Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: The Flying Deuces

I have a short list of what I consider true "comedy epics"—films with a broad scope, outlandish style of humor, longish running time, and enough momentum to entirely or mostly overcome the fatigue that inevitably sets in under the preceding conditions. My go-to exemplars of the comedy epic are It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Blues Brothers; at the moment I can't think of any others I'd put in the same category.

While less than seventy minutes long, The Flying Deuces at times feels like it's trying to be a comedy epic, but comes off more as merely a high-budget "event" vehicle for its stars, Laurel and Hardy. I don't pretend to know much about the trajectory of early comedy teams' careers, but The Flying Deuces had a lot of the tedium that I've always assumed many of the later Abbott & Costello films probably have.

It's a strange and disappointing feeling, too, if (like me) you've found the shorter Laurel & Hardy features to be consistently enjoyable and often hilarious. To cleanse the palate after The Flying Deuces, I watched one of their silent-era shorts that I hadn't seen before, on Hulu. (I don't recall the title, but they're bellboys and there's a prince staying at the hotel.) I laughed more often and more heartily during the 18-minute short, despite the disruptive and almost frighteningly anachronistic Hulu ad breaks, than I did throughout The Flying Deuces' running time.

A scene that exemplifies this lost opportunity is the mutual suicide scene. "Yes," I thought to myself, "this is gonna be good. These two offing themselves? Rife with potential for madcap whimsy." And while Ollie did get in a couple of good withering stares at the camera, and their conversation about reincarnation was genuinely funny, the whole scene plays out in a low-key and comparatively predictable manner, ending with a whimper that suggests the whole sequence may have only been setup for the next plot development.

Speaking of which, the story is that Ollie gets despondent after being rejected by a Parisian beauty, and just as he and Stanley are about to throw themselves in the Seine (which somehow contains a huge, unidentifiable aquatic predator, but never mind), they are persuaded to do something that frankly (heh) these two characters should have done decades ago: join the French Foreign Legion. (Frankly, y'see, because…nevermind.) There they screw stuff up, get punished, try to go home, get arrested for desertion, and escape execution—eventually finding themselves flying a plane in the fashion you would expect.

Certainly part of the problem here was ill-defined foils. When both your leads are bumblers, you've gotta have solid foils, and here the only two characters who might qualify are the legion officer they meet in Paris—who's just too likeable, and barely in it—and the fort commander, whose reactions lack any sense of comic exaggeration. The latter actor seemed like he wouldn't have even been light-hearted enough to be a good fit for Casablanca. L&H regular Jimmy Finlayson did show up, but in a small, underwhelming role as the jailor.

I get annoyed when a movie or TV show, especially a comedy, expects me to enjoy something just because it's giving us characters whom we seem to like, undertaking supposedly fresh shenanigans that we seem to be willing to endure, if only due to the psychology of previous investment. "Look, it's yer favorites, only in a new situation! Yer s'posed ta laugh!" It happens often in long-running TV shows and I felt like it was happening a lot here, nowhere more intensely than during the plane sequence. Maybe this is a consequence of too many decades' separation from the film's intended audience—maybe somehow the notion of nincompoops piloting a plane was much more inherently funny in the '30s. Maybe this disconnect is best blamed on 9/11. (Not serious! Yer s'posed ta laugh!)

Still, as a document of its time, The Flying Deuces is largely interesting and watchable. The laundry scene is both amusing and informative: in times and places that lacked washing machines, laundry day was practically a war crime. Much of what takes place after they join the Legion is so cartoony that you begin to perceive influences on Looney Tunes (which, despite our justly fond memories, were also often tedious). And of course Ollie sings a nice little Tin Pan Alley song to break up the proceedings late in the film. Nevertheless, if you're trying to get into really-old-school comedy, this isn't the place to start.

Star Score: 2 out of 5

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