Is the seriocomedy in danger of extinction?
Some may be inclined to read the soft results for "The Dilemma," the Vince Vaughn-Kevin James movie that opened to $21 million over the holiday weekend, as evidence of the waning power of its stars, or perhaps the diminished appeal of the bromance. But there may be a more specific lesson in the struggles of the Ron Howard movie, which actually plays more serious than some of its ads imply.
The adult drama has been the subject of numerous obituaries in recent years, but looking at the success of movies like "The Social Network" and "Black Swan," it's doing just fine. What hasn't fared so well is the seriocomedy, a story of real people with real problems that also contains its share of laughs -- the drama, essentially, that wears its seriousness lightly.
In the 1980s, this kind of film was common, and commonly successful, particularly from a certain generation of American filmmaker: Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill," James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News," Sydney Pollack's "Tootsie," John Hughes' "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" and so on.
These days? Not so much. In the last six months, nearly every attempt at the seriocomedy has struggled, certainly with audiences and sometimes with critics. First came "Cyrus," then "The Switch," followed by "It's Kind of a Funny Story," "Love and Other Drugs" and now "The Dilemma."
In 2009, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" director Judd Apatow faltered trying a seriocomedy with "Funny People." Brooks, who practically pioneered the genre not only with "Broadcast News" but "Terms of Endearment," struck out in 2010 with "How Do You Know." If you were a studio executive, you could hardly be blamed if you read a good script for a seriocomedy and promptly threw it on the reject pile. (The lone exception seems to be "The Kids Are All Right," a movie that came from well outside the studio system and proved reasonably successful last summer.)
The seriocomedy has never been easy creative ground for directors. To make a good one you need to be proficient at constructing both laughs and drama, and have the dexterity to switch between them. From a business standpoint it's even dicier: How, in this age of marketing, do you retail these tweeners?
Movie-making these days seems to have calcified into genres. Dramas are intense and serious, like "The Social Network," or weepie and inspirational, like "The Blind Side" or "Secretariat." Comedies are broader and more gross-out, like the best of Adam Sandler or Apatow.
"The problem is trailers," said James Schamus, the Focus Features chief who released "The Kids Are All Right." "These days with the Internet, it's more important than ever, and it's very hard to cut a good trailer for [seriocomedies]. If you go for the laugh you never get the full laugh because the humor is situational, and you can't play the drama because then you kill the comedy vibe."
All of these issues are significant. But when the seriocomedy works, it usually works exceptionally well. Some of the best dramas and comedies of today would have trouble matching the quiet ambition of the best seriocomeides of 25 or 30 years ago. Even as one more bites the dust, it's worth remembering how much promise the genre has, and how much it's worth making the good ones no matter the marketing challenges.
Photo: The Dilemma. Credit: Universal Pictures