Where Have All the Big-Screen Comedies Gone?

On "Shotgun Wedding," "You People" and a movie genre unfairly relegated to streaming

January 30, 2023 6:00 am
Scenes from "Shotgun Wedding" and "You People"
Years ago, these movies would have been released in actual theaters.
Amazon Prime Video/Netflix/Gabriel Serrano

As moviegoing returns to some people’s lives amidst a post-vaccine pandemic, certain genres have recovered quicker than others. Superhero movies and sequels are still big, horror reliably draws a crowd, and a certain kind of upper-middle-aged star-driven adult drama even made a mild comeback with the recent A Man Called Otto. Big comedies, however, are just as marginalized as they’d become in the last few pre-pandemic years. 2022’s only wide-release movies successfully sold as comedies were The Lost City and Ticket to Paradise, goosed by other genres (action-adventure for The Lost City; romance for both) and huge stars (Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum; George Clooney, Julia Roberts) — and even combining all of that isn’t quite enough to get the action-romance-comedy Shotgun Wedding into movie theaters. That Jennifer Lopez comedy is debuting this weekend on Prime Video, while the similarly relationship-themed You People, with Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy, premieres on Netflix. Comedy has been consigned to content.

To be fair, Shotgun Wedding was originally intended for theaters before Lionsgate sold the U.S. rights over to Amazon, and this may well have happened because the movie isn’t especially good. On the other hand, it’s bad in so many familiar ways that studios haven’t gotten especially savvy at figuring out — particularly as a de facto comedy of remarriage, a popular and reliable rom-com staple for years that contemporary screenwriters can’t stop taking seriously. Characters in studio rom-coms of today can’t wrap affection in barbed remarks, or actually enjoy the give-and-take of smart banter. They either snipe at each other joylessly, or initiate earnest discussions of their personal obstacles on their way to self-improvement. 

Darcy (Jennifer Lopez) and Tom (Josh Duhamel) do both in Shotgun Wedding, though they heavily favor the latter. The happy couple’s relationship is tested on the weekend of their island wedding in the Philippines, owing in large part to Tom’s relentless drive to create the perfect family-pleasing-yet-Etsy-ready wedding; Darcy would have rather eloped. It’s a cute reversal to assign the role of wedding perfectionist to the groom (no one in the movie looks especially askance at Tom’s craftiness), and it’s clever to throw the petty stresses of wedding planning into sharp relief by introducing physical peril, as masked pirates invade the island and hold wedding guests for ransom. Those are the two best conceits of the film, and they’re used up by the 20-minute mark.

From this point, the couple attempts to save the day, and Shotgun Wedding starts its unsuccessful multitasking. It’s a comedy of remarriage with minimal banter, and an action-comedy without much feel for comic choreography. Director Jason Moore made Pitch Perfect and Sisters, both of which feature well-executed sight gags; is it the bigger scale that has him completely muffing a big piece of zipline slapstick with bad framing and green-screen? Without stronger guidance, the comic killing of henchmen and the intentionally laugh-free heart-to-hearts about Darcy and Tom’s fears and insecurities knock into each other awkwardly. Yes, adding Jennifer Coolidge seems like it will make everything funnier, and she tries her best, but ultimately it’s the same effect as an R rating that allows J-Lo to swear way more than usual: Perfectly welcome, not nearly enough. Shotgun Wedding is so hellbent on action-izing the spate of terrible wedding-themed comedies from the 2000s that it barely seems to give any thought as to what’s fun, even cathartic, about watching relationship conflict play out with fizzy dialogue and movie-star charm, of which Lopez has plenty. Instead, it gives Lopez another opportunity, after last year’s Marry Me, to accumulate one more rom-com that’s not as good as third-tier Katharine Hepburn. 

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You People has a little more on its mind, including, it seems, the desire to riff on a later vintage of Katharine Hepburn: The premise is basically an attempt to update Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 1967 film in which longtime onscreen pair Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play parents taken aback by their white daughter’s planned marriage to a Black man (Sidney Poitier). Here, both sets of parents meddle in the impending marriage of Ezra (Jonah Hill) and Amira (Lauren London), particularly Amira’s father Akbar (Eddie Murphy), who translates his dismay over his future son-in-law into acts of sabotage, and Ezra’s mother Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), whose pained efforts to embrace her future daughter-in-law are equally off-putting. At one point, a summit between the two families turns into an argument over whether Jews or Black people can lay more claim to historical suffering. 

Hill co-wrote the movie with director (and Black-ish creator) Kenya Barris, and at times they poke and prod at racial tensions, particularly in the area of white folks whose well-meaning attempts at embracing other cultures range from genuine if awkward (Ezra) to disastrously self-regarding (Shelley and her husband Arnold, played by David Duchovny, which makes his character’s love of Xzibit even funnier; Duchovny co-starred with the rapper, actor and Pimp My Ride host in the second X-Files movie). Akbar, meanwhile, takes smug pleasure in his own true-believer piety as his kids roll their eyes (and his brother, played by Mike Epps, points out that his name used to be Woody). 

These moments, however, are often extended, and sometimes overextended, into the Meet the Parents zone, with Hill putting his foot in his mouth as a more commanding movie-star presence stares him down. Ten years ago, a Murphy/Hill Meet the Parents knockoff with a Julia Louis-Dreyfus assist would be an event. You People finds both the comic legend and the former upstart in a different place. Compared to their respective signature performances, Murphy and Hill restrain themselves here, incorporating elements of their public personas. There’s both self-loathing and self-pity in Hill’s Ezra, a sensitivity concealed less carefully than it was in Superbad. Murphy plays Akbar with no-fuss authority; he also carries some of the aloofness seen in Murphy’s occasional interviews or awards-show appearances, hiding behind sunglasses. The stars seem grounded at least in part by ego: no longer convincing them to try and steal the show, insisting instead that they chill out.

Maybe that’s why so many scenes from You People feel scripted into repetition, despite Hill and Murphy both being brilliant ad-libbers. None of the movie’s characters have much of anywhere to go beyond their escalating forms of disgust or embarrassment, and while this is a much funnier movie than Shotgun Wedding, it’s similarly convinced of its responsibility to address genuine relationship strife and keeps threatening to turn into a baggy Netflix limited series. Barris tries to add some texture to his sitcom set-up with saturated colors and montaged transitions highlighting the Los Angeles culture the central couple bonds over; this is a better-looking movie than Shotgun Wedding, too. But sometimes it evokes culture-clash comedy and social commentary, rather than fully embracing it, or actually commenting beyond “eh, give people a break.” 

Would either of these movies play better in a packed theater, rather than a sparsely populated couch? It’s possible, though it’s hard to imagine either turning into a crowd-pleasing smash. The movies feel like they’d have a tough time imagining that, too, even if Shotgun Wedding has the utmost confidence that Jennifer Coolidge doing literally anything will knock ’em dead. They feel at home on streaming because they represent a kind of comedic abdication, ceding space to canned drama and pat lessons. Cinematic comedy isn’t migrating to at-home viewing; it’s hiding out in its own movies.

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