Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Best Summer Ever: Of Comedies and Communism

In Best Summer Ever, Jeff ranks the last 31 seasons of summer movies using a complex mathematical equation largely biased toward his personal opinion. You can read about his methods here.

For at least a couple more days, 2009’s The Hangover stands as the highest grossing summer comedy of all time. The film’s take of $277 million is absolutely staggering when you consider its R-rating; despite not being at all kid-friendly, the film posted a number big enough to beat out franchise properties like X-Men, Star Trek, GI Joe, and Terminator. Still, that’s not unheard of – summer is usually kind to broad comedies, and occasionally even an adults-only raunch-fest will blow up huge (like 1998’s There’s Something About Mary which finished 3rd that summer with inflation-adjusted numbers comparable to The Hangover).

Still, The Hangover’s massive box office was only good enough for 4th place in 2009. Unless there’s an animated ogre, or the film is a sci-fi comedy hybrid, it’s extremely rare for a comedy to finish the summer in the top spot. And it’s entirely unthinkable that 4 of the top 5 movies of a summer could be comedies.

Unless we’re talking about 1988.

Stay out of The Dip.

(#19) 1988
Tickets Sold: 309.7 million (28 of 31)
#1 at the Box Office: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Most Critically Acclaimed: Big(#3)

1988’s Four Horsemen of Comedy:
Who Framed Roger Rabbit - $156,452,370
Coming to America - $128,152,301
Big - $114,968,774
Crocodile Dundee II - $109,306,210

I was 5 years old in the summer of 1988, so it’s impossible for me to say what was happening in the country that made moviegoers so eager to laugh. Maybe it was just happy times all around? The end of the Reagan presidency was visible and Dukakis-fever was catching. The Cold War was sputtering out. Communism was undergoing an image makeover thanks partly to Gorbachev and, perhaps more importantly, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s heroic Moscow detective in that summer’s Red Heat (#18).

Really, the only thing I can say for certain about 1988 is that I loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Roger Rabbit is a transformative experience. As a kid, it confirmed many of my most closely held beliefs. Cartoons are real and they live amongst us. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse exist in the same universe and hang out together. It’s possible to escape danger with a well-timed musical number.

Rewatching Roger Rabbit now, it’s amazing to me how much Robert Zemeckis was able to get away with. At one point, the curmudgeonly gumshoe played to perfection by Bob Hoskins gets him and Roger out of a jam by forcing a drink on the goofy rabbit, causing a sort of Popeye reaction (if spinach was bourbon). The cigar smoking baby? The ludicrously oversexed Jessica Rabbit? Lucky for everyone that Zemeckis had final cut on the film, otherwise Michael Eisner and the Puritans at Disney would’ve assuredly done more than just take their logo off this masterpiece.

It’s not as if Disney didn’t benefit from Roger Rabbit. The film’s massive success is widely credited with launching the Disney renaissance, paving the way for 1989’s The Little Mermaid and the classic animated musicals that would follow. Basically, Disney reinvigorated their empire via prepubescent lust for a pair of cartoon redheads.

It's all down hill from here. Well, not for you Arsenio.

As Disney entered its historic renaissance, so did that of an 80s icon come to a close. Finishing 2nd at the box office that summer was Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. If I was ranking best summer comedies of all time, Coming to America would likely be in the running for #1. I don’t want to take anything away from the greatness of Coming to America, but it’s particularly remarkable for being the last good movie Eddie Murphy would ever make. And, if John Landis is to be believed, dude really had it coming:

Landis:  “The guy on Coming to America was the pig of the world – the most unpleasant, arrogant, bullshit entourage… just an asshole.  […]  He was a jerk.  But great – in fact, one of the greatest performances he’s ever given.  The character he plays in Coming to America, Hakeem, is so opposite of what Eddie really was:  a gentleman, charming and elegant, as opposed to this jerk-off.”

Maybe it was the success of Coming to America that pushed Murphy to the height of hubris. In 1989 he would make his directorial debut with the widely despised Harlem Nights, earning him the prestigious Worst Director award at that year’s Razzies. Murphy would never truly disappear from our summers – he still had a “serious” version of Axl Foley to play, fat suits to wear, donkeys to voice – but it was never the same after ‘88.

At least Murphy got to go out on top. 1988 wouldn’t be so kind to some other familiar faces.

You can't just turn The Cold War off and on.

The fifth and final installment of the Dirty Harry franchise, The Dead Pool (#17), squinted its way into theaters in July. Featuring a cast that would be considered A-list today (Eastwood, Liam Neeson, Jim Carrey, Patricia Clarkson) and a halfway clever meta murder plot, The Dead Pool is nonetheless incredibly dull. Eastwood seems as bored with playing Callahan as the audience was with watching him. As a character, Callahan is a relic of the grim late 70s, when black people were scarier and Hollywood was viewed as being soft on crime. The Bronson/Eastwood archetype of humorless loose-cannons fighting an unending battle against degenerate urbanites had no place in the more light-hearted late 80s.

Similarly out-of-touch and franchise ending (at least for 20 years) was Rambo III (#9). It’s as if Rambo set out to murder every Russian whose heart was touched by Rocky’s “if I can change…” speech in Rocky IV. He probably succeeds. As a fan of gratuitous violence in action movies, I can’t knock Rambo III. He’s kill-crazy! It’s amazing.

But as a time capsule, Rambo III is really embarrassing. Even at the time, watching Rambo splatter Soviets across Afghanistan while fighting alongside the mujaheddin was remarkably cringe-worthy. Washington Post critic Hal Hinson wrote:

“[Having] an Afghan rebel speechify about the barbarism of the Soviets just as their troops are pulling out has its down side, as does the film's idealization of the mujaheddin (who are characterized here as "freedom fighters"). To claim that the Rambo films have a political attitude is to dignify what is essentially a kind of reactionary paranoia. Its philosophy is basically a collection of the kind of sludgy, borderline-fascist sentiments you hear expressed at 3 in the morning on call-in radio shows.”

Is it a coincidence that in the same summer that Stallone wiped out most of the Soviet military, archrival in the action movie arena Arnold Schwarzenegger was playing a Russian detective come to America to save us from a drug kingpin? Probably, but interesting nonetheless.

With both Dirty Harry and Rambo ungracefully stepping aside in ’88, someone needed to fill the action hero void.

The greatest.

I’m restraining myself while writing about Die Hard. Properly singing its praises would require an entire column. Simply put, it is the single greatest action movie ever made. The fact that it grossed a mere $83 million that summer, good for a 5th place finish behind Crocodile Dundee II is straight up offensive. It should’ve grossed a billion dollars. What was wrong with you, ’88?

With classics like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Die Hard, I would’ve expected 1988 to do more than barely crack my Top 20. However, even when accounting for inflation, ’88 is still one of the most sparsely attended summer seasons in the last 30 years. In general, including box office numbers in my ranking process tends to hurt the 80s, when the summer movie season hadn’t quite become the national event that it is today. That’s exactly why 4 comedies can beat out an action classic, a fantasy epic (Willow - #8), and a “star”-studded western (Young Guns - #12). With all the superhuman explosion-dodgers elbowing for room in the modern summer, we’ll never see a year like ’88 again.

Although, I’m really pulling for Smurfs.

The List So Far:

(31) 2006
(19) 1988

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