The venerable Jerry Lewis got himself caught in the crosshairs of comedy at the Cannes Film Festival last month, when he said, once again, that women aren't funny. Maybe they're not. But judging by "The Internship," "The Hangover Part III," "This Is the End" and the trailer for the upcoming "Grownups 2," neither are men.
Although he may be a man, Paul Feig directed what plenty of people think was the funniest film of the past several years, "Bridesmaids," a movie comedy populated almost entirely by -- yes, Jerry -- women. And if the advance word is any indication ("Better than 'Bridesmaids'!" decreed Indiewire's Anne Thompson), Feig's latest, "The Heat," may be the comedy hit of the summer. It opens Friday.
Starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy -- whose gastrointestinal distress in "Bridesmaids" caused plumbers to shudder all over America -- "The Heat" is an odd-couple-crime-buddy-cop-road movie, a genre-hopping, multihyphenated plotline that reflects Hollywood's current strategy of making audiences think they're getting more of everything. Which, in this case anyway, includes the cast.
Bullock, the star of such popular romantic comedies as "While You Were Sleeping" (1995), "Miss Congeniality" (2000) and "The Proposal" (2009) and who gave an Oscar-winning performance in "The Blind Side" (2009), can certainly open a movie on her own. So can McCarthy. The star of TV's "Mike & Molly," the recent "Identity Thief" and "The Hangover Part III" (in which she had a small but memorable role, in a forgettable movie) is among the more formidable and funniest of today's female comedy stars. Together, they imply that what you're going to get is a double dip of laughs.
With a screenplay by "Parks & Recreation" writer Katie Dippold (a woman!), "The Heat" has a predictable enough setup: Bullock plays uptight, by-the-book FBI agent Sarah Ashburn; McCarthy is Shannon Mullins, a slovenly Boston cop with anger issues. They don't like each other, but they are cast together, to their great irritation, to bring down a nasty Russian drug czar and save the world.
Partners with a twist
The premise for "The Heat" as a cop comedy is one of the hoariest constructs in the history of movies -- the old "48 Hrs."-style, "Lethal Weapon"-inspired mismatch of temperaments, crime-fighting techniques and personal habits. The only thing that keeps "The Heat" from conforming to the classic "I Spy" format is that Bullock and McCarthy are both white (although Bullock certainly seems WASPy and McCarthy and her character are obviously Irish). What makes the real difference, of course, is that they're both women: The closest the buddy-cop movie genre has come to that was "White Chicks," in which Shawn and Marlon Wayans played women in whiteface drag.
The joys of sexes
And women aren't funny, right Jerry? Actually, there may be a real disparity between the sexes when it comes to a sense of humor. Researchers at the University of New Mexico, linking humor to intelligence and intelligence to sexual attractiveness, said that "males showed higher average humor production ability. These results suggest that the human sense of humor evolved at least partly through sexual selection as an intelligence-indicator." Research at the University of Maryland in 1996 said that women who posted personal ads sought partners who made them laugh twice as often as they offered to be the source of humor; men offered to be the jokester a third more often than they sought it in a mate. A researcher at the University of Western Ontario in 2006 elaborated on this, saying that, "Although both sexes say they want a sense of humor, in our research women interpreted this as 'someone who makes me laugh,' and men wanted 'someone who laughs at my jokes.' "
So it may in fact be that men are hard-wired to be funnier than women, for the oldest reason there is -- survival of the species. Which doesn't explain Kristen Wiig. Or Sarah Silverman. Or Joan Rivers. But it may prompt readers to give Lewis a break.
Because what he was talking about in Cannes wasn't just comedy.
"I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator," he told The Associated Press. "I just can't do that." Although he was talking across a deep generational divide, what he was really saying was that he doesn't like it when women act like men -- the mechanics of comedy almost always demanding, however subtly, that a comedian debase himself. In "The Heat," McCarthy's character, in particular, acts and looks like a particularly uncouth man. Which is what makes her funny, even if Lewis finds it too much to bear.
'The Heat," which pairs Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as mismatched partners in a police investigation, is the rarest of creatures -- a female-buddy-cop movie (TV's been more liberal: see "Cagney & Lacey"). Almost as unusual, though, are simple one-on-one female buddy movies -- films in which women characters are posed opposite each other without aid of a coterie, clique or claque. Movies in which women interact in groups are famous and plentiful -- "The Women," "The Group," "Steel Magnolias," "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," "A League of Their Own," "Charlie's Angels" and "Bridesmaids" -- all feature three or more women dealing with their problems. The following couplings are really unusual. And all were directed by men.
The female buddy system
Beaches (1988) -- A 30-year friendship (Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey) seen via flashback is the basis for this Garry Marshall-directed weeper, which has become the defining movie in the movie war of the sexes -- men recoil in horror, women generally like it, and no one knows why.
Thelma & Louise (1991) -- A seminal (if that's the word) moment at the movies, in which the title characters head for Mexico after killing an assailant, but have to go around Texas to do it. Both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis earned best actress Oscar nominations for the Ridley Scott-directed film (written by Callie Khouri), but lost to Jodie Foster ("The Silence of the Lambs").
Ghost World (2001) -- Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb") directed this story of high school girlfriends, social outcasts whom one just knows are going to become remarkable people. Thora Birch is Enid, a brunette Scarlett Johansson is Rebecca and Steve Buscemi is Seymour, the slightly odd duck whom Enid adopts.
Grey Gardens (2009) -- Based on the 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers, this updated semibiography focuses on the eccentric lives of Edith Bouvier Beale (Drew Barrymore), aka Little Edie, and her mother, Edith Ewing Bouvier (Jessica Lange), aka Big Edie, cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy and the charmingly strange inhabitants of a dilapidated Long Island mansion.
Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion (1997). Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michelle (Lisa Kudrow), 28-year-old airheads, prepare for their upcoming high school reunion by manufacturing better lives for themselves. Nothing goes as planned, there's a certain amount of cringing involved and, despite what would seem like common sense, there was a TV prequel in 2005.