The '80s: a decade of contrasts. With an ongoing conversation about adult content in films eventually culminating in the introduction of the PG-13 rating in 1984, filmmakers faced the challenge of trying to aim for narrower demographics than ever before. They grappled with creating films that bridged the gap between family-friendly movies and raunchy sex comedies, the practical result of which was that there was more variety in comedies than ever before.
Yes, the '80s had its fair share of gross and puerile teen sex comedies, complete with problematic behavior that would get a character cancelled in 2021. But it also had gentle rom-coms, broad family comedies, grown-up satires, and some standout mockumentaries. When we think of the '80s, a very specific image comes to mind; however, the comedies of the decade represent a wide spectrum of sensibilities. In the world of '80s comedies, there really is something for everyone.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles
We didn't really know what we had until it was gone. In the '80s, you could sell a movie based solely on the fact that Steve Martin and John Candy were going to be starring in it together, and you knew that no matter what it was about, it would be very funny. "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" uses the "Odd Couple" trope to tell the story of an uptight businessman (Martin) desperately trying to get home for Thanksgiving by any means necessary, and the kind but wildly irritating salesman (Candy) who tries to help him along the way.
"Planes, Trains & Automobiles" was on cable perennially during the holidays, meaning that generations of kids grew up watching the antics of two seasoned professionals at the height of their fame, bouncing off one another effortlessly. Hollywood tries to recreate this formula every so often, but it's never quite right; Martin and Candy were an incomparable and irreplaceable duo.
Coming To America
"Coming to America" is completely and entirely Eddie Murphy's baby. Riding high off a string of early '80s hits and a star-making run on "Saturday Night Live" (during an era in which many would argue that he was the show's saving grace), this is Murphy at the height of his power. He plays Prince Akeem Joffer, the heir to the throne of a fictional African country, who grows weary of his privileged life and the expectations of an arranged marriage. He flees to Queens and poses as a poor student, hoping to find a wife who will love him, not his political prospects and extraordinary wealth.
"Coming to America" was a famously tense set, and Murphy and director John Landis were frequently at odds with one another. But none of that shows on screen; although it was not particularly well-received by critics, "Coming to America" was the third-highest grossing film of 1988 and remains incredibly popular to this day.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High
"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" isn't your typical raunchy teen comedy. There's plenty of sex, of course, including but not limited to the now-famous scene of Phoebe Cates climbing out of the pool. But the entire production is tinged with melancholy -- the bittersweet musings of a group of high schoolers who are so eager to become adults, but come to regret the constraints of responsibility.
"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" represents the feature-length directorial debut of Amy Heckerling, who would keenly satirize teen culture again with "Clueless"; it was also Cameron Crowe's first screenwriting gig. So, here we witness the birth of two behind-the-scenes talents who would become masters of the coming-of-age story. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" also jumpstarted the careers of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn, who became famous for his work as the good-natured stoner Jeff Spicoli.
"Clue" absolutely, 100% should have been awful. Director and writer Jonathan Lynn was tasked with making a board game adaptation that was also a Cold War-era murder mystery comedy. It's honestly a one-in-a-million chance that "Clue" turns out not only good, but so memorable that it would develop a cult following, keeping it alive decades after its initial release.
The story of "Clue" is familiar to anyone who's ever read an Agatha Christie plot synopsis: A group of strangers gather at a foreboding mansion, all act as though they have secrets to hide, and as soon as the dessert course is cleared, murders start. Everyone has a potential motive, no one trusts each other, and people keep dying. And it is hilarious.
What begins as a slow burn grows faster and faster until the characters are running through the halls of the mansion at a fever pitch, each gifted comedian finding a moment to shine. "Clue" is a brilliant send up of the murder mystery genre and a delightful film in its own right.
"Overboard" is going to be another one of those '80s comedies where the central plot hasn't aged super well, isn't it? Sure, it's probably not great that Kurt Russell took advantage of Goldie Hawn's amnesia to convince her that she was his wife and the mother of his four rambunctious young sons. And was it moral, strictly speaking, to work her like a dog as payback for refusing to compensate him for the work he did on her yacht? The Bible would probably say no.
But look, "Overboard" isn't the Bible, and all it's trying to do is tell a cute enemies-to-lovers story with two incredibly attractive people who have amazing chemistry. Is that a crime? The growth of both of the characters and the warmth with which they come to regard one another elevates "Overboard" well above its logline. Honestly, it's just a shame that Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn didn't make a dozen more '80s rom-coms, because they all would have been delightful.
