Ullmann's on-screen relationship with Allen is one of his least-icky in recent times, and Ullmann's comedic deftness makes me wonder why he hasn't cast her in more of his films (she hasn't worked with him since). Better still is Elaine May, a Hollywood legend, and worthily so, better known as a writer than an actor (and for Ishtar, alas) - her turn as May is one of those classic female performances in a Woody Allen film, and up there with the best of them.