It’s time to share my Top 5 Comedy Movies.
Obviously, this is a potentially fluid list. Though, these Top 5 have been in their spots for years without any signs of being shaken. So, I’d say we’re safe looking at them.
Naturally, as if to build some sort of tension, I’ll go in reverse order. That means we start with No. 5 and work our way up to No. 1 over the next several weeks. So, without any further ado…
No. 5: The Three Amigos (1986)
Well first, a disclaimer. I love movies, like, a lot. I own hundreds. I have 100 Criterions alone. I am a full-on film nerd. So, choosing a Top 5 is not easy. It’s possible that I love a movie that I have also completely forgotten. But, I’m also a believer in “first thought, best thought” and anytime people ask me my top comedies, these are the ones that come to mind. They’re also movies that I still like regularly.
However, I’ll still do a small runner-up list at the end of this series. There are a few movies that I feel terrible for leaving off. But, art is subjective. Your Top 5 is almost certainly different than mine, and that’s what makes the world go round.
So, on with it…
I’ll just assume you’ve seen The Three Amigos because it’s a great movie and this is a comedy blog. If you’re the kind of person that would read this blog, you’re the kind who has seen this movie.
It’s great. Though you wouldn’t know it by the initial reactions. Ebert gave it one star. Other critics were slightly nicer, but not much. And, it’s not like they had no reason for concern.
The movie was written by Steve Martin (who also starred), Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live Producer) and - of all people - Randy Newman (songwriter). It was directed by John Landis, which is where some of the controversy comes from. He was on trial for the unfortunate events of the Twilight Zone movie where a helicopter crashed and killed three people. So, a lot of the editing was taken out of his hands and done by the studio. And, in case you’re unaware, despite what they think, the people who run the studios are almost never artists. They’re lawyers and businessmen who only care about bottom line.
However, I don’t agree with a lot of critics who think they screwed it up. Neither does history as the movie has garnered cult status at this point.
Plot: Three silent film actors, Lucky Day (Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase), and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short), are fired from the studio they work for. It is the dawn of talkies and they’re yesterday’s news. However, good fortune graces them in the form of a telegram from a woman in Mexico named Carmen (Patrice Martinez).
After stumbling into a ramshackle movie house, she sees one of the Amigos’ films and mistakes it for reality. This is the main comic thrust of the movie. The Amigos show up in Mexico thinking they’re doing an acting gig when in fact they are meant to protect the small town of Santa Poco from the evil El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his band of marauders.
And, it’s a comedy, so I’ll let you guess how it ends.
In the beginning, the three men are all spoiled movie stars. And, they’ve been in the movies for so long that they view everything as some sort of performance. Their complete obliviousness to their situation makes for great comic moments like leading an entire bar full of rough dudes in the song “My Little Buttercup.”
But, this gets at one of the things that I really love about this movie. They know it’s ridiculous. We’re talking about three guys that wear stylized mariachi outfits and have a synchronized slogan/salute type thing. It’s silly. So, Martin, Michaels, and Newman crank that weirdness up to 11.
And nowhere is that more apparent than in the film’s villain, El Guapo.
“Jefe, would you say I have a plethora of piñatas?”
Yes, he’s the villain, but he is also insecure about turning 40 and doesn’t tolerate sycophantic behavior from his men. He’s also a total sociopath, which makes his silliness work. But, the silliness dominates. Arau steals every scene he’s in. The movie is worth a watch for his performance alone because there is a lot of comedy in his lines, but his performance takes it to another level.
I’m not kidding. Even people playing serious villains should watch this performance for tips. He gets so much complexity and depth out of a hilarious role. It’s super impressive.
As for the stars, there are always the what-if stories. At different times, actors such as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Robin Williams were attached to the roles. Martin was always going to star since he’s the co-writer and whatnot.
In fact, I’d say it’s slightly surprising that Chase was hired because by then he had a well-worn reputation for being really hard to work with. And no one was more aware of that than Lorne Michaels.
Martin was perfect because his stand-up persona, or at least part of it, was of the wealthy, aloof superstar. But, this role also gave him a good turn toward decency that he would steer hard into over the next 20 years as he took on more romantic and dad roles.
Short’s unbridled enthusiasm is always a welcome presence in a film. In this movie, he plays a former child star, which gives him an added layer of comedy as he constantly references his old films. Particularly in how he might be able to do extraordinary things like fly a plane because he did it in a movie once.
Chase plays Chase. He’s never been a very good actor, in my opinion. Of course, being very naturally funny and a good actor are two different things. And, he’s hilarious. But, no matter the role, he always has a tinge of contempt in his voice. It’s why he was so well cast playing rich jackasses over the years. He actually is one, so it’s easy casting.
Finally, again going from the assertion that they just cranked the silliness as far up as possible, there is the trip to El Guapo’s hideout. A singing bush, singing animals, and an invisible horseman embraces the unrealistic nature of the film and makes it a joke everyone can enjoy. Some people were confused by this sequence, but I think it’s the key to what makes the whole film work.
I’ve written before about the “Age of Cynicism” we live in. Irony and satire reign as the eye roll has become the new national salute. And, our comedy reflects that to a certain extent. SO much comedy today is done tongue in cheek with a wink to the camera as if to acknowledge that we all know it’s silly so it’s OK to laugh.
I often lament how we have to be told it’s OK to laugh these days. Everyone is always so above it all. But really, sometimes it’s OK to just laugh at something funny. The same as it’s OK to like Taylor Swift or Taco Bell. We all like a good steak, or whatever vegans eat, but sometimes we like junk food. And that’s the key to good comedy. Letting yourself enjoy it. Expectancy.
Alas, though, The Three Amigos is not the genesis of this inside-joke laughing. That’s not what I’m getting at. My point is that The Three Amigos comes by it honestly.
When you watch that movie one thing is glaringly obvious. They wanted to make a comedy, not necessarily a movie. So, when they crank the silly factor up, it’s not to mock the absurd story. It’s to say, “The only story that would allow us to stretch our comedic muscles is so absurd it’s silly. Isn’t that fun?!”
The Three Amigos loves what it is. It revels in itself. It milks every single moment for comedy gold. And, here’s the thing…it succeeds. The film may not have the greatest story or cinematography, or whatever. It’s not supposed to. No matter who they cast, this was all about making a funny movie.
And actually, I wish more modern comedies were like that. Good comedy and good stories don’t often blend well, in my opinion. So, why not just go as weird and crazy as possible in story so that the comedy can take center stage?
It’s something to think about for you writers out there. Embrace the silly. Feature the comedy. Play up the bits. And, if it makes your movie unrealistic and/or unbelievable. Good.
Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.