What are the ingredients of an outstanding comedy-crime movie? First, you start with classic film-noir crime story, turn it upside-down and inside-out then bounce it on its head. There is no morality message or deep philosophy; the only objective is to give the audience one hell of a good time. While an occasional murder occurs (usually off screen) there is an absence of extreme violence and vulgarity. Thank heavens for that! The criminal class is not glamorized; there is no criminal mastermind running circles around the law. In fact, what is most fun about crime-comedies is the parade of knuckleheads on both sides of the law. Some of the very best actors and actresses have done this genre mix with delightful and funny results. The following are a dozen of my favorites; organized by release date beginning in the 1960’s and including at least one film per decade.
1. The Flim-Flam Man 1967
An entertaining performance by George C. Scott is the highlight of this underrated grifter movie. Scott displays a skill for light comedy as he hobos around Dixie, outfoxes the law and practices his rascally trade. A solid supporting cast and expert use of off-the-beaten-path Southern locales help round out this classic movie. The script, based on a humorous novel, is quite perceptive in its view of mankind's flaws. A fun, slap-sticky car chase scene, and a parade of comedy talent make this a good popcorn flick.
2. Paper Moon 1973
I saw Paper Moon back in 1973 and recently watched it again. This is a con man movie that ages like a fine wine. The father-daughter screen chemistry is never better, and the Midwest depression era setting adds a nice touch of Americana nostalgic charm. Child star Tatum O'Neal in her rookie performance, knocked this one out of the park, and Madeline Kahn has a career best role as Trixie Delight. Kahn’s range as an actress is proven in this movie where she added humor in scene after scene.
3. Silver Streak 1976
This is the first of four films starring the now famous comedy duo of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, and in retrospect, their best effort. I first saw this movie in 1976, and still enjoy it today. It simply nails all the genres it aimed at, especially comedy. The movie plays with one of Hitchcock's favorite themes; an ