Lesbians, punks, and Bridget Jones are here to prep for the (sadly) uncommon comedy.
There’s a lot being said about Rough Night being the first R-rated female-directed comedy in a while. The directorial debut of Broad City jack-of-all-trades Lucia Aniello, the film stars Scarlett Johansson, Zoë Kravitz, an Australian-accented Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell, and Ilana Glazer in a dark raunchy murder comedy. Will it retain the subversive, smart takes on modern femininity that permeate Aniello’s TV work?
The Miami bachelorette party-turned-killing takes its deliciously strange combination of influences to the pink neon of an unfairly maligned Michael Mann movie. But the real hitch here is that the film is such a clear example of something that’s been absent from Hollywood for far too long. The major (aka studio-backed) comedies of the last two decades have been heavily dude-bro-centric with the rise of Judd Apatow’s particular flavor of slacker man-children. Apparently, women can’t be trusted to direct stoners with shrill, two-dimensional partners. Or at least make profits on it.
That’s certainly a gross generalization, but it’s indicative of an industry truth and a very pointed facet of sexism underlying the comedy genre. Women direct comedies, as long as they’re PG-13 romcoms. But what are some great examples of female-helmed funnies that aren’t afraid to get dark, weird, sexual, and profane? Let’s take a look:
Smithereens (Susan Seidelman, 1982)
Scored by The Feelies and mostly starring the NYU classmates of director Susan Seidelman, Smithereens is a brutal black comedy of punk failure and reinvention. Though the film led to more accessible (yet still subversive) comedies like Desperately Seeking Susan and the Roseanne Barr vehicle She-Devil, not to mention a healthy career directing for television (like Sex and the City’s self-titled pilot), Seidelman’s R-rated debut is her most startling and evocative. The first indie out of the US ever invited to the competition in Cannes, the story of an unlikable wannabe punker groupie and the unhealthy crowd around her strikes out at an unforgiving art world while fleshing out several types of complicated women that rarely see the screen.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Basically, nobody gets teen culture like director Amy Heckerling gets teen culture. Whether it’s in her superlative Clueless or in her debut Fast Times at Ridgemont High, there’s an honesty that comes out of her work that feels more true to life the more heightened it is. Teenagers are funny that way. In this way, the over-the-top brashness and bluntness of more recent R-rated offerings may be ways to tap into the extremes of the late-teen experience and the dormant vulgarian inside us all. Regardless, Fast Times isn’t just the jumping-off point for tons of actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, and Anthony Edwards), it’s a touchpoint for horny R-rated comedies everywhere.
But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 2000)
Initially rated a rare and (if you’re anything like I was in high school) desperately sought out NC-17, But I’m a Cheerleader eventually became an R-rated conversion therapy camp comedy that awakened queer teens around the nation. A high schooler (Natasha Lyonne) is sent off to learn that being a lesbian is bad and ridiculous hijinks – as many as you’d think – quickly ensue. The film is so drenched in its own satire that it’s hard to mark down anything that escapes its crushingly campy attacks, and its John Waters-approved cast (including very real actresses Michelle Williams and Melanie Lynskey alongside the likes of Mink Stole and RuPaul) preach well to a choir that still needs reassurance.
Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)
You had to know this was going to be here. It’s the wildly successful start of the biggest female-helmed comedy franchise ever made and they’re all rated R — so factor that into your sexist policies, studios. Based on Helen Fielding’s novel and starring Renée Zellweger caught betwixt two charming Brits on opposite ends of the roguishness scale, Bridget Jones’s Diary turns up the amplitude of its rom-com trappings all the way with some help from all the pent-up lust on display in Rough Night. As sweet as the film can be, there’s an undercurrent of anger at the patriarchal damning of single women past their, oh, mid-twenties that still strikes white-hot beneath the Pride & Prejudice storyline.
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014)
It’s an abortion comedy! Can’t get more R-rated than that, right? Thankfully, this touchy subject was in the capable hands of writer/director Gillian Robespierre and her muse, Jenny Slate. It’s a funny, tender, thoughtful approach to a subject that deserves all that and more – something that I’m guessing won’t quite translate to the subplot of “murder” in Rough Night. But I’ve certainly been wrong before. Obvious Child finds balance in its evenhanded realism, using its R-rating to tap into a world unhindered by a corporation’s fears of offense. It’s also a wonderful stand-up comedy film which is almost as impossible to pull off as an abortion comedy. Stand-up films are usually tortured exercises in narcissism while here the professional comedy is understated in a way that plays up the rest of the film’s wit to create a smart film whose subversive premise fails to dominate its content.
Related Topics: Comedy, Feminism, Women