10 great tragic comedies

Movies with a smile, and perhaps a tear... We laugh and cry our way through some of the best comedies with one foot squarely in tragedy.

10 December 2018

By Christina Newland

Withnail & I (1987)

The word ‘tragicomedy’ has always been a pretty elastic one. If it can be summarised at all, it must be simply a comedy that contains elements of real melancholy and sadness. From the mordant plays of Samuel Beckett to the funny-sad comic stylings of Jacques Tati, the things that make us laugh are often contained within the dramas and pitfalls of real life.

Cinema has touched on this since the earliest days of the artform, with slapstick comedians keenly aware of the humour in risk, embarrassment and pain. But also in just watching people fall over.

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The comedian, after all, is one we laugh at as much as with. It’s been reiterated in countless ways over the years: the archetype of the sad clown, the slapstick fool, the ineffable idiot.

Whether it’s Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean or Buster Keaton’s straight-faced acrobatics, there’s just something appealing in the pathetic. ‘You have to laugh or you’d cry,’ goes the old idiom. The following selection of films, featuring comedians from Charlie Chaplin to Richard Pryor, might take this as their motto. Their triumph is that they manage to make the audience do both. 

The Kid (1921)

Director: Charles Chaplin

The Kid (1921)

Many of the great silent slapstick comedians worked in a tragi-comic mode. Buster Keaton endures all sorts of humiliation with a sad-sack resilience, while Chaplin gazes to camera pleading for sympathy whenever misfortune befalls him.

In The Kid, a chance moment of thievery results in the Tramp adopting a baby boy. The child grows to be Jackie Coogan, a little terror who accompanies Chaplin in his hustling. But Coogan’s birth mother is searching for him, and when there’s a misunderstanding with police, the boy is almost taken from his adoptive father forever.

“A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear,” says the opening intertitle of the film, and it’s not wrong. In The Kid’s most memorable scene, police try to take the little boy from the Tramp. Chaplin throws a bowl of flour on a policeman and comically tries to skitter up the side of a roof, but the slapstick effect is muted: this is pure melodrama.

As the boy weeps and reaches out askance in the back of a lorry, Chaplin fights his way toward him and they are reunited in one of the most enduring and poignant close-ups in cinema history. 

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

“We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping,” jokes an armband-wearing Nazi officer in this film. They don’t come any darker or closer to the bone than To Be or Not to Be. This sparklingly defiant screwball comedy laughs in the face of encroaching Nazi evil, a subject that seems as difficult to joke about now as it probably did in the midst of wartime.

Ernst Lubitsch, a Jewish émigré who was vilified by the Germans after his departure from their national film industry prior to the war, was the only director for the job. Focusing on a troupe of actors in German-occupied Warsaw, his film stars Carole Lombard and Jack Benny as a married couple who help engineer a plot to help the resistance movement. Sadly, this was Lombard’s final performance before her death in a plane crash while selling war bonds.

The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder

The Apartment (1960)

With its acerbic wit, shades of grey and concern for the moral weakling, The Apartment is among the darkest of relationship comedies. Billy Wilder’s approach is wonderfully multi-layered, as he tackles a variety of issues, from workplace chauvinism and nepotism to the stiff conformity and hypocrisy of the great masculine enclaves of Manhattan office buildings.

Jack Lemmon marries bumbling spinelessness with a sort of wincing likability, making a clown of himself as a romantic booby prize. This is a comedy where Christmas Eve is a time for misplaced and lonely souls, an office a place of bullying, and the soft-hearted are trampled on again and again. Such human frailty may reveal Wilder’s cynicism, but there’s a nuanced empathy here towards his flawed sweethearts Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine that makes The Apartment a deliciously anti-romantic romcom.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

There’s nothing quite as unfunny as nuclear annihilation. So naturally, Stanley Kubrick took it on in maverick style and turned the topic into blackest comedy. Dr. Strangelove is set in the thick of Cold War brinkmanship, when an insane general (Sterling Hayden) makes a paranoid decision to push the button. With madcap performances from George C. Scott and a multiple-role Peter Sellers, Kubrick vividly observes the egomaniacal men in control of it all – sexually insecure weirdos, former fascists, overinflated macho men. It’s as funny as it is facepalm-inducing.

By the time Vera Lynn’s sentimental war ballad ‘We’ll Meet Again’ plays over images of apocalyptic mushroom clouds, the film has struck disbelieving fear into the same audience that’s been doubled-over with laughter. 

