Back in their heyday, studio comedies used to populate theaters at a rampant rate. Studios would wisely spread crowdpleasing comedies throughout the yearly calendar, with most entries serving as welcomed counter-programming to the bombastic blockbusters and weighty awards-hopefuls populating multiplexes. It was a win-win formula for studios – a strategy that provided a consistent revenue stream due to comedies’ reasonable budgets and critic-proof reputation.
Growing up in the 2000s and 2010s, I still fondly remember seeing generational staples like 21 Jump Street and This is the End inside the buzzing atmosphere of a sold-out crowd. There’s nothing like the energy emanating from an audience during a winning comedy. The uproarious laughter and communal spirit genuinely represent the best of what the theatrical experience can deliver.
That’s not to say the genre was faultless. It seemed like each standout comedy would generate its own string of copycat imitators. Whether it was the raunchy wave of the late 1990s or the loose Apatow-inspired comedies in the early 2010s, studios created a slew of laugh-free, factory-assembled products that half-heartedly tried to meet viewers’ demands.
Fast-forward to modern times, studio comedies have essentially vanished from theaters. The advent of over-populated streaming services and the damaging ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic leaves studio comedies in a new reality. A star-studded theatrical romp like The Lost City now feels like an unexpected oddity – as studios restrict most of their comedic output to unceremonious streaming releases. The last two years alone saw The Lovebirds, Vacation Friends, and Superintelligence ultimately cancel their theatrical plans in favor of streaming platforms.
With the recent releases of The Man from Toronto on Netflix, Father of the Bride on HBO Max, and Jerry and Marge Go Large on Paramount+, I wanted to analyze how current industry patterns are altering the studio comedy landscape. Whether these comedies were intended initially for theaters or not, they each contextualize how studios approach crafting comedies in our modern times. Is streaming affecting comedic films for better or for worse? Let’s take a look!
The Man from Toronto
The Man from Toronto Synopsis: The world’s deadliest assassin (Woody Harrelson) and New York’s biggest screw-up (Kevin Hart) are mistaken for each other at an Airbnb rental.
Tell me if you’ve heard this idea before. Two polar opposites find themselves forced to work through an unlikely situation. Despite their differences, the two eventually bond and learn about themselves through their partner’s unique perspective. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach permeates every frame of The Man from Toronto – a lazy, laugh-free comedy destined to serve as background noise for Netflix users.
Borrowing from a familiar concept isn’t necessarily bad, but the creative team’s uninspired execution makes the contrivances stand out even more. Screenwriters Robbie Fox and Chris Bremner struggle in their attempts to imbue an intriguing-enough premise with any distinctive wrinkles. Instead, they offer audiences a lame-duck romp through unfunny running gags and been-there-done-that pratfalls.
The Man from Toronto is as factory-assembled as it gets for a studio comedy. Stars Kevin Hart and Woody Harrelson lack chemistry and are in full-out coasting mode as the titular odd couple (Harrelson was a last-minute replacement for Jason Statham, and it shows). Studio Director Patrick Hughes creates tedious and shoddy action setpieces despite working with a $75 million budget. Worst of all, there is not a single joke or plot beat here that showcases an original thought.
Sony initially intended The Man from Toronto as a theatrical release, but their decision to dump the film on streaming is understandable in hindsight. Like several forgettable comedies before it, The Man from Toronto will likely collect plenty of data points for Netflix while most audiences half-watch or leave the film playing in the background. Cases like this embolden streamers to make the most basic, mass-appealing product possible. With negative reviews and abysmal box office results possessing little relevance, it’s easy to see why some streaming productions are content going through the motions.
The Man from Toronto is now playing on Netflix.
Jerry and Marge Go Large
Jerry and Marge Go Large Synopsis: Inspired by the remarkable true story of retiree Jerry Selbee (Bryan Cranston), who discovers a mathematical loophole in the Massachusetts lottery and, with the help of his wife Marge (Annette Bening), wins millions and uses the money to revive their small Michigan town.
