Monday, November 29, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Fun (and Funny) Drunk?

Just recently, I re-watched the 1981 film Arthur (starring Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli and John Gielgud), a film that I would probably place in my top-5 Funniest Films Ever. I was prompted to re-visit the film after hearing that a remake is in the works, starring Russell Brand and Helen Mirren. In the original, Dudley Moore takes a hilarious turn as the title character, a multi-millionaire drunk and a rake, who is pressured by his family to marry a woman he doesn't love under threat of having the silver spoon yanked out of his overprivileged mouth. (SPOILER ALERT: He ends up with the girl he loves... AND the money.) I can't remember the last time I watched Arthur straight through-- it was probably more than a decade ago-- but it was every bit as funny this time as it was the first time. (And the theme song, Burt Bacharach's Best That You Can Do, was still just as enchantingly infectious. If you get caught between the moon and New York City... I know it's crazty, but it's true. ) Alas, as happens with many 80's movies, in this re-viewing I found myself inadvertantly flinching at the utterly un-PC nature of many of the scenes. For example: the scene where Arthur drives to his engagement party, slugging straight from a whiskey bottle the whole way. (On the highway. In a convertible. No shame whatsoever, and not even a hint of worry about being pulled over and arrested.) Of course, one would never see a "sympathetic" cinematic depiction of drunk driving these days, so my cringing at that scene led me to wonder: when was the last time I saw a sympathetic cinematic depiction of a drunk doing anything? Nowadays, drunks are always the bad guy/girl in film-- just think of Leaving Los Vegas-- and never the fun and funny characters of old.

This wasn't always the case. Especially in the 70's and 80's, movies were chock-full of endearingly intoxicated, hilariously inebriated, intentionally sloshed and hopelessly soused characters whose constant binging and pickling was meant to amuse us far more than it was meant to warn us. Think of Walter Matthau's turn as the coach of the Bad News Bears (1976)-- I mean, he drank straight from a can of six-packs in the dugout with a bunch of 8-year-olds! Or John Belushi in Animal House (1978), equally unrivalled and beloved symbol of frat-boy alcoholic excess. Or the "other" Dudley Moore drunk film 10 (1979). The early 80's even gave us an entire movie, Strange Brew, about not much more than how fun and funny it is to be drunk. Lest you don't think intoxicated one-liners and prat-falls are all that fun or funny, there was also the classic (1978) Jackie Chan film The Legend of the Drunken Master, which championed the drunk in a more unconventional way. Chan had to learn Drunken Kung Fu (from his drunken uncle, not kidding) in order to stop an assassin. All that is to say, it used to be the case that we were neither afraid nor ashamed of our amusement by the cinematic drunk.

And if we go even further back into the cinematic archives, the drunks get even better... and classier. One of my favorites of all time is Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. That scene where he shows up in the middle of the night at Cary Grant's (aka, "C.K. Dexter Haven") house is absolutely side-splitting. Or there's always W.C. Fields, who was a fun and/or funny drunk in almost every film he ever made. In the 40's and 50's, practically every leading man and woman was what we would now classify as an alcoholic. There is hardly a cinematic scene from that era that doesn't include a drink and a smoke, which were symbols of civilization, sophistication and enculturation far more than they were symbols of abjection or addiction. Once we get past the 80's, though, everything changed. Even "period" pieces, like Tombstone (1993), pretty much punt with regard to the tacit moral evaluation of their drunken characters. Val Kilmer's portayal of Doc Holliday is fun and funny for much of that film, but in the end makes the tragic "consumption" turn that characterizes so many post-80's period films. And you don't have to look very hard to find a list of equally depressing post-80's alcoholic films. (See Barfly, Bad Santa, The Verdict, Withnail and I, and Factotum for starters.)

Let me be clear. I'm really NOT trying to unreflectively valorize alcoholics here, no matter how fun or funny they might be. I am well aware that alcoholism is a terrible disease and that, for those who suffer it (and the people who suffer those who suffer it), the occasionally amusing pro's are far outweighed by the regularly destructive con's. That said, not every drinker is an alcoholic, of course, as even alcoholics would readily admit. After re-watching and thoroughly enjoying Arthur, I guess I just find it curious that Hollywood has so readily adopted the position that all drinking is to be villianized, especially given its reluctance to disavow other equally-inaccurate and equally-pernicious stereotypes. For example, every homosexual is not a pedophile. Just like all pretty girls are not dumb bitches. Just like every sports team from the "wrong side of the tracks" is not destined for victory. Just like every poor black man doesn't need a white savior. And every academic is not crazy, or inspirational, or uncompromisingly principled, or an ego-crushing ball-buster , or involved in complicated romatic/sexual relationships with their students. So many cinematic stereotypes relentlessly persist... why not the fun and funny drunk?

