John Landis – even if you don’t know the name, I’m sure you would have at some point come across his more accredited films. The jazz-comedy caper The Blues Brothers (1980), the brilliantly subversive toilet humour classic Animal House (1978), and for those of you with a taste for horror-comedy, An American Werewolf in London (1981). All three of these are just as funny now as they were thirty years ago. So, you may be asking how the man who made us laugh so profusely could possibly have a film included in a guilty pleasure column.
Well, comedy, perhaps more than any other, is a genre whose effectiveness is subjective. We laugh at John Belushi in the above because he does what Chaplin did at the birth of the genre; laugh at authority figures. Landis here continues in this tradition to great effect. So when his 1996 film The Stupids hit cinemas many expected this dynamic to continue. What Landis did however was bring in Tom Arnold and get him to dress as a sentient bush.
This was a surprise to many critics and audiences at the time. Where was the high-brow, yet subversive humour we had come to expect? Well, it had been returned to sender. Watch the film and that last sentence will make more sense. Landis had chosen very deliberately to not use subversion as a plot point in a movie, but rather make a movie that was itself a send up of comedy conventions.
The film revolves around a typical suburban American ‘nuclear family’. A dad, a mum, two kids, and an animated family pet. The only difference between this family and the numerous others common in sitcoms is that the Stupid’s are very stupid. From act one to act three. No moment of clarity. No straight man signing knowingly into camera. Just a family attempting to discover who is stealing the garbage from their trashcans every week. This mystery takes them all around their city in search of a mysterious villain collecting everyone’s mail, a Mr. Sender, who is nefariously connected, somehow, to the evil garbage thieves. The film is littered with brilliant cameo’s from ‘serious’ actors such as Christopher Lee, Atom Egoyan, and cult director David Cronenberg.
The film was never going to be Oscar-bait and is for many critics and audiences simply too childish to be considered funny. I however believe the comedy audience dynamic has changed so much in the last two decades, with the rise of post-modern TV shows like Family Guy that a dumb, self-aware movie like this may yet find a new audience among us millennials.