Home theater: Comedies to lighten your lockdown

Why We Wrote This

Film critic Peter Rainer wants you to laugh. “I can think of few comedies that are better picker-uppers than the three I’m highlighting for this week’s column,” he says, recommending movies featuring Dustin Hoffman, Albert Brooks, and the Marx Brothers. 

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Jessica Lange (left) and Dustin Hoffman star in "Tootsie" (1981).

It has always been my particular pleasure to champion older movies that might be discoveries for some and remembered treasures for others. This is especially true when it comes to comedies. Times and tastes may change but funny is still funny. I can think of few comedies that are better picker-uppers than the three I’m highlighting for this week’s column: “Tootsie,” “Lost in America,” and “Duck Soup.” From the get-go, in their own very different ways, they take you to a better place and keep you there. I’ve seen these films many times and, if anything, they improve with age. What was new the first time around becomes cherishable on repeated viewings.

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“Tootsie”

Dustin Hoffman had perhaps his greatest movie role to date in “Tootsie” (1982) as Michael Dorsey, a New York actor deemed so “difficult” by his agent (played to the hilt by Sydney Pollack, the film’s director) that he’s become unemployable. In desperation, secretly dressed in drag, he auditions for a soap opera and lands the part. As “Dorothy Michaels,” playing a hospital administrator, he becomes the star of the show, all the while keeping his real identity under wraps.

Gender-bending complications ensue, including his attraction to one of the show’s actresses, Julie, who warms to Dorothy as a confidante. Julie is marvelously played by Jessica Lange, who won the best supporting actress Oscar for this film in the same year that she was also nominated for best actress for her harrowing and polar opposite performance as Frances Farmer in “Frances.” And there’s Julie’s widowed father Les (Charles Durning), who is smitten with “Dorothy.”

The entire cast is tiptop, including Bill Murray as Michael’s playwright roomie, Teri Garr as Michael’s understandably frazzled girlfriend, and Dabney Coleman as the TV show’s lecherous director.

During its making, “Tootsie” was notorious for production problems on the set. Hoffman and Pollack were continually at odds (despite the film’s smash success, they never worked together again), and the script was worked over by many more writers, including Elaine May and Barry Levinson, than the two who were credited, Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart. Given all this dissension, one might reasonably have expected a disaster, and yet not only is “Tootsie” a classic comedy, but also, of all things, a seamless classic comedy.

It’s also unexpectedly touching. Michael’s disguised yearning for Julie pulls him apart. When the jig is finally up, he tries to calm her outrage by telling her, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was as a man.” Hoffman gives a line that might otherwise sound sappy a deep wellspring of emotion. (Rated PG) 

“Lost in America”

Albert Brooks, as performer, writer, and director, is one of the most original comic talents in the history of American show business. He came from a showbiz family, with a famous radio comedian father, Harry Einstein, who had the wit, or the chutzpah, to name his son Albert. His best movies as a director and co-writer are “Real Life” (1979), a deadpan satire about a supremely annoying documentary filmmaker who intrudes on a family’s privacy; “Modern Romance” (1981), where Brooks plays a supremely annoying film editor trying to win back his girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold); and his masterpiece, “Lost in America” (1985), where he plays David, a cocky Los Angeles ad executive who, denied a promotion to vice president, chucks it all, liquidates his assets, buys an RV, and with his doting, befuddled wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty), sets out on the road “Easy Rider”-style.

Things, needless to say, do not go as planned. One of the funniest scenes of all time comes right after Linda has lost their life savings at a Vegas casino. David frantically tries to convince the casino owner, played with impeccable slow-burn exasperation by Garry Marshall, to give the money back to the couple as a “bold” publicity gimmick. Perfection. (Rated R)

“Duck Soup” 

Leo McCarey’s “Duck Soup” (1933) is the funniest Marx Brothers movie and also, in its own vaudeville-gone-haywire way, one of the best antiwar satires ever made. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the president of the embattled state of Freedonia, and Chico and Harpo play spies hired to undermine him. The brothers never worked better together, and at least one of their routines – the famous “mirror” scene where Groucho and Harpo mimic each other’s movements – is unmatched. (Unrated)

These films are available to rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes. 

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