"Heathers" is not just an expertly done, pitch black comedy, it's perhaps one of the most subversive films of the entire decade. It stars Winona Ryder as Veronica, a teenager who falls in with the popular clique (composed entirely of girls named Heather) despite being considerably more of an outsider. Many of the sequences of Veronica and her friends together have a surreal, dream-like quality, and Veronica's darker instincts often put her at odds with the Heathers' more conventional '80s materialism.
They do, however, make her a perfect match for JD (Christian Slater at his absolute dreamiest), a new student who is equally disillusioned with modern teen culture. But where Veronica is content to pour all of her angst out into her diary, JD is a little bit more militant, a quality that becomes considerably less charming as "Heathers" goes on. A gem of the late '80s, "Heathers" is a reaction against the decade's commercial culture that is both visually dynamic and possesses some of the all-time great one-liners in movie history.
"Gregory's Girl" is the sweetest romantic comedy to come out of Scotland in the '80s. In fact, it's so beloved that it has become sort of an icon for the country, and it's so Scottish that it was originally dubbed upon international release out of fear that other English speakers would be unable to understand the characters' accents.
"Gregory's Girl" stars John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory, a typical awkward teenager, who becomes infatuated with the new girl in school, Dorothy, after she takes his spot on the school's soccer team. But Gregory's attempts to ask Dorothy out result in a strange round robin situation, in which a handful of girls take turns passing him around over the course of an early evening, cleverly orchestrating a date between Gregory and the girl who actually has a crush on him. It's a warm, entirely authentic look at high school dynamics between boys and girls, and has long had a reputation as one of Britain's greatest coming-of-age films.
"Tootsie" takes the maddening concept that a male actor would think, "God, women in this industry have it so much easier!" and somehow turns it into a charming farce. Dustin Hoffman plays an arrogant New York actor who doesn't realize that it's his difficult personality that's sabotaging his efforts to get work. Rather than go to therapy, he decides that the obvious solution is to pose as a middle-aged actress and get a role on a hit daytime soap opera.
He gets the job, but then he has to maintain the ruse, a prospect that is complicated by the fact that he is falling in love with his co-star, played by Jessica Lange (a role she won an Academy Award for). The strength of "Tootsie" is that it doesn't let its leading man off the hook; it really forces him to examine the way he views women and the way he treats people in general.
Ah, the age-old question: Does a rich person avoid petty crime because he is morally superior to the lower classes, or because his birth and circumstances have given him no need to steal? If you were to put a disadvantaged person in his place and give him wealth and power, would he be equally moral, or would he still resort to crime?
Billionaire brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke have nothing particularly pressing to do with their time, being ultra-rich, so they decide to manipulate the lives of others and figure out the answer once and for all. And so, the Dukes strip their wealthy, blue-blood commodities broker Louis Winthrop (Dan Aykroyd) of his position, and plop poor street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) into Winthrop's privileged life.
Both Aykroyd and Murphy are perfectly cast, communicating so much with just their faces (Murphy's glance at the camera as the Duke brothers condescendingly explain commodities to him is priceless). What's especially rewarding about "Trading Places," though, is that even though Winthrop and Valentine are pitted against one another, they quickly realize that their ire is more productively directed at one-percenters wreaking havoc on their lives. "Trading Places" is the rare "eat the rich" moment in the "greed is good" era.
Better Off Dead
If you left the television on at night while you were dozing and "Better Off Dead" began playing, you would be forgiven if you woke up the next morning assuming you had just imagined it all. "Better Off Dead" has the veneer of a typical '80s high school comedy, but it exists in a bizarrely surreal heightened reality that intermingles classic teenage woes with bizarre asides.
This is a movie in which our teen hero Lane Meyer (John Cusack, who famously hated how this film turned out) gets fired from his job at a burger joint after the hamburgers he makes begin performing a Van Halen song. It's also a movie in which Lane repeatedly drag races two Japanese brothers, one who speaks no English at all and the other who learned to speak English from sports commentator Howard Cosell. And we haven't even gotten to the extremely persistent newspaper boy who ominously stalks the Meyer family because they owe him $2.00 for their subscription.
