A friend of mine once watched Barry Lyndon with the mindset that it was actually a single, three-hour long Kids in the Hall sketch. And do you know what? He says that it’s a laugh riot!
I can definitely see how Barry Lyndon could work under those circumstances. Its pomp and aloofness could easily be mistaken for the Kids’ signature deadpan skewering. Ryan O’Neal and Patrick Magee prancing about in ornate costumes and powdered wigs could easily remind one of Scott Thompson’s impression of Elizabeth II. And don’t forget that Stanley Kubrick was known for his warped sense of humor. There’s no way the comedic undertone that runs through the hidden ribbon sequence is unintentional.
Oddly enough, if Barry Lyndon is in fact a comedy in disguise, the film remains the same on a thematic level. The final tragedy of Barry’s downfall coming after a rare moment of actual human compassion becomes even more ironic. It makes complete sense coming from the man who made Dr. Strangelove.
But how well does my friend’s theory work when applied to other films? Turning Kubrick into sketch comedy? Sure. As I mentioned, his oeuvre is full of wry, deadpan jabs. How would another film stand up to such a viewing? What if I were to take a similarly epic, serious, critically-adored tragedy and look at it as one big sketch?
There Will Be Blood is as good of a candidate as any. Like Barry Lyndon, it is a three-hour long historical tragedy with a pristine reputation amongst cineaste types. Unlike Barry Lyndon, TWBB has not had several decades’ time to stew, so I have hope of this becoming the DEFINITIVE interpretation of the film!
Obviously, I found There Will Be Blood to be successful as a comedy. Daniel Plainview’s travails seem downright blustery under the right circumstances. His lack of particular motive for his actions (I know that the TWBB/Citizen Kane comparisons have become cliché by now, but where is
Barring that lack of explanation, it becomes easier to gawk as he runs his con on Little Boston. He shows up at the Sunday Ranch and claims that he and his son H.W. are – quail hunting? When he finds the oil he is looking for and explains to patriarch Abel Sunday that he happens to have connections in the drilling business, the ruse seems so convoluted that one can’t help but agree with Eli Sunday later on, when he calls his father stupid.
Furthermore, the lack of sympathy for
As testament to Paul Thomas Anderson’s skill as a director, even his flamboyant touches work as comedy. Take, for example, the oft-mentioned scene where H.W.’s real father anoints his infant son with a splotch of oil. From the moment the man stoops over a lake of oil while holding a small child to the notion of bubblin’ crude being used as part of a religious rite, the whole scene is funny when you think about it. The comedy goes from the impending danger of the man dropping his child into the toxic substance to deliberately rubbing it on his child’s head. I don’t mean to take away from the symbolic power of the scene, but you do see how funny it is, right?
But nothing in this film screams comedy quite like the character Eli Sunday. Even his first appearance is funny, with the double-take required to realize that, yes, Paul Dano just played Eli’s brother Paul moments ago. Identical twins are, after all, an ancient comedic trope; see Twelfth Night for just one example.
We get comedy gold in just about every other scene from there on out. His sermons are funny, his outbursts are funny, him getting beaten by
And it all blows up in the film’s riotous punchline. The film’s coda has already established