Tim­ing is ev­ery­thing in comedies

Di­rec­tors need to keep their noses to the grin stone to get past lulls in laugh­ter.

Los Angeles Times - - MOVIES - By Robert Abele Cal­en­dar@latimes.com

Be­fore “Aloha” could be­come a flash point for those up­set with Emma Stone play­ing some­one one-quar­ter Hawai­ian, another hard re­al­ity was tak­ing shape: Some­thing had gone hay­wire with Cameron Crowe in the role of com­edy film­maker.

“Aloha” may have had a trou­bled history, but the feel­ing af­ter see­ing it was that the guy who’d de­vel­oped a sig­na­ture ro­man­tic­com­edy blend of rock songs, un­fussy sweet­ness and witty one-lin­ers had some how lost the recipe and maybe a few senses to boot. Crowe had no­body at “Aloha.”

When com­edy di­rec­tors lose their way, there’s a strange de­spair be­hind the ab­sent laugh­ter be­cause com­edy is the most un­for­giv­ing of gen­res. When noth­ing’s work­ing, the sound of not-chuck­ling is as deaf­en­ing as the wall-to-wall noise in a sense­less ac­tion flick.

But a ma­jor tal­ent hav­ing a fal­low cre­ative pe­riod — and Crowe is go­ing on 15 years now— is noth­ing new. In fact, it’s par for the course for those who make comedies, if only be­cause that par­tic­u­lar alchemy is one of the hard­est to sus­tain. Where the qual­i­ties in drama al­low for ebb and flow and chang­ing moods that mir­ror the hu­man con­di­tion, com­edy cru­elly comes down to data and per­cent­ages, whether slap­stick farce or a gen­tle ro­mance: Laugh more of­ten than not, and the movie is good. Un­less, of course, it was sup­posed to be a drama.

Crowe isn’t alone, ei­ther, in ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dip in mirth­ful mojo. Com­edy ti­tan James L. Brooks (who pro­duced a pair of Crowe’s legacy-earn­ers, “Say Any­thing” and “Jerry Maguire”) wrote and di­rected two beau­ti­fully bit­ter­sweet, su­perbly acted epics of re­la­tion­ship neu­ro­sis in “Terms of En­dear­ment” and “Broad­cast News.” In the 1980s. His two most re­cent, 2004’s “Span­glish” and 2010’s “How Do You Know,” were flops, forced and leaden.

Judd Apa­tow’s first two films as di­rec­tor — the charm­ingly ir­rev­er­ent “The 40-Year-Old Vir­gin” and “Knocked Up” — met with rap­tur­ous no­tices and box of­fice, but the next two were the less-seen, less-her­alded “Funny Peo­ple” and “This Is 40.”(Word has been pos­i­tive, how­ever, about “Train­wreck,” due next month.)

What marks a slump these days, though, is less the num­ber of “off ” films than the time frame in which they ex­ist. As their movie ca­reers blos­somed, Crowe, Brooks and Apa­tow took longer be­tween projects.

If the best cure for a bad joke is a good one right af­ter it — a modus operandi that stand-up co­me­di­ans live and breathe by — the same the­ory should ap­ply for some­one in the funny-movie busi­ness.

Brooks, of all peo­ple, is aware of this keep-plug­ging away ethos, com­ing from tele­vi­sion, where he’s made some of the great­est sit­u­a­tion comedies of all time, in­sight­ful clas­sics that gen­er­ated laugh­ter weekly. A sin­gle iffy episode of his “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (I know, I know, there weren’t any, it’s a hy­po­thet­i­cal) or “Taxi” would be im­me­di­ately negated by the lure of a newone nextweek.

But wait­ing seven years af­ter “Span­glish” just to get “How Do You Know”? Who can meet ex­pec­ta­tions af­ter that preg­nant a pause? You know who gets to make us wait? Ge­orge Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”). He had to cor­ral an army to man­i­fest a 100-mile-an-hour desert apoca­lypse. Brooks films hu­mans talk­ing in rooms.

Woody Allen gets it. Two bad films in a row for this au­teur work­horse is noth­ing, coughs be­tween arias. Who even re­mem­bers sub­se­quent groan­ers “What­ever Works” and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” or “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Hol­ly­wood End­ing”?

Allen just keeps you hop­ing the just-around-the-cor----

ner re­lease, and the one he’s shoot­ing now, and the one he’s think­ing about, will be like the last ones you cheered over (“Mid­night in Paris” and “Blue Jas­mine”). It’s al­most like a shell game.

He moves fast, you might lose your money more of­ten than not, but the oc­ca­sional flash of suc­cess keeps you in­vested. Dis­cour­aged about the lack­lus­ter re­sponse this year at Cannes for “An Ir­ra­tional Man”? Hey, isn’t he do­ing a se­ries for Ama­zon?

Cel­e­brated film satirist Paul Mazursky had a sim­i­lar sched­ule af­ter hit­ting big with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” in 1969: one ev­ery two years, al­most like clockwork. It was a dis­ci­pline that gave us a richly funny “Next Stop, Green­wich Vil­lage,” “An Un­mar­ried Woman,” “Down and Out in Bev­erly Hills” and “En­e­mies, A Love Story” more of­ten than it pro­duced a for­get­table “Moon Over Parador” or “The Pickle.”

The leg­endary Billy Wilder — Crowe’s ac­knowl­edged idol — may have the best one-a-year track record in com­edy history, aided by a stu­dio sys­tem that fos­tered pro­duc­tiv­ity. For Wilder, “The Seven Year Itch” was a ti­tle, not a state of fan an­tic­i­pa­tion. That he pro­duced “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apart­ment” and “One, Two, Three” in a three-year stretch is as in­cred­i­ble as Pre­ston Sturges’ 1940 to 1944 gusher of fever­ish, mem­o­rable farces.

But when Wilder’s rou­tine hic­cuped regularly in the 1960s, he lost that ex­plo­sive snap in his barbed ap­proach. Sure, a rea­son­able his­to­rian might ar­gue that his mer­ci­less brand of sug­ges­tively dirty wit lost its power once movies be­came more ex­plic­itly adult. I blame the slack­ing off.

Com­edy di­rec­tor slumps are cor­rectable, but it means get­ting back on the horse. It’s a mes­sage Noah Baum­bach seems to have got­ten: This year he’ll have two breezy in­die comedies in the­aters: “While We’re Young” and “Mistress Amer­ica.”

All Crowe has to do, then, is write some­thing quickly, trust his in­stincts, find some ac­tors (maybe not Emma Stone for the time be­ing) and get it on its feet. Get away from stu­dios — and their hack­ing is­sues — if he has to. Crowe will com­plete us again, but will Woody have tried to com­plete us five more times by then?

Neal Pre­ston

“ALOHA” DI­REC­TOR Cameron Crowe has waited too long be­tween dips in his mirth­ful mojo.

Suzanne Hanover Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios

JUDD APA­TOW,

left with Paul Rudd, has had a cou­ple of comedic hits and a cou­ple of misses over the years.

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