There are two movies in theaters now that demonstrate what happened to American comedies and how much they’ve changed over the past decade. Now that weekly box office grosses are back to pre-pandemic levels, new releases are up too, and Hollywood’s made a giant circle in its quest to find somewhere else to dump product: for now, as always, it’s the movie theater. A month ago, The Hollywood Reporter published a great piece by Etan Vlessing called “Theater Chains to Studios: Please Send Us More Movies.” He writes: “In all the calls with investors, exhibition executives stressed that the prescription for bringing theatrical attendance and box office back to historical levels includes releasing more volume and diversity of films instead of just relying on the next superhero blockbusters. They also cautioned that recent revenue gains came from ticket price hikes, strong high-margin concession sales and premium big-screen play for tentpoles.”
Only a month later, Variety published a story that was talked about far more than it was actually read, because its promotional tweet was so satisfying: "Studios have ‘come to recognize that having an exclusive theatrical window is the best way to maximize profits instead of releasing everything simultaneously on demand,’ says analyst Eric Handler.” This is after the successful release of Air, the coveted original drama for adults with wide appeal, and the popular Super Mario Bros. Movie, which I was really excited to see until I realized this was the movie where they made Mario have a panic attack. Kids should know about anxiety and panic disorders—it hits them, too—but shoehorned into a fucking Mario movie? What happened to Sesame Street? Isn’t that still on?
Anyway, studio executives, producers, and financiers with goldfish memories are gaga over movie theaters for the first time this decade, and anecdotally, it does feel like a pre-pandemic year. The new comedies in question—Paint and Mafia Mamma—are movies I would’ve seen at a matinee on a typical day in, oh, pick the year. Neither is particularly remarkable or memorable, and they’re nothing more than programmers, but they’re not like so many movies of the past few years, ones that have felt oddly ersatz and fake somehow, like movies characters in a movie would watch. I saw this complaint leveled against Paint, and while I didn’t like the movie, it didn’t have the lifelessness of so many Netflix Originals or even an awards season movie like Promising Young Woman, still the nadir of the decade.
Paint put the wrong foot forward by making people think Owen Wilson is playing Bob Ross, or even a fictionalized Bob Ross—this guy is an oblivious, entitled, pussy hound charlatan. He just has the Bob Ross afro, or the barber’s “#12” Paint takes place in an ambiguous timeline: there are no smartphones, nor widescreen televisions, but everyone acts and talks like it’s 2023, and one of Wilson’s coworkers begs off a one-night stand with, “My Uber is here.” I thought that Riley Steams might’ve directed this movie, since his excellent and underappreciated The Art of Self-Defense from 2019 had a similarly vague technology chronology. Steams’ manipulation of time and electronics is intentional, while writer/director Brit McAdams apparently just prefers the aesthetic of the 1980s and early-1990s, when Bob Ross was still painting on TV.
What makes this movie thoroughly 2023 is its one flawless character: Ambrosia, played by Ciara Renée, a black lesbian who replaces Wilson’s painter at the public access station. Not only does Wilson’s one true lost love—Michaela Watkins—hook up with Ambrosia after about two minutes (nervous and excited, she makes it clear she’s “NEVER HAD SEX WITH A WOMAN!”), every other woman at the station eventually falls for Wilson (or Ambrosia’s) seduction, and when the women are with Wilson, they’re as cardboard as his chauvinist, all googly eyes and panting and just overflowing with uncontrollable lust, temporarily turning them into idiots. Wilson isn’t a rapist or an abusive guy, he’s just completely self-absorbed and isn’t even aware if he’s ever hurt anyone’s feelings. He’s a total asshole, but there isn’t much to him—who is this guy, but a jerk in a Bob Ross outfit?
