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20 Underappreciated Comedy Movies You Might Not Have Seen

17 August 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Paul Steventon

7. Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

DON'T TELL MOM THE BABYSITTER'S DEAD, from left: Josh Charles, Christina Applegate, 1991, © Warner Brothers

Predictably, the babysitter dies early on leaving five kids to their own devices for the summer. In a morally questionable decision their mother hires an elderly babysitter whilst she and her fiancée tour Australia.

The babysitter turns out to be an awful tyrant and when she dies in her sleep the kids decide to drop her body at the nearest funeral home. They forget to take the money their mother left of the body leading to the oldest sibling, ‘Sue Ellen’, played by Christina Applegate, going out to find work. She eventually land a dream fashion job through her false resume but she proves to be remarkably good at it anyway.

It’s all really good fun and very funny, in the same vein as some other great comedies of the era such as ‘The Secret Of My Success’ (1987). ‘Don’t Tell Mom…’ opened to pretty terrible reviews and little commercial success and this is a real injustice.

The young cast are great, particularly Keith Coogan (‘Adventures In Babysitting’ (1987)) and there’s an early role for David Duchovny, it’s all held together by an excellent performance by Applegate. The script is great with some excellent dark moments and it’s adolescent fantasist charm makes for a good watch.

Over the years it’s popularity has grown somewhat and it has a minor cult status but it still hasn’t attained the acclaim it deserves.

 

8. The Hard Way (1991)

THE HARD WAY, James Woods, Michael J. Fox (in posters), 1991. ©Universal Pictures

‘The Hard Way’ is a bona-fide comedy classic and has always been criminally under-seen. Directed by John Badham it mainly sticks to the buddy cop action formula with a decent villain and wraparound story which is secondary to the primary joy of the film; the performances and chemistry of co-stars Michael J Fox and James Woods, it’s not a wholly stereotypical on screen partnership and full credit to the casting director.

Fox plays ‘Nick Lang’; a blockbusting franchise actor who wants to be taken seriously in more dramatic roles. He sets his sights on a cop drama and after seeing ‘Lt John Moss’ (James Woods), a super tough New York cop on the trail of the “Party Crasher” serial killer, he sets it up so he can shadow him.

Fox play against type as a delusional prima-donna with an unbelievable level of enthusiasm and optimism. Woods plays ‘Moss’ with an exhausting level of intensity and through this and his sheer anger he offers some of the films funniest moments. His lack of patience for ‘Lang’ is hysterical and every scene together absolutely fizzes with energy. The highlight is a scene with Fox role-playing as Woods’ girlfriend is a master class in comedy.

The script is really tight and quick-firing and rewards an investment of attention as well as repeat viewing. There are some excellent support characters too with a particularly enjoyable turn from Delroy Lindo as a ‘Lang’ obsessed Police Captain. Truly amazing stuff and if you haven’t seen this you are missing out.

 

9. What About Bob? (1991)

WHAT ABOUT BOB?, from left: Richard Dreyfuss, Kathryn Erbe, 1991, © Buena Vista

‘What About Bob?’ Is a hysterical comedy which frustrates and amuses in equal measure, the interplay between its main characters is hilarious and is what makes this a classic.

Bill Murray plays ‘Bob Wiley’, a psychiatric patient referred to the egotistical ‘Dr Leo Marvin’, played by Richard Dreyfus, for treatment. At first ‘Bob’ is a polite and model patient, until ‘Dr Marvin’ goes on holiday, which ‘Bob’ takes as abandonment. ‘Bob’ immediately tracks the Dr down at his New Hampshire holiday home, latching on to the family.

‘Dr Marvin’ tries in vain to send ‘Bob’ away in a variety of ways but ‘Bob’ works his way into the good graces of the ‘Marvin’ family, staying on in New Hampshire with a local couple who hold a grudge against the Dr for buying the lakeside home they had been saving for.

‘Dr Marvin’s’ family take a liking to ‘Bob’, welcoming him along on the holiday whilst the Dr himself slowly losing his grip on sanity as he continues to try and rid himself of ‘Bob’.

Directed by Frank Oz, this is a film of chaos and incredibly effective black comedy; with a few tweaks this could easily have been a thriller. Bill Murray’s performance is on par with anything else he has done in his career. The narrative generates some great laughs and it has an excellent ending.

 

10. Death Becomes Her (1992)

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Death Becomes Her is a pitch black comedy about self-centred people whose main life goal is to look young and stay that way at any cost, it’s very clever and absolutely hilarious.

Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn star as vapid Hollywood harlots; ‘Madeleine’ (Streep) steals ‘Helen’s’ (Hawn) man, ‘Ernest’, a talented plastic surgeon played by Bruce Willis in arguably his best role outside of ‘Die Hard’ (1988), his gradual nervous breakdown throughout the film is pure comedy gold.

Years later and after a lot of therapy, ‘Helen’ comes back thin and youthful and ready to steal back ‘Ernest’. When ‘Madeleine’ finds out ‘Helen’s’ secret to her youthful looks she goes to great lengths to obtain it. From then on in the film descends into further chaos with the two women bemusingly fighting over the increasingly depressed ‘Ernest’.

The violence goes to surprisingly lengths but remains comical and there are some excellent effects by ILM. The three main stars here are all absolutely on form and direction from Robert Zemeckis is excellent. The very funny and dark script creates a wonderful Hollywood satire with sharp wit and dialogue.

 

11. Heavy Weights (1995)

Heavy Weights (1995)

‘Heavy Weights’ pokes light-hearted fun at kids going to fat camp; controversial? Maybe. It may have been heavily criticised if made today, in the mid-90s though Disney was on a high and clearly thought this was safe territory. Putting this aside though, you are left with a zany family comedy which has some very funny scenes and one terrific, if not a little unnerving, performance from Ben Stiller as demented fitness guru, ‘Tony Perkis.’

The story centres around ‘Gerry Garner’ (Aaron Schwartz) whose parents send him off to ‘Camp Hope’ to lose weight over the summer. Once at camp it turns out the place is a lot more fun and less concerned with weight loss. For the most part the young cast are all pretty likeable characters with a few that grate on you a little.

There are plenty of wisecracks and a particularly funny and immature ‘food orgy’ scene where the kids absolutely gorge themselves on forbidden goodies. As mentioned, Stiller plays ‘Tony Perkis’, an overblown spoof of 90s fitness gurus, who takes over the camp from it’s kindly but bankrupt owners. His plans are to put all the kids on to his personal weight loss program and turn the whole camp into an ‘infomercial’.

Stiller is amazing in this, he is an intense and hyperactive villain and the character is an obvious early blueprint for his ‘Dodgeball’ (2004) character ‘White Goodman’. He’s also in amazing physical shape, which further adds to the over-the-top image of the character. There are other comic moments from the adult support here but it’s Stiller you will stay for.

Overall the story is a little mixed up with an ending that feels a bit tagged to wrap up a conflict with super fit ‘Camp MVP’. Interestingly this was the first film writing gig for the hugely successful Judd Apatow, an Apatow-Stiller vehicle today would almost certainly be a money maker but aside from a minor cult following, ‘Heavy Weights’ remains largely in the shadows.

 

12. Kingpin (1996)

Kingpin (1996)

‘Kingpin’ is oft overshadowed by the Farrelly Brothers other comedy movies ‘There’s Something About Mary’ (1998) and ‘Dumb and Dumber’ (1994), ‘Kingpin’ takes a slightly darker path and is all the better for it.

It starts with a young ‘Roy Munson’ (Woody Harrelson), a promising bowler who has great early success, he then meets the incomparable ‘Ernie McKracken’ played by Bill Murray in what is one of his most under-appreciated roles, ‘Ernie’ tries to exploit ‘Munson’ into helping him hustle some amateur bowlers but they spot the ruse and ‘Munson’ loses a hand, ‘McKracken’ leaves him to his fate and makes an escape.

Years later ‘Munson’ is a washed up drunk, until he spots Amish farmer ‘Ishmael’ (Randy Quaid) and his unurtured bowling talent, ‘Munson’ spots a way back to the big time and becomes ‘Ishmael’s’ coach, all paths lead to a final showdown with Murray’s ‘McKracken’.

This is a daring comedy and the timing and punch lines of most of the jokes is sublime, the characters are all mostly awful but totally likeable at the same time. Lin Shaye makes a wonderfully awful appearance as ‘Munson’s’ landlady which is a standout moment in the film.

The real highlight here is Murray’s performance, particularly toward the end of the film as he feels his unchallenged success slipping away, all beautifully illustrated by the gradual deterioration of his comb over haircut.

 

13. Waiting For Guffman (1996)

Waiting For Guffman (1996)

‘Waiting For Guffman’ is a wonderful mockumentary style comedy written and directed by Christopher Guest (‘This Is Spinal Tap’). It shares ‘Tap’s’ mockumentary approach and tells the story of a handful of small town locals who put on a pageant in honour of their towns 150th anniversary to be directed by a wonderfully camp Guest in the role of ‘Corky St. Clair’.

Added pressure comes from the imminent arrival of a Broadway producer ‘Mort Guffman’. It’s a great send up of amateur dramatics and the characters this area of the arts can attract, the cast are all talented ‘Second City’ cohorts of Guest, such as Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey and an excellent Bob Balaban as the school music teacher.

The script is excellent but leaves room for fantastic improvisation, the songs written for the film by Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean are ridiculously funny and the jokes are constant. It’s a tragically underseen film that deserves repeat viewing.

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