At the moment, what everyone needs is a good laugh. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the funniest comedies have to exist in their own bubble; many of the best examples of the genre have held a mirror up to society, in all its complexity and absurdity. But then many also manage to divert and entertain on their own terms, too. Whether you’re into jet-black political satire, deceptively clever romantic comedies or broad farce, there’s something here for everyone. Even if humour remains the most personal of inclinations, these half-dozen masterpieces are endlessly, hilariously rewatchable.
The Death of Stalin
Armando Iannucci’s second film is a note-perfect combination of humour and horror, which makes you laugh and then stops the laughter almost immediately with some new nastiness. Set in Russia at the height of the terror, it focuses, as the title suggests, on the aftermath of Stalin’s death and the jockeying for position that ensues. The starry cast (including Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi and many more) are all exemplary, but the best of all is Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the head of the secret police. Anyone who’s seen him on stage will know what a remarkable actor he is, and here, moving from hilarity to terrifying nastiness in a heartbeat, he’s particularly effective.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Palin is also prominently featured in the Monty Python team’s best film, a still-cutting satire on religious zealotry and bigotry. Hugely controversial on release because of various people misconstruing the Pythons’ intentions, it not only contains the iconic moments everyone remembers (‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’, ‘He’s not the Messiah…he’s a very naughty boy!’) but has a sly, dark wit to it that the Python members often demonstrated in their individual projects but seldom managed to bring to their group endeavours. No wonder that the end days of the Corbyn Labour project were often compared to the ill-fated People’s Front of Judea.
When Harry Met Sally…
At a time when romance and meeting new people is nigh-on impossible, a reminder that Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy perfectly traces every stage of a relationship, all the while asking the eternal question as to whether men and women can ever maintain a platonic friendship or if sex inevitably gets in the way. Of course everyone remembers the faked orgasm scene in the deli, but there is so much more to love here too, from Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as the sympathetic and believable duo to a hilarious Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as their best friends. Two pieces of trivia: Elizabeth McGovern was nearly cast in the Ryan role, and the original script had a very different, and perhaps more realistic, conclusion. But the ending as it stands is a great one, too.
Probably the last of Richard Curtis’s directorial efforts, About Time was somewhat unfairly neglected in comparison to such films he wrote as Love Actually and Four Weddings. It’s time for its rehabilitation as a very funny and entirely charming piece of escapism. Not only does it feature a fantastic cast, with many of its actors going into superstardom shortly after appearing in this (look out for Vanessa Kirby and Margot Robbie among others), but its apparently daft story of Domhnall Gleeson (channelling Hugh Grant) realising that he has the ability to travel in time and alter the past to his whims finally packs a massive emotional punch when you realise what it’s all been leading up to. If you can keep a stiff upper lip in the final scene between Gleeson and Bill Nighy as his dad, you’re probably a robot.
Sometimes, you want to luxuriate in witty dialogue and twisty plotting, but on other occasions, you just want to enjoy the very best in dumb comedy. Not that Will Ferrell and John C Reilly’s Step Brothers is dumb at all, although its imbecilic protagonists, a couple of grown men who have spent their lives in a state of arrested adolescence, certainly are: the endless ingenuity that director and co-writer Adam McKay injects into the set pieces of humiliation and absurdity would not have disgraced the Marx Brothers at their peak. And this is before we get onto the Catalina Wine Mixer finale, an event that was so unforgettable that it inspired the creation of a real-life jamboree, although presumably without the addition of ‘boats and hoes’.
There’s been a sub-genre in Hollywood teen comedies for some time of basing stories on classic literature, including Ten Things I Hate About You, Clueless and She’s All That. However, this glorious update of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dry-as-dust The Scarlet Letter is probably the wittiest and most enjoyable of all of them. Emma Stone’s Olive Prendergast is unfairly accused of being a slut, so rather than hide away, she embroiders the letter A on her clothing and sets about enjoying her traduced reputation in some style. The dialogue is consistently hilarious (‘You look like a stripper, but a high-end stripper, for governors or athletes’) and Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are perfect as Stone’s endlessly understanding, laid-back and hilarious parents: the mum and dad that we’d all have liked growing up.