Honestly, "Better Off Dead" is one of those movies where you either get the humor or you don't. If you do, it will become something that you quote to everyone all the time. Fair warning!
Legend has it that when audiences saw Cher's name in the trailer for "Silkwood," her acting debut, they laughed. Known as a singer and variety show host, most people couldn't imagine Cher taking on a serious acting role. Flash forward four years, and Cher is winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in "Moonstruck."
In the film, Cher plays the perpetually exasperated widow in a loud Italian family who ends up falling for her fiancé's eccentric, violently morose brother (played by Nicolas Cage, who relishes one of his first opportunities to show audiences exactly how weird he can be). Their relationship is alternately chaotic and loving, and the two possess a passionate, frenetic chemistry that perfectly suits the other actor's talents. The writing, too, is excellent: understated but clear as a bell. "Moonstruck" seems like it's going to take cheap shots that poke fun at the "ethnic" family, but there's a warmth and generosity of spirit towards the characters that makes it feel less like mocking and more like gentle teasing.
Before we get into "Big," it's probably an appropriate time to address the elephant in the room: Yes, it is unfortunate that the grown lady has relations with the preteen boy. But like so many '80s comedies, it's probably best to set the creep factor aside and just enjoy "Big" for what it is.
When Josh Baskin makes an easily misinterpreted wish to be big, he wakes up the following morning not, perhaps, a few inches taller, but as a full grown man in his early 30s. Tom Hanks has been America's dad for so long now that it's easy to forget how genuinely funny he was during his '80s comedy phase. He charmingly captures the spirit of a 13-year-old boy in the body of an adult, but also gives Josh the opportunity to mature in the face of the adult responsibilities he assumes. Lovingly directed by the always magnificent Penny Marshall, "Big" is an absolute delight; anyone who gets so hung up on the (admittedly weird) sex thing that they can't enjoy this sweet little comedy is, frankly, joyless.
When Harry Met Sally
"Can men and women be friends without sex getting in the way?" That's the question that "When Harry Met Sally" supposedly asks, but that's not really what the film is about. Instead, "When Harry Met Sally" is a very sweet, very funny exploration of how friendship can serve as the greatest of all foundations for a romantic relationship, as evinced by the decades-long bond that develops between Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan). The two spend years dancing around the idea of a relationship, both clearly adoring each other, but never quite in sync with one another -- until, somehow, everything aligns.
Crystal and Ryan have amazing chemistry together, and somehow both of their respective shticks are softened by one another's presence. But all of this is to ignore the most winning element of the film, which is the secondary relationship between Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher, a perfect couple who steal the scene every single time they're on camera.
A Fish Called Wanda
Before you even watch "A Fish Called Wanda" just look in awe at the cast: Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin, Stephen Fry, and John Cleese. That's a pretty great lineup.
More than almost any other genre, heist movies rely upon the unique contributions of each of the individuals. So do comedies. In "A Fish Called Wanda," you get both: It's a movie that revolves around a comically exaggerated series of double crosses, as a gang of diamond thieves try to outsmart one another, hoping to secure exclusive access to the booty, and one that makes full use of the superstar talents on display.
"A Fish Called Wanda" is a clever comedy that's uninterested in hiding its intelligence, and its confidence was well-rewarded. Although comedies are rarely successful at the Academy Awards, "A Fish Called Wanda" took home the Oscar for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (won by Kevin Kline).
This Is Spinal Tap
"This is Spinal Tap" is truly the granddaddy of all mockumentaries. Rob Reiner both directs and plays "Marty" Di Bergi, a filmmaker who is creating a documentary about the famously tumultuous English rock band Spinal Tap. Beginning their career in the '60s, when they were known as the Thamesmen, Spinal Tap was a financial success -- and critical disaster -- for nearly two decades, until the band finally found itself on an unmistakable downward trajectory (one of the film's best visual gags shows Spinal Tap playing progressively smaller venues, until they're finally opening for a puppet show).
Grounded in the improvisational style that star Christopher Guest's films would become known for, "This is Spinal Tap" is a treasure trove of intensely quotable dialogue that makes repeat viewings very rewarding. Dig past the more famous "these go to 11" scene and the classic Stonehenge sequence, and you'll find dozens of precious one-liners that the cast just throws out there. The actors are unconcerned with whether or not they or their castmates get the huge laugh. They're all focused on simply being as funny as possible.
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