Here's my hypothesis: we've dispatched with the fun and funny drunk character in film because, of all our cultural scapegoats, it's the easiest to dispatch with. And WHY is it easiest to dispatch with the drunk? Quite simply, because no self-respecting citizen is going to stand up for him or her. Nevermind the fact that many of you (er, ahem, "us") have more than our fair share of moments that very closely approximate the fun and funny behavior of this archetype. Nay, we've all been sufficiently trained to despise it (even our own impersonations of it) with a righteous indignation. Those other "Others" are not nearly as universally reviled as the drunk, despite the fact that many of the other-Others are truly more dispicable and embarrasing stereotypes. Alas, a fun and funny drunk like Arthur has come to take the place of the homo sacer in contemporary American cinema-- set apart, despised, accursed, shunned and resolutely disavowed for the sake of our comfortably disingenuous bad faith.

I suppose my point here, insignificant as it is in the grand scheme of things, is just to say that we all have our vices, great and small. There are some vices that I absolutely cannot tolerate (like cocaine), but many more others that, to be honest, I could take or leave. I, for one, would take the vices of a cinematic character like Arthur over the vices of other characters (many played by Russell Crowe) that our culture so unreflectively valorizes. So, sue me for feeling far more empathy (and sympathy) for a friend who can authentically say "of all the gin joints, in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine" than I do for the Designated Driver who marinades in his or her sober righteousness. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, so let me just go ahead and confess...

"My name is Doctor J, and I prefer the company in gin joints."


jlotz said...

If I may respectfully disagree, some of the biggest non-kiddie/CGI-oriented comedies of the last decade--Superbad, The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, most things involving Judd Apatow/the frat pack--are pretty solidly in the pro funny drinking camp. I do think you'd be hard-pressed to find scenes with drunk driving treated as lightly as they would have in Dudley Moore's time, but these guys still get away with murder to a very comedic end. I mean, who doesn't love the wildly irresponsible cop scenes in Superbad during which they get sloppy drunk with a minor, allow him to fire their glocks and eventually set their squad car on fire in a mall parking lot? Maybe it's a good thing for the young and impressionable that "funny drunks" are now funny because they do things too hyperbolic and ridiculous to be attempted by even your average Four Loko fan...

Anonymous said...

There's always Sideways. Although I found it doggedly slow and unfunny and condescending to its audience, I gather from various wise sources that I am in the minority, and that it actually is a thoughtful comic romp with endearingly funny drunk male protagonists.

anotherpanacea said...

Some thoughts on this:

1. jlotz calls it with Judd Apatow: there still are funny drunks, they're just not as madcap classy as Arthur. Just think of the Big Lebowski! More recently, Robert Downey Jr. has played a string of amusing drunks, starting I think with Tony Stark in the first _Ironman_.

2. Cultural norms have changed a bit since the late seventies/ early eighties. Most contemporary drunks don't restrict themselves to just alcohol, so cinema has embraced the fun/funny drug user instead. Marijuana and narcotics both make some people very goofy, and most of the really funny antics of recent cinematic non-sober characters entail marijuana use or something close to it. (Harold and Kumar, Ali G, Pineapple Express, A Scanner Darkly, etc.)

3. _Arthur_ became impossible once rich people discovered cocaine. 1981 is pretty much the last possible year that story could have made sense. There may be loveable drunks, but add coke to the mix and you've got a douchebag and a very different kind of story. And once it was available and acceptable, why *wouldn't* Arthur snort a line or two?

4. All the best cinema is on television now, anyway. _Mad Men_? _Boardwalk Empire_?! _Sex in the City_ was all about drinking cosmopolitans, wasn't it?

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Amy said...

The Philadelphia story is seriously my all time favorite movie and has my favorite drunks. Harvey is great too!!