Comedies, above all movies, are often difficult to predict in terms of their staying power and how they will age over time. A lot of the movies that are now considered America’s greatestcomedies were released to mixed reviews. Many news outlets seem to sneakily delete their critics’ reviews that do not stand the test of time, so what appears on Rotten Tomatoes is often revisionist history. Yet a few always remain.
The film that focuses on 21-year-old college graduate Benjamin Braddock and his affair with family friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) changed comedy films and American cinema. The movie launched Dustin Hoffman to fame. The film made big names of Simon & Garfunkel, who wrote their song “Mrs. Robinson” for the movie. The Graduate earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Actress (Bancroft), Best Supporting Actress (Katharine Ross, who plays Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter), Best Cinematography, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Mike Nichols took home the Academy Award for Best Director. AFI ranks the film as one of the greatest comedies ever made.
Time Magazine was not impressed.They wrote:
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? showed that director Mike Nichols, in his Hollywood debut, could make a film that was a succes d’estime, de scandale and de box office. The Graduate, his second screen effort, unfortunately shows his success depleted… The screenplay, which begins as genuine comedy, soon degenerates into spurious melodrama.”
Fortunately for Nichols and the cast, the success did not deplete as Time thought it should.
John Landis directed then-SNL star John Belushi in this comedy classic. This film is beyond just cult following. Bravo ranked the film Number 1 in their “100 Funniest Movies” list. Animal House turned off some critics when it first hit theaters.
Notably, the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr thought Animal House was pretty bad. He wrote that “The low comedy is undeniably effective, [but] the film leaves behind a bad taste of snobbery and petty meanness.”
Rodney Dangerfield. Chevy Chase. Bill Murray. Caddyshack is one of the most quotable, classic comedies made. AFI ranks Caddyshack among the 100 funniest films and 10 greatest sports-related movies ever. Yet upon its release, critics really hated it. Many reviewers compared it unfavorably to Animal House. Ramis would go on to direct popular comedies like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Groundhog Day, and Analyze This, among others. And Caddyshack did pretty well.
Variety said that, “this vaguely likable, too-tame comedy falls short of the mark.”
Roger Ebert had a mixed reaction, saying the film, “never finds a consistent comic note of its own… never really develops a plot,” and the actors “hardly seem to be occupying the same movie.”
Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader said that Caddyshack is “Animal House scaled down to a kiddie movie.” He added, “The first-time director, Harold Ramis, can’t hold it together: the picture lurches from style to style (including some ill-placed whimsy with a gopher puppet) and collapses somewhere between sitcom and sketch farce.”
“Excuse me while I whip this out.” One of the most beloved Mel Brooks films, Blazing Saddles is a timeless comedy spoof of Western films. Some major outlets, though, were none-too-pleased after watching it.
Vincent Camby of The New York Times wrote, “Blazing Saddles has no dominant personality, and it looks as if it includes every gag thought up in every story conference… [Mel Brooks’] use of anachronism and anarchy recalls not the great film comedies of the past, but the middling ones like the Hope-Crosby Road pictures.” Camby conceded that Mel Brooks has talent, but concluded that with his talent, “he should do much better than that.”
Time Out Magazine wrote, “The screenplay is credited to five writers, and it shows in the confused melange of styles… [Saddles] proves that there is more corn in Hollywood than Oklahoma.”
TV Guide acknowledged that the film has funny moments, but they caution that the laughs are merely “to cover the fact that it is, essentially, a stupid movie.” They also warned audiences that the “last fifteen minutes of the movie are an obvious cop-out and the humor is often toilet level.” The end of the review accuses the satirical film of racism. “What really lessens SADDLES is that its intentions aren’t clear. Its humor provoked no thinking.” They added that “insensitive moviegoers” who think that the film is intended to satirize racial prejudices and southern tropes are “wrong.” Maybe it’s for the best they stick to TV.
One of the most acclaimed comedy franchises in cinema history, Ghostbusters received widespread acclaim and box office success when it hit theaters. Over 30 years later, after sequels, TV shows, and video games that spawned from the original, the Internet exploded with the news that Paul Feig planned to remake Ghostbusters with an all-female cast. Of course, the original — starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis — had some top critics shaking their heads in disappointment.
Variety wrote that Ghostbusters was a disappointment, amusing “only intermittently.” The industry trade added that the film “makes a fundamental error: featuring a set of top comics but having them often work alone.” Variety’s issue was isolation. So if the three had worked together, the film would have been better?
Not according to Pauline Kael of The New Yorker. She wrote that the three comedy stars were too often paired together and had no chemistry. “There’s almost no give-and-take among the three men, [so] Murray’s lines fall on dead air.” Well, these critics had some issues with the cast’s chemistry, but the comedy itself is excellent.
