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Is the seriocomedy in danger of extinction?

January 18, 2011 |  5:42 pm


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.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: The Dilemma. Credit: Universal Pictures


Comments () | Archives (18)

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Problem is in the trailer? Then let's forget about the script...which is golden in THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT; and then the director...another big thing with this movie, and the casting. Hit it out of the ball park with this group.

I know in this digital age how important the marketing is...but for God's sake...if the script is that good, you better have your act together as a producer to get the RIGHT director who knows exactly what to do and the RIGHT cast...who are willing to be malleable enough in the right director's hands.

And then it's taking chances.

You're not willing to do any of that? Get out of the business...and quit blaming it on the audience and a cool looking gizmo called a trailer...and let the rest of us do it the right way. On the trailer? Geez Schamus.

I don't think we can blame the genre at all. Most have just been very subpar movies. It's as simple as that. The romcoms have hit a really rough patch, should we get rid of those as well? Well, okay, maybe.

I think the problem started with these tepid and insipid projects being greenlighted in the first place, and these are some big pedigrees behind them, so they should know better. For the movies that had better reviews, well, they weren't really mainstream type fare in the first place, and have really only been a step up from mumblecore anyway.

Most of the recent seriocomedy efforts were nothing more than sitcom episodes - we've already seen 'The Dilemma,' and 'The Switch,' and the upcoming 'Hall Pass,' and 'No Strings Attached' on Seinfeld, Friends, etc.

And that's the problem - audiences are inundated with seriocomedies 24/7. After all, most sitcoms are, in fact, formula seriocomedies - very few are straight comedies, like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.' Who wants to pay $10-12 to see what's basically a big screen rerun?

Which points to another problem - we now have at least two generations of writers who've grown up in the suburbs watching 8+ hours of TV per day. So, instead of writing 'what they know' from a life well lived, they're writing 'what they've seen' from a life of comfort and ease. Expecting anything but the same-old same-old from them is delusional.

I think the tepid response is due to a lack of enthusiasm about most of the films mentioned. Critically, most of them have been met with scorn but aside from that, the ones that weren't, like Cyrus and It's Kind of a Funny Story, didn't appeal to a mass audience.

Take a film like 500 Days of Summer, a very atypical rom-com. There's proof in its success that its genre is not dead; it's just that people do not want to be sold on just anything. It requires a taut script, something imaginative but also something engrossing to see these films meet with any degree of success.

That said, audiences can still be fickle and there are plenty of great films that fall by the wayside for a number of varying reasons.

I think if there more quality films released in these particular genres, audiences wouldn't be quite so wary to pursue them. As it stands, even some of the better films become a harder sell because of it.

my problem with the dilemma is that it looked boring, the death knell for a comedy. and then when i read the negative reviews that it wasnt even a comedy but a drama with sprinklings of comedy, it made me think it couldnt do the comedy right so was trying to relabel itself as that.

yeah, i think its a problem with the trailer.

Yeah, I'm not so sure about the thesis here. Most of the movies you mention (How Do You Know?, Love and Other Drugs) got poor-to-middling reviews from critics, so we can't exactly blame trailers on that. And your examples of past "seriocomedies" are questionable as well--Planes, Trains, and Automobiles? Really? That's a flat-out comedy that happens to have a heart to it, not a drama that happens to be kind of funny.

But, then, lets look at recent movies, as well. Aside from The Kids Are All Right, we've seen a number of quite funny dramas that recieved some either box office or critical love over the last years. The King's Speech this year is hardly an entirely serious affair, and if you didn't see the comedy in the Social Network that's unfortunate. Eat, Pray, Love and Life as We Know It didn't bomb at the box office, even if critics were tepid, and looking back a stretch, how about Julie & Julia, Adventureland, Rachel Getting Married, Sideways, Almost Famous, The Informant!, or pretty much anything by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air) , Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale), or Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, the Life Aquatic, etc.)? Not to mention half the work by the Cohens or Danny Boyle.

I think the "seriocomedy" is doing just fine, both critically and commercially. A couple of disappointments by major talent (I'd love to see another great movie from Brooks, but did *anyone* think How Do You Know was it?) don't make for a trend.

The trailer? That's beautiful. The guy should be in politics...oh, wait, he works at a studio.

Tootise, Broadcast News, PTA, The Big Chill, 40 Year-old Virgin are all highly entertaining movies.

How Do You Know, Funny People, The Dilemma...well, not as much.

The Hollywood execs and accountants need to do the actual math. It's staring them in the face.
Let's see, all these typical seriocomedies made within the Hollywood system, with the same old parts, fail.
Yet, the one that's an independent movie succeeds. Why don't they step down from their self-made golden thrones and say, "I have seen the enemy, and it is us."

We already have a word for the "seriocomedy." For years (well over a decade) it has been known as the dramedy. You don't have to make up one now.

Stephen Eldridge nailed it with his comment above. I don't see how an entertainment journalist could completely overlook Jason Reitman's Up In The Air when discussing the downfall of the "seriocomedy." That was one of the most talked about films of 2009 and most definitely a critical and commercial success. When somebody makes a good seriocomedy, it will have some level of success.

Surely the key is a good plot. An average plot can be ignored when drowned in humour and an average plot can be forgiven when dominated by strong characters. But surely the most enjoyable "seriocomedy"(<--wtf?)is one that has an intriguing plot, funny moments and interesting characters can be devloped. I think the problem with alot of these recent fails is because the stories are unoriginal and uninspiring and pose few questions for the viewer to truly ponder.

Used to be you needed a big star to open a movie. Now you need 'em to get a script thru the system. Joined way to early to a project, it leads to "Meet the Fockers"...
Big name stars walking thru the set, all for the long awaited paycheck. No motivation or creative spark is seen on set, and it shows. Babs, Bobby, even Jack, have just been selling out for the buck- don't think the $20 per seat crowd does not feel the slight. Seeing big names drift thru a retreaded episode of Married w/ Children will lead to stunted grosses, and no second viewings. The blockbusters were that because of multiple viewings by diehard fans. Good luck to Suits that follow formulas and do what their flacks push for. Take the box, ignore it, and then do something worth the film it was shot on. Imagine the environmental impact of miles of film made, shot, developed, and then seen by only a few...
Be Green, film a GOOD scene! Dramedy works only when the actors do... like Bogey and Bacall, God love 'em!

Seriocomedy works if you can take it as that. Some people just think right away it's a comedy, then they go into it expecting a comedy, when they get that as well as some hard-hitting drama. However, it is hard to advertise seriocomedies as opposed just strictly comedies, or dramas. But it is not extinct, it just needs some more reviving.

The problem isn't with dramedies, the problem is it was a terrible movie with a terrible script that couldn't even pull enough good scenes to fool us all with a good trailer.

You can make a good movie about *anything* but they failed to do so.

There was a holiday weekend? I didn't get any days off work.

Many of the seriocomedies have been rather bland and mediocre. It could just be that audiences had better things to watch as opposed to a bland comedy-drama. Most of the movies were either a) very mild in both the comedy and drama aspects, b) looked to be rather formulaic and c) if tried too hard to be "edgy" and "risque" without trying to make it feel naturalistic. The problem is just in the quality of the films as opposed to the genre itself.

no star power , not worth the price of admission .
WFDVDR. wait for dvd release picture. See REDs for serious comedy. Bruce knows how to do it right.

The genre suffers mostly from character dept. Throwing good comedy lines at audiences is not enough. Most stories are too thin and lack good action to make them laugh.


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