When someone tells me that deadpan comedies leave them cold-- that, for example, Jim Jarmusch is only concerned with being "hip" or Wes Anderson only with how he arranges objects in the frame-- I wonder if they're watching the same films that I am. Deadpan comedies are not about suppressing emotions but about accessing them; the anguish on the screen for me has always been palpable, and the characters are usually larger-than-life, completely consumed and defined by their depression, their alienation, or their inability to connect with others.
What those people who don't "get" deadpan are really saying is not that the films lack warmth, affection, and emotion, but rather that the emotions on display make them uncomfortable, and they certainly didn't come to a comedy to, you know, go through an actual emotional experience, to actually think and feel. Comedy equals autopilot, while deadpan demands attention. And I feel sorry for them, because they're really missing out on experiences that will make them not only better cinephiles but also better people.
Almost every great deadpan comedy is an act of sympathy for the putatively unsympathetic, and this holds true for Azazel Jacobs's* The GoodTimesKid. Consider, for example, the character that Jacobs himself plays: a wiry, surly mass of pointless, directionless rage, angry at everything and nothing. This character, one Rodolfo Cano, starts fights (clad in boxing gloves and a cape made from an American flag) for no obvious reason, screams and scowls at and rushes out on his girlfriend, Diaz (Diaz), and enlists in the army, also seemingly unmotivated.
His call-to-service letter ends up being sent to another Rodolfo Cano (Gerardo Naranjo); this Rodolfo has an expression that is so self-depreciating that Diaz dubs him, not unfittingly, "Depresso". He is most assuredly a passive figure, the exact opposite of a self-starter. He spends most of the film following others: he follows the other Rodolfo to the latter's home, follows Diaz on her way to the bar where her Rodolfo is getting the snot beat out of him, follows the other Rodolfo for what appears to be an entire evening as he walks around aimlessly. There's a great gag in the first following sequence when the angry Rodolfo comes to a stand-still, and Rodolfo the Follower does the same, stopping next to a tree. A sudden cut takes us from brisk daylight to black evening, and there's Rodolfo, still next to the tree, still waiting for Rodolfo to make a move.
There's a scene in the house where Depresso-Rodolfo watches Diaz beat up a chocolate birthday cake in anguish, then start pounding on the refrigerator, smearing it and her dress with cake before plopping down in front of it. Diaz looks up at him, and demands, "Who the fuck are you?" In answer, he punches and kicks the refrigerator, than slides down next to Diaz. It's a moment of bonding, almost a ritual of initiation, but there's a delicious irony in that, even in this moment, he is still following somebody else's lead. (The film's ending, which will remain unspoilt here, gives this running gag its most logical, apt, sad, noble, and generous punchline.)
By naming both his male leads Rodolfo, Jacobs of course asks us to compare and contrast them. We might align our sympathies more readily with Depresso-Rodolfo than his angrier counterpart, but they're not really so different. Consider the scene in which Depresso-Rodolfo and Diaz hide from the former's girlfriend, as said girlfriend pleads for him to open up and let her in. Isn't that really what Diaz herself asks of her Rodolfo in the film's opening scene? Diaz knows what it's like to be that person on the other side, beating on the door. And maybe this new Rodolfo might not be the perfect replacement he at first seems.
What's interesting about this moment, this parallel, is that it's almost tossed away; while they hide from Rodolfo's unseen girl, our intrepid duo play with a flash-light, comically shushing each other and making faces. Because of this, the parallels are still allowed to register, but they never call attention to themselves, never metastasize into Big Obvious Points.
This is what I like about deadpan comedies: themes are still dealt with, emotions still explored, but in a sideways kind of way that helps to make the often heavy material more bearable. Anger, depression, longing, loneliness, and the mysteries of why we hurt the people we love and why we do the things that we do: these are all important and potent ingredients in Jacobs's concoction, but they never overpower his comic sensibility and the deep compassion he feels for his characters.
This compassion is most evident, I think, in the remarkable monologue Jacobs gives to the Rodolfo he himself plays. Temporarily stripped of his rage and vulnerable, seemingly willing to relinquish Diaz to the new Rodolfo (another parallel: he's just as capable of being passive, and perhaps his anger is tied up in that), he talks about Diaz, about how special and how rare she is.
This is the guy who began the film by storming out of the house; this is the guy who returned home just long enough to yell at Diaz before running out to start a fight at a bar; this is the guy who comes home with another woman and crashes on the couch; this is the guy who, in his next scene, will suddenly start to attack Rodolfo. This guy-- who my wife dubbed Rage-O in homage to Diaz's own coinage of Depresso-- is the guy who gets the most poetic expression of emotion. If we don't-- I don’t want to say "identify", as that's not quite the word-- but if we're still completely outside this guy, still completely rooting for Depresso-and-Diaz, then I dare say this scene, and perhaps the film itself, would cease to work. Quite a gamble, that.
But for this viewer, at least, it did work; this sudden yet oh-so-quiet explosion of feeling hooked me completely, and when the film had come to its end-- when Depresso-Rodolfo does something that is at once completely within his character but also an uncommon act of, dare I say it, nobility-- it is completely satisfying and makes complete sense because of this scene.
It is, then, the pivotal scene, the one that sets the film's final act (and final actions) into motion. And this scene depends on a guy who is almost defined by his unfocused anger. It's a testament to Jacobs's abilities as an actor and director, as a creator of tone and of flow, that the scene works. The little parallels between the two Rodolfos, and between Diaz and her doubles, register obliquely; the deep wells of emotion and turmoil that gush within all of these fucked-up and angry people (the Rodolfos and Diaz are all a little defensive, all attacking or being attacked, all wary of others) seep through the long quiet moments, the surreal-yet-underplayed gags, the droll-but-at-times-pointed dialogue. Our sympathies for and understanding of the Angry Rodolfo are created almost by osmosis, seeping in undetected, until they surprise us in that monologue, in that moment.
This sort of surprise, this culminative effect, this is, for me, the promise of deadpan comedy. In this case, it is a promise that is fulfilled.
The GoodTimesKid came out on DVD this summer, the sixth release from Benten Films. I own all but one of their titles, and can recommend them wholeheartedly: (1) Joe Swanberg's LOL (which, full disclosure, I'm sort of but not really in-- long story); (2) Aaron Katz's Quiet City and Dance Party, USA (packaged together); (3) Todd Rohal's The Guatemalan Handshake; and (5) Kentucker Audley's Team Picture. I haven't seen Benten number four, Matthias Glasner's The Free Will, which is two and a half hours long, in German, and about a sexual predator-- not exactly the sort of thing I'm personally clammering to see-- but, what the hey, I'm going to recommend it anyway because Benten's track record is impeccable: good films, great packaging, perfect transfers, loads of extras. Everything you could want from a DVD, really.
*-- "Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant."-- Strunk & White, mofos.