Ambrosia, like Janelle Monae in Glass Onion, is the only character in the movie without a single blemish—are black characters not allowed to be anything but perfect? Much of what makes Succession brilliant is its ability to quickly and concisely cut characters down to size—to make them human. Perhaps the best example is a heartfelt scene between Willa and Connor at their tragic wedding, followed next week by Willa redecorating her dead father-in-law’s mansion at his own wake. She’s sympathetic at times and wicked at others—like most people! I think it’s backwards and racist to prevent minority actors from playing characters that’re annoying, violent, offensive, whatever; as Jean-Luc Godard asked Dick Cavett in 1980, “Does not everyone have the right to be in a concentration camp?”
If Paint is firmly planted in a post-2014 culture, Mafia Mamma is a somewhat surprising throwback to the ethnic and racial comedies that made billions from the 1970s through the late-2000s. I’m not talking about stuff like Friday or The Joy Luck Club, but comedies like How High, Kung Pow! Enter the Fist, and of course Borat. The notion of basing an entire film today around mocking or satirizing the stereotypes and peculiarities of a specific country or ethnicity is dead on arrival—I mean, you just read that sentence, can you imagine something like The Three Amigos being produced today? What about Ishtar? But Mafia Mamma proves that the eternal well of foreigners as fodder remains in American cinema.
Toni Collette plays a pushover high-strung mom sending her kid off to college, right when she walks in on her husband fucking some girl she apologizes to and asks if they can get coffee. This woman has no backbone, and is just as much of a retrograde mush-mouth cardboard cutout as the women working for Owen Wilson in Paint. Catherine Hardwicke directed it from a script by Michael J. Feldman and Debbie Jhoon, one that proves Anna Khaciyan’s theory that pop culture always has a pressure valve for racism: at the moment, Italians are on offer. Watch 10 comedies from the 2000s and you’ll quickly find that black people were du jour comedy fodder back then (remember everyone asking each other if they were “on crack”?) Homosexuals endured the same mockery in the 1970s.
None of this went away entirely, but each cycle of political correctness has its permitted targets. Right now, it’s white women, gay men, and Italians. Mafia Mamma is about as good as Paint, but more enjoyable, because it’s active and fun and dumb and so of another time that I felt yesterday’s Paint wash off. Collette, without a husband or son to keep her busy, decides to stay in Italy after falling upwards into the seat of a mob boss, a seat she inherited from a grandfather she never knew. She’s head honcho of the Balbano family, with Monica Bellucci as her right-hand woman. They have security guards named Fabrizio and Dante, the latter of whom is enormous and eats plate after plate of pasta.
This movie is full of every hack Italian stereotype you can think of in the American lexicon, along with the insufferable Godfather references, but it doesn’t feel like it’s jerking you off like the dialysis-core films of the late 2010s: Paris Can Wait, The Leisure Seeker, The Meddler, Finding Your Feet. This is a foreigner fish out of water story, a setup that’s worked through film history, from Ninotchka to Trading Places. It may not be particularly original or well-written, but its attitude is so telling and so encouraging: there will always be something about laughing at those people over there. If you transposed the script for Mafia Mamma to Mexico, and replaced Collette with Penélope Cruz, but kept every instance of an ethnic joke or a cultural difference played for laughs, you’d have one highly offensive script—at least right now.
The 2004 comedy Soul Plane couldn’t have been made in 1991, and it couldn’t be made today. And that’s just to say that these judgments are completely arbitrary, and that every era in American pop culture has its permitted targets. Who and why these groups are selected, and who’s protected, depend on a variety of things: black people may not be popular targets of comedy in movies or television anymore, but have reparations been made? Mexico and Mexicans had an ally in the 2000s with George W. Bush, and I remember people getting in trouble back then for casually using “wetback.” Mexico was poor then, and it’s poor now—but Italy? Well, it’s not just first-world countries you can mock: Asia is off limits! The English, as always, are our true enemy and they will always be made fun of by Americans—ditto asshole Canadians. But they’re still so similar to us, and Italians, well… they’re just dark enough to make a difference, I guess.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith