Comedies Speak Truth to Power in Golden Globes Race

Typically, the Golden Globe Award for best motion picture comedy/musical has been a mixed bag. Only once in the last decade has the victor — 2012’s “The Artist” — gone on to win the best picture Oscar. And, in 2015, “Birdman” lost to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” only to conquer the Golden Globe best pic drama winner “Boyhood” for top Oscar honors. Last year’s Oscar nail-biter pitted Globes comedy/musical winner “La La Land” against drama winner “Moonlight” — and the outcome of that contest produced an infamous finale to the night.

However, this year has flipped that script. The ugly duckling genre has transformed into a glorious swan with a juicy competition in the works. Front-runners include: “Get Out,” “Lady Bird,” “Battle of the Sexes,” “The Big Sick” and “I, Tonya.” With other potential nominees “Downsizing,” “The Greatest Showman,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Baby Driver” and “Beauty and the Beast,” a vibrant category rises, frequently reflecting America’s cultural diversity.

Can we finally kick the second-class status of comedy aside? “What do you have to do in a comedy — how emotional and funny and successful does it have to be — for people to say that was one of the best movies made that year?” asks Barry Mendel, producer of “The Big Sick,” as well as previous Golden Globe nominees “Trainwreck” and “Bridesmaids.”

“It has to be funny, but to be one of the best movies, a comedy has to be real,” answers Bob Berney, head of marketing and distribution at Amazon Studios, which picked up “The Big Sick” at Sundance earlier this year. “ ‘The Big Sick’ derives authenticity from being [co-screenwriters] Emily Gordon and Kamail Nanjiani’s true story….They often say comedies don’t get the accolades that dramas do, but not this year — there’s more to ‘The Big Sick’ than just the joke.”

In other words, “The Big Sick” isn’t just another funny face. “One of the things that excited [producer] Judd Apatow and I was that we thought we’re going to make the first mainstream romantic comedy starring a Muslim-American,” Mendel adds. “We were super excited about that from the beginning, and then when Trump got elected, it took on a different meaning.”

As the awards season scrambles for inclusion — hamstrung by biases inherent within the studio production system — the comedy/musical category doesn’t require twisting itself like Thor dangling from a chain in order to get women, LGBQT people and people of color into the awards-season mix.

Another prime example: the mother-daughter comedy “Lady Bird,” in which debut solo director Greta Gerwig demonstrates a keen eye for the way that domestic comedy can dig deep into family drama.

Saoirse Ronan stars as a Sacramento senior high school student opposite her big-hearted but cash-strapped mother (played by Laurie Metcalf); both have risen to the top of adjacent acting categories. The movie opened to the highest per-screen average — $93,000 — in 2017.

In “Get Out,” first-time director Jordan Peele employs horror-comedy tropes to address racism without ever climbing on a soapbox. The box-office hit — $253 million and counting worldwide — stars Daniel Kaluuya as a love-struck black photographer venturing on a meet-the-parents weekend with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams). In an outlandish twist on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the hero discovers that he’s been lured to a wealthy suburb populated by a nest of parasitic, body-snatching — and importantly, liberal — white folk. Horror and hilarity ensue along with a masterful social critique.

In this era of global — and interpersonal — conflict, never underestimate the power of a movie to transport by the sheer fun of it. A belly laugh can be powerful. “There’s an enormous snobbery about things that are hoping to entertain,” says “Victoria & Abdul” producer Beeban Kidron. “I come from a school of thought that says if you can entertain people by touching them in their hearts and minds then we’re all winners.”

“I, Tonya” producer Bryan Unkeless echoes that: “With our film, ‘I, Tonya,’ we try to be fun, rowdy, in your face exciting and laugh-out-loud funny. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something on its mind.”

The movie revolves around figure skater Tonya Harding’s infamous attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan, but “there’s more to the story than what we see in the headline,” Unkeless says. “It’s necessary to understand the broader context of what’s going on of any story and particularly that of Tonya, whose name became associated with a punchline.”

He adds: “Some of our best content right now is comedy. We’ve evolved from the cut-to-the-punchline style that we’ve seen with more broad fare in the past. Directors like Craig Gillespie find comedy in reality and allow us to just sit in it and see the absurdity in what we encounter every day. Laughter is truth.”

Victoria & Abdul’s” Kidron agrees: “Comedy is a bit like the notion of the court jester in English history. He was the person who could tell the king what was up. Comedy has that role in telly, in film, in cartoon, in art — speak truth to power.”

And it’s that capacity for insight and entertainment that has made this Golden Globes category the most competitive, and the most compelling, in recent memory.

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