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)

Director: Jeff Margolis

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)

Richard Pryor had a talent for turning the most melodramatic of his own life events into a punchline. He could make a sob story about growing up in a brothel strangely hilarious. In his scathing live stand-up show, Pryor held forth on race, police brutality, his upbringing and an avalanche of other subjects with the animated humour and dark wit he became iconic for.

His loose charm, raised eyebrows, perfectly timed pauses and range of impersonations amount to a physical turn that merits the highest praise; he was a true performer. But his subject matter was knife-edge, politically charged, even grim and violent: police dogs ripping into young black boys, rape, and the like. His combination of insight, irony and cynicism makes for an exhilarating viewing experience, even decades later.

Withnail & I (1987)

Director: Bruce Robinson

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I is a cult classic that finds levity in eccentric uncles, damp countryside cottages with windows that “faces look in at”, bohemian squalor and rampant alcoholism. It’s as British as things get. Richard E. Grant’s characterisation as the out-of-work boozehound actor with a taste for the theatrical is unforgettable. When he and Paul McGann take a trip up to the country and “go on holiday by mistake”, they are terrorised by yokels, mud and Withnail’s lustful Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths).

But it’s the end of the 60s; hedonism has its consequences, and Robinson’s film is one of thinly veiled sadness. By the heartbreaker of a conclusion, in which a soliloquy from Hamlet is howled out in a rainy park, the audience has been treated to a perfect marriage of misery and hilarity. 

Life (1999)

Director: Ted Demme

Life (1999)

Ted Demme’s prison comedy is about two New York pals (Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence) who are framed for murder in the Depression-era south. It failed at the box office and never really hit it big critically, yet it’s a touching story of friendship and racial strife.

A bit of bad luck and plenty of prejudice see the duo sentenced to life in a swampy Mississippi penitentiary, where they make a group of misfit friends over the years but never quite succeed in breaking free. If much of comedy is based in a sort of boundless dumb optimism, so too is Life: this time, the optimism of repeated failed escape attempts and hopes of early release.

Much of the film is in broad strokes, but there are some truly hilarious moments and, almost 20 years on, with the American prison-industrial complex more discussed than ever, Life remains surprisingly fresh.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

This strange, meandering love story from Paul Thomas Anderson features a career-best Adam Sandler as Barry, a kind-hearted slob who runs a novelty goods store. Harassed and bullied by his many sisters, he’s lonely in life, ringing up sex hotlines and working hard at anger management to control his rare but explosive outbursts.

If this doesn’t seem a promising premise for a comedy, you’re probably right, but Punch-Drunk Love picks an endearingly idiosyncratic path. Sandler cuts a crestfallen, tragi-comic figure, but one day he meets Lena (Emily Watson), who does her best to overcome Barry’s social awkwardness. A series of mildly absurd events ensue that nonetheless take on weight through Barry and Lena’s love for each other: Barry hunts down the petty criminals who try to extort him and thriftily coupons his way into a Hawaiian vacation.

Anderson uses incidental humour to nudge along the self-conscious romance, evoking both Robert Altman and Jacques Tati in his playful, funny-sad depiction of losers in love. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Director: Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the century-spanning tale of an eloquently foul-mouthed concierge, Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), and his loyal lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). Bringing together rapid-fire screwball dialogue and elegant physical humour, it’s a masterclass in old-fashioned comedic chops, with a host of stars – from Harvey Keitel to Tilda Swinton – popping up in amusing cameos.

Wes Anderson’s film carries a nostalgia for the grand, eccentric lives of the super-wealthy that once peopled European hotels at the turn of the century. By the early 1930s, it becomes apparent that even Gustav’s reign is at a period of early decline: the nightmare of war is about to change everything forever. Awash with melancholy, The Grand Budapest Hotel is built on foundations of both sadness and silliness – but there’s a sting in the tail of this sweet, comic wild goose chase. 

Toni Erdmann (2016)

Director: Maren Ade

Toni Erdmann (2016)

In this tonally zig-zagging father-daughter story, Sandra Hüller is Ines, a trim, enervated corporate shill and eventual straight woman for her estranged dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek). As she embarks on an important business trip, Winfried, who has a penchant for pulling bizarre pranks, puts his daughter in increasingly awkward situations – predominately by gaining a cachet in her corporate circles as alter-ego Toni Erdmann, a wealthy and enigmatic banker with an absurd overbite.

In interviews around this much-lauded arthouse hit, director Maren Ade claimed: “Desperation is the origin of comedy.” Certainly it’s clear that Winfried’s doing it for the aloof Ines’ attention and love, and the painful heart of the film is in its alienation between these two characters. Still, when Ines gets trapped in her own cocktail dress or belts out Whitney Houston at karaoke, it’s hard not to find it hilarious.

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