If you’re sheltering-in-place and suddenly find yourself with some extra time on your hands, stop kidding yourself: You are not going to take this opportunity to read War and Peace. The coronavirus pandemic isn’t blessing us with a staycation — it’s forcing us to look at society’s pitfalls dead in the eye. There’s also the pull to scrutinize each gory, detailed report from inside a hospital, profiling someone who was healthy just last week and is now at death’s door thanks to this horrible new virus.
Without a good distraction you can make yourself nuts (and actually ill!) and while I’m sure War and Peace is one helluva book, I’ve barely got the attention span right now to make it to the end of a tweet. To that end, here’s something that may cure some symptoms, even if they don’t affect the cause. Consider these 10 recommended films medicine. These are barely even movies: They’re joke delivery systems; plot-resistant classics that put the importance of the gag high above anything else.
These dumbass picks are just what you need to baste your brain in good cheer, and it’s 100 percent okay if you zone out for a few minutes. You’ll absolutely be able to follow what’s going on. Chances are, too, you’ve seen them before.
What’s It About? Forever imitated, never equalled. In Airplane!, the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker comedy team parody disaster movies with a kitchen sink approach to getting laughs. A combat vet with PTSD must take over flying a commercial jet when the entire crew is incapacitated due to food poisoning. One of the weirder aspects of this classic is that much of the script is actually clipped-and-pasted directly from a 1957 film called Zero Hour!
Why Is It Prescribed? All semblance of plot is dismissed in the higher calling of stuffing in as many jokes as possible. There are sight gags, bad puns, gratuitous boob shots, Ethel Merman impressions, and for some reason, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pretending not to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If you haven’t seen this one in a while (or, somehow, have missed it altogether) you’ll surely be shocked at how many classic lines start here. And don’t call me Shirley.
Second Dose? Nothing touches Airplane! but Z-A-Z delivered another classic in 1988 with The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad.
Duck Soup (1933)
What’s It About? The make-believe Mitteleuropean nation of Freedonia finds itself with an unscrupulous ruler (uh oh) which leads to palace intrigue and regional conflict. The Marx Brothers tilting their comic swords toward politics made this the most widely seen Dadaist reaction to the horrors of World War I, as I’m sure I argued in a term paper back in college.
Why Is It Prescribed? It’s pure madness. Groucho and Chico lobbing pun bombs at each other in the courthouse. Harpo’s silent battles against the peanut vendor. Zeppo pretending he can act. While there is a story here, the surrealism (why does Groucho’s hat keep changing during the battle montage?) makes it abundantly clear you can just let the jokes roll over you. And if you’ve never seen the Marx Brothers beyond images on a cheap “Hollywood!” mural at a multiplex, it takes all of three seconds into this thing to get each character’s schtick. Groucho’s opening “never mind that, pick a card,” is perhaps the most perfect character introduction of all time, as well as a guide for not overthinking anything.
Second Dose? Duck Soup is the best Marx Brothers movie because it is one of the few where all the songs in it are funny. (In many of the others, as they did on the stage, the musical breaks were meant to highlight actual “good” performances.) Despite this, many fans (and perhaps the rock band Queen?) think A Night at the Opera is superior.
Jackass 3D (2011)
What’s It About? A group of tattooed friends humiliate one another. With love.
Why Is It Prescribed? Pure, distilled distraction. No human being can resist laughing. Did you ever see the movie Quest for Fire? It’s a masterpiece, and was written in collaboration with a lot of scholars in the field of Early Man. Anyway, in this Paleolithic Era-set movie, which has a lot of violence and brutality (as well as the invention of the missionary position!), there is a moment in which one of the neanderthals gets bonked on the head and causes another to laugh. Even 80,000 years ago we knew what was funny! The “Poo Cocktail Supreme” would have killed.
Second Dose? Luckily there are others in the Jackass canon, though only this entry has the aforementioned “Poo Cocktail Supreme.”
And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)
What’s It About? Five British lunatics (and occasionally one American) recreate a stream of absurd, exaggerated scenes from their legendary TV show with a stream of consciousness connectivity, but this time on film and without a laugh track. “Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit” is probably the silliest. This frequently forgotten Monty Python project is actually their first feature film, shot between Flying Circus’ second and third seasons, and before they’d been imported to the U.S. As it’s essentially a “greatest hits” from the show (with a slightly higher budget) it has nothing resembling even the meager plot of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Why Is It Prescribed? Some Python-heads look askance at ANFSCD, saying the sketches lack the oomph of their original televised performances. But this could just be due to a loyalty to what you came in contact with first. Short of just binging the entire Circus (and we may end up having to do that before this quarantine is over) these 88 minutes are a great option, especially if someone locked inside with you may not know their Dead Parrots from their Hungarian Phrasebooks.
Second Dose? There is an eternal debate about Holy Grail versus Life of Brian. I feel that Life of Brian is better “as a film,” but Holy Grail is packed with more jokes.
What’s It About? A man from the early 1970s is accidentally cryogenically frozen, then awakened 200 years in the future. It’s a dystopian police state, but since he “has no number” maybe he can lead a group of rebels to freedom?
Why Is It Prescribed? Sounds like a decent-enough premise, but put all that aside; it’s mainly just jokes. Woody Allen (yeah, that guy, but in self-quarantine no one can see what you’re watching) is a New York nudnik running through a science-fiction film, dealing with fascist governments, cloning, weird architecture, a device called “the Orgasmatron” and robotic Jewish tailors (voiced by old school comics Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen). The very cosmopolitan 1970s verbal volleys between he and Diane Keaton work as a prelude of what’s to come in Annie Hall, but for every intellectual crack, there’s a dumb gag straight out of Bob Hope or Buster Keaton. This is the only science-fiction film where someone slips on a six-foot banana peel to Dixieland jazz.
