In the chronology of cinema, there are sometimes strange, curious glitches — periods of varying length where an observer, if so inclined, can note similarities, or times of thematic cross-pollination if you will.
I’ve written about this before, but just like the mini neo-noir renaissance of the early 90s, I do not here refer to any seismic, much-analysed paradigm. This ain’t the French New Wave we’re talking about. No, this is something much smaller. Something that I’m not entirely convinced doesn’t just exist in my head. I’m talking about the brief run of great cynical-yet-optimistic dark comedies for adults that happened in the early 2000s.
When reading the movie comedy timeline of the first decade of the 21st century the two most oft-remarked upon features are the ascendancy of the Frat Pack, its brief reign, and its eventual handover to the Apatow Troupe. Broadly speaking,
But there were a brief few years before that all happened when — it certainly seemed at the time — a bunch of people were releasing smart, dark, adult-oriented comedies without any producerial or directorial puppet master in charge, or actor daisy-chaining in evidence. It feels strange to enunciate or codify in any way, and I certainly can’t off-handedly tie it to any wider societal picture like with the neo-noirs, but dammit, it feels right.
It was also, for me personally, quite a special time. I was coming to the end of my school-going years, and thus for my cinema-going it was, in retrospect, a wonderfully bountiful era. Money and time were in plentiful supply, as were similarly-inclined and untethered friends, so the big screen became a regular feature in my life, perhaps more so than at any other time.
Anyway, enough of all that. Here’s some goddamn great adult comedies from the early 2000s that the history books seem to have forgotten.
Buffalo Soldiers (2001) - Directed by Gregor Jordan
In terms of pure talent and craft, Joaquin Phoenix is the greatest actor of his generation. We all know this now, but in 2001 he was still a relatively ungauged quantity. Coming off a strong-if-slightly-broad performance in Gladiator, he signed up for Gregor Jordan’s pitch black military satire, Buffalo Soldiers. Based on Robert O’ConnoR’s novel, Buffalo Soldiers takes place in West Germany, 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the country. Phoenix plays an opportunistic and amoral soldier, bored out of his skull and rinsing the thriving black market for all its worth. A wonderful Ed Harris is his sympathetic-if-spineless commanding officer, and Scott Glenn fills the absolutely terrifying boots of a newly arrived, disciplinarian, Stick-from-Daredevil-on-crack sergeant. Against his best judgement, Phoenix’s character unwisely decides to mess with Glenn by dating his daughter (Anna Paquin, also fantastic, if slightly underserved).
A seriously dark and scathing military satire, the movie’s release was delayed by two years because of 9/11. While almost being undone by its final act, the momentum and power it builds up before that proves more than enough to carry it through.
Also, the tank scene? Fucking hilarious.
Igby Goes Down (2002) - Directed by Burr Steers
You really should hate them all. The disaffected and bored WASPs that populate Burr Steer’s ‘Catcher In The Rye-for-the-21st-century’ float about in an untouchable New York bubble, financial concerns never an issue and all feelings medicated away. And you do hate them, but Steers, along with his stellar supporting cast (Susan Sarandon, Amanda Peet, Jeff Goldblum, Ryan Phillippe-in-maximum-Ryan-Phillippe-mode), somehow manage to completely draw you into the tale of the youngest member of a wealthy clan, Igby Slocumb, and his attempts to rebel against his oppressive family and deal with his father’s (a typically excellent Bill Pullman) recent mental breakdown. The ‘wealthy and jaded youth kicking against the system’ is a sub-genre done to death, and it’s a testament to Steer’s writing and direction, as well as Kieran Culkin’s excellent central performance, that it feels fresh here, despite a few sagging bits.
Matchstick Men (2003) - Directed by Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott jettisons the grandiose and the outlandish and decides to focus on a much smaller story: one of con men and estranged daughters. It would be a disservice to speak too much of the plot details, but suffice it to say: Nicolas Cage plays an OCD-suffering con artist; Sam Rockwell is his much looser protege; and Alison Lohman the estranged daughter who appears from nowhere.
Working with his occasional collaborator, John Mathieson, Scott crafts a very visually appealing and thematically resonant world, but the crucial thing is that there is a level of character detail here that matches the visuals in a way that a lot of latter-day Ridley Scott movies just simply either fail at, or have no interest in achieving.
Goodbye, Lenin! (2004) - Directed by Wolfgang Becker
What a concept. In East Berlin, 1989, an ardently Communist-supporting woman falls into a coma a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She wakes up not long after the momentous event. Her son (a brilliant Daniel Bruhl) is warned that any significant shock could be too much for her system to bear, and so — enlisting help from his partner and friends — he sets about creating a mini-capsule of East Germany around her. That could be the pitch for an excellent three minute sketch, but somehow Becker manages to make Goodbye, Lenin! overcome its farcical, high-concept nature, delivering a hilariously funny, sharp, and sweet paean to the lengths we are prepared to go for family.
American Splendor (2003) - Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman
Still one of the most daring and innovative biographical movies ever made, this account of the life of Harvey Pekar is a part-adaptation of its subject’s autobiographical graphic novels and part pitch black comedy biopic. Filmed entirely on location in Pekar’s native Ohio, the film weaves the constructed narrative of his life where he is played — incredibly, in a role that could have whole articles written by it, by Paul Giamatti — into a fabric that contains appearances and narration by the man himself. Included also in the mix are illustrated segments overlayed onto the live action backdrop, and if this is all starting to sound like an unmanageable mess then rest assured: it is all juggled with such grace that it seems almost not of this earth. Melancholy, funny, and painfully human, Harvey Pekar was famous for documenting the drudgery of everyday life and the banality of existential dread. This movie does his vision justice, and then some.
The Triplets of Belleville (2003) - Directed by Sylvain Chomet
The debut feature length from French animator Sylvain Chomet, The Triplets of Belleville is an experience that demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible, with as little knowledge of the plot beforehand as possible. Not because there are any crucial plot twists, but because it is such an immersive and beautiful experience that words only risk to take away from it. Nominated for two Oscars, suffice it to say that the plot folds in the Tour de France, a mafia kidnapping plot, a group of hero grannies, a dog, and some of the most gorgeous, outright French animation you’ll see outside of, well, Chomet’s other work. If that sounds at all like something that might be right up your rue then get it, turn the lights off, and dive in headfirst.
I Heart Huckabees (2004) - Directed by David O. Russell
David O. Russell is a dick who doesn’t make very good movies. It is known. But, see, before we knew that — or maybe when he didn’t have quite as much clout so it his dickishness was less noticeable — he managed to put out a few choice cuts of cinema, among them Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, and — this author’s personal favourite — I Heart Huckabees. The movie is an absolute gonzo mess of a story, concerning as it does two ‘existential detectives’ — played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman — and their efforts to help out their clients (Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Jude Law, and Naomi Watts), while at the same time trying to prevent their rival, played by Isabelle Huppert(!), from dragging them into her nihilistic orbit. This is a movie that you could poke a multitude of holes in, and I have done so myself, and yet it never diminishes the sheer joy I experience in watching its glorious quilt of bullshit unfurl before my eyes. None of it works, and yet all of it works. From the indelible imagery to the skewed direction and nutty script, I Heart Huckabees is as acquired taste as it comes, but goddamn it I can’t get enough of it.
Also, it’s the second-best use of Mark Wahlberg ever. After Det. Sgt. Dignam in The Departed, obviously. You just can’t beat lines like, ‘Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself.’