An aging couple discovers a new spark in their life when exploiting a state lottery loophole in Jerry and Marge Go Large. While admittedly pleasant, Director David Frankel and Screenwriter Brad Copeland spin a breezy yet mundane comedy from their stranger-than-fiction true story.
Unlike The Man From Toronto, Jerry and Marge does provide a pulse of entertainment value. Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening share an agreeable rapport as the mundane titular couple, with Cranston, in particular, having a blast as a man uniquely bound by his pragmatic mindset. Frankel also ensures that Jerry and Marge maintains an innate wholesomeness throughout. The film openly celebrates Jerry and Marge as the duo turns an oddball hobby into a reclamation project for their local community.
Jerry and Marge ultimately limits itself through its innate folksiness. Frankel and Copeland coat their film in a heavy dose of saccharine sentimentality, a choice that makes the end product maintain the energy of a sitcom-esque endeavor. The film ends up suffocating under its pleasantness, vying so hard for feel-good sentimentality that feels artificial instead (I bet the film maintains little detail from its true story origins).
Honestly, Jerry and Marge is the type of disposable romp that’s perfect for streaming viewers. The end product is a painlessly cheery endeavor that will likely evaporate from most viewers’ memory banks. Still, that distinction is the ultimate backward compliment. The growth of streaming creates fewer standards for studios and viewers alike, as both sides of the viewing spectrum can seem too accepting of mediocre final products.
Jerry and Marge Go Large is now playing on Paramount+.
Father of the Bride
Father of the Bride Synopsis: A father (Andy Garcia) must come to grips with his daughter’s upcoming wedding and handle multiple relationships within his sprawling Cuban American family.
As a remake of a remake, Father of the Bride imbues a Latin lens in its time-honored tale of two families colliding during hectic wedding preparations. I can feel some readers groaning at the thought of another remake, but Father of the Bride delivers a refreshing throwback to the studio comedies of yesteryear.
Father of the Bride pays homage to its predecessors while defining its own comedic frequency. Director Matt Lopez and Screenwriter Gary Alazraki create a film embedded in their cultural footprint. The two conjure an affectionate romp chock-full of uproarious laughs and well-earned tugs at the heartstrings.
I give the duo props for leaning into the generational differences at the core of their narrative. Andy Garcia’s hard-wired patriarch is not a vapid villain, but rather a man driven by the rigid coding of growing up as a disenfranchised immigrant in a bygone era. Garcia’s aloof charms also serve as the perfect delivery for his central role, while the supporting cast infuses vibrant energy and lived-in chemistry in their roles.
Sure, Father of the Bride hits the genre’s traditionalist trademarks without much deviation. However, the film follows the studio comedy blueprint to perfection in a joyous and unapologetically sentimental experience. As much as I enjoyed the final product, I was left missing the unique pleasures of seeing a good comedy on the big screen. The sounds of synchronized laughter and the ora of positive audience energy offer an unforgettable big-screen experience when comedies come together.
Father of the Bride is now playing on HBO Max.
So what do these movies tell us about studio comedies today? Well, studio comedies are in desperate need of creative infusions. The lack of standards in several streaming outings communicates the complacency in several of these productions. If anything, streaming services should be more willing to embrace risks with their direct-to-consumer platforms, not the other way around!
I’d also argue that the trend of straight-to-streaming for most comedies enacts more harm than good. Even great streaming laugh fests, like Bad Trip and The King of Staten Island, failed to gain the same word-of-mouth traction they would have if experienced in theaters. Sadly, success stories like We’re the Millers that became box office phenoms based solely on positive buzz now feel like ancient history lessons.
I am okay with comedies having a significant presence on streaming. Heck, I would even say comedies fit better in the streaming model than several other genres – but that does not mean the genre should exist exclusively on streaming. I hope the success of Lost City and the upcoming releases of Bros and Happy Easter will help restore studio comedies to their theatrical heyday.
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