Well, Janet Maslin of The New York Times disagrees. She wrote, “This film hasn’t gotten very far past the idea stage. Its jokes, characters and story line are as wispy as the ghosts themselves, and a good deal less substantial.” Maslin adds that there are “far too many loose ends” in a film that clearly gave “more attention to special effects than to humor.” One of Maslin’s few positives described is the ghosts themselves, which she called “very winning, especially that hungry green one.” If only Ghostbusters had been exclusively hungry green ghosts.
Get on that adaptation, Paul Feig!
It was only a few years ago that Bridesmaids premiered and paved a new road for comedy films. The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, boosting the careers of director Paul Feig, writer-star Kristin Wiig, and co-star Melissa McCarthy. The critical acclaim drowned out those who reviewed the film as a flop.
Variety wrote that Bridesmaids was “obviously intended as a femme version of a rude and crude boys-gone-wild comedy, complete with projectile vomiting, inconvenient defecation and fusillades of F-bombs,” however, they noted that the film “sorely lacks the saving grace of being consistently funny.”
The Village Voice also found Bridesmaids too crass, writing, “Comedy of humiliation is one thing; a fat lady shitting in a sink is another.”
Lou Lumenick of The New York Post was no fan. He summarized Bridesmaids as “this overlong, awkward attempt to fuse gross-out humor (à la “The Hangover”) with you-go-girl sentimentality.” Lou noted that at his screening, “a good number of women sat in stony silence throughout,” emphasizing that both men and women could hate this movie. “By the time two hours had dragged by, I felt a lot like I had sat through a five-hour wedding.” He criticizes multiple scenes in detail, scoffing, “You’d think a movie called “Bridesmaids” would focus on the bridal attendants more than this one does.” At the end of the review, he notes that Jon Hamm makes an uncredited appearance, but concludes, “I’m not sure even this hunk is going to be able to sell a raunchfest like “Bridesmaids” to substantial numbers of women.”
Rob Reiner directed this legendary rockumentary, which he also co-wrote with co-stars Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer. AFI recognizes the film as one of the funniest movies ever made, while the Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” selecting it for preservation in the National Film registry. Since its release, the film has become more beloved over time, with some critics even wondering if This Is Spinal Tap is the “perfect comedy.”
Yet the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr is tough to please, at least when it comes to comedy. Again, he played the role of contrarian, writing that the film had its moments, but “ultimately the attitudes are too narrow to nourish a feature-length film.” Kehr felt malnourished by the film, which he criticized for being too lengthy. This Is Spinal Tap is 82 minutes long. Kehr notes that “82 minutes is still a long haul.”
Kehr wasn’t alone. The faith-based outlet Spirituality and Practice called the film “a mediocre satire of heavy rock bands.” It’s not surprising that a religious magazine did not enjoy a comedy about a rock band whose songs include “Sex Farm,” “Big Bottom,” and “Hell Hole.” It’s more bizarre that they even bothered to watch and review the film.
Woody Allen’s run of successful comedy films is undeniable. He wrote, directed, and starred in comedy classics like Sleeper, Bananas, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Love and Death, and many more. One of his funniest works is Take The Money and Run, where Allen stars as Virgil Starkwell, a terrible bank robber. The film is a mockumentary, which was highly unusual in 1969, a far cry from today, where that style is normal in movies and sitcoms. Take The Money and Run, cut in a series of hilarious scenes, many of which could serve as outstanding stand-alone sketches, is the first film where Allen served as writer-director-star. While he was already an established comedian, critics at the time did not quite know how to react to this unknown quantity.
Roger Ebert gave an interesting contradictory review, summed up by the first line: “Woody Allen’s Take The Money and Run has some very funny moments, and you’ll laugh a lot, but in the last analysis it isn’t a very funny movie.” Ebert tosses out some suggestions for one scene that he felt could have been visually funnier, where Allen’s character walks through a park and falls in love with a woman who he’d just tried to rob. “Maybe the couple could fall into a lake, or the cameraman could have trouble keeping his camera out of focus, or the slow-motion could speed up.”
Variety agreed that the film was not funny, pretentiously writing, “A few good laughs in an 85-minute film do not a comedy make.”
Harold Ramis directed Bill Murray, Chris Elliot, and Andie MacDowell in this comedy classic. Murray stars as a smug weatherman who stumbles into a time-loop while covering Groundhog Day, repeating the same day over and over. As with many of the previously-mentioned films, revisionist history has been kind to Groundhog Day. The movie is routinely ranked among the best comedies and best fantasy films. The Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay #27 on their “101 Greatest Screenplays Ever Written.”
Entertainment Weekly praised Murray’s performance, but said, “What the movie lacks is the ingenious, lapidary comic structure that could have made these moments fuse into something tricky and wild (which is what happened in, say, Back to the Future). Groundhog Day has a clever premise, yet it’s surprisingly flat.”
Variety complained that the film was “inconsistent in tone and pace.” They gave some compliments, writing, “Some sequences are crisply paced and comically terse, some ramble and others just plain don’t work.”
The Washington Post confidently predicted that while the film was “pretty good,” they added, “Groundhog will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress.” In 2006, the Library of Congress voted to preserve Groundhog Day through the National Film Registry.