Second Dose? Sleeper was made in the prime of Woody Allen’s “early, funny” period. Right after this came Love and Death, in which Allen and Keaton are in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars.
Step Brothers (2008)
What’s It About? Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly star as two numbskulls who live with their single parents. When Will’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) marries John’s dad (Richard Jenkins) they start off as enemies. One even rubs their scrotal sack on the other’s drum set, that’s how bad it is.
Why Is It Prescribed? There are people in this world, champions, miracle workers, like those who run marathons in two hours. A feat of equal if not greater glory: Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly somehow nailing takes in Step Brothers without cracking up. Sure, they certainly broke from time to time, but the real question is how did they do any of it with a straight face? Scientists will question this for generations. Anyway, it’s the fucking Catalina Wine Mixer.
Second Dose? Step Brothers was part of a wave of Judd Apatow productions that now resemble something of a golden age. Also from this period: Adam Sandler in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
What’s It About? Trailer-dwelling outlaw Babs Johnson (Divine) proudly boasts of being the filthiest person alive. The upwardly mobile and totally deplorable Marbles (Mink Stole and David Lochary) decide to challenge her, leading to a carnival of repulsive behavior that, even by today’s standards, is shocking.
Why Is It Prescribed? Nowadays John Waters is a droll older gentleman who makes sly comments on VH1. In his youth, he made films where drag queens put dog shit in their mouth. But between the gross-outs and the very stream-of-consciousness method of plotting, there are moments of sublime outsider art. Waters, in his hazed-out fury, wrote enormous blocks of text for his company of not-very-trained actors to bark at each other, and as far as I’m concerned, the more verbose the better. Divine’s final jeremiad (“Kill everyone now!”) reaches a level of strangeness that can only be called transcendent.
Second Dose? Though it doesn’t feature Waters’ leading lady Divine, the similarly surreal, Oz-like journey in Desperate Living is probably his next-best flick.
Army of Darkness (1992)
What’s It About? If you remember the end of Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, our strong-jawed hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) is marooned in a high fantasy realm and being hailed as a savior. (To which he says, “Noooooo!”) In the next installment, he, his chainsaw hand, his boomstick and an Oldsmobile Delta 88 have to fight off legions of grotesque monsters (“Deadites”) in this gloriously goofy ode to Ray Harryhausen films, comic books and the totality of kitsch culture.
Why Is It Prescribed? There’s more of an actual plot here than most other films on this list, but let’s make it clear: You don’t really need to pay attention. This is one goofy horror/fantasy set-up after another, with terrific handmade special effects and Campbell’s patented brand of broad acting in its purest form.
Second Dose? After this, maybe take a step back and look at Evil Dead 2.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
What’s It About? Sacha Baron Cohen’s masterpiece, in which he went undercover and exposed the Real America. The drunken bros in the Winnebago could very well be the forebears of the yamheads that went to Spring Break during the coronavirus pandemic.
Why Is It Prescribed? Sure, we’ve all been running around shouting “My Wiiife!” for over a decade, but it’s important to look back and remember that this obnoxious comedy lodestar offers so much more. There’s the handing a plastic bag of excrement to the nice bed-and-breakfast owners, destroying the antique store, singing “Throw the Jew Down The Well” in a cowboy bar and let’s not forget that bit of business with Borat’s big-boned, hirsute pal Azamat sitting on his face shouting “Eat my asshole!” This movie made over $250 million and deserved every nickel.
Second Dose? SBC never came close to making another Borat, but his other movies deserve more attention than they’ve gotten. Take another look at The Dictator if you shrugged it off the first time; it’s pretty good.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
What’s It About? Corrupt politicians and industrialists want to clear out the town of Rock Ridge to build a railroad. The people turn to law enforcement to help them, but first must confront their own prejudice when the governor sends them a black man to act as sheriff.
Why Is It Prescribed? From the first “what in the Wild, Wild World of Sports is a-goin on here?” to the fourth-wall crashing conclusion, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is loud, foul and unafraid to risk everything to take chances and get a laugh — even, most famously, providing a symphony of Old West flatulence.
The film was co-written by Richard Pryor (who couldn’t get production insurance in order to play the lead role) and this has been used as cover to laugh at the many race-based jokes all these decades since. Even by current standards, though, I think most people would say the movie doesn’t punch down. It may punch a horse directly in the face, but it doesn’t punch down.
Second Dose? Mel Brooks made no shortage of classics. I, though, really like Spaceballs.
The Best Stuff to Binge in Quarantine
- In its 40th season, the reality show Survivor is better than ever. Here are the best past seasons.
- It’s time to sit back and listen to some Steely Dan — the perfect music for the moment.
- Forget Contagion. It’s all about The Happening.
- Want more active entertainment? Portal is the game you need.
- The unabashed optimism of John Prine will make you feel better.
- For Gen Z, everyone seems to be on Club Penguin.
- If you feel like the world is doomed, try French New Wave cinema.
- Take a trip back in time with 10 essential silent films.
- Spend some time doing jigsaw puzzles. They’re great for anxiety relief.
- Hungry? You can watch a Michelin-starred Italian chef livestream his dinner.
- Thirsty? Here’s our list of the best fictional bars in pop culture.
- When all else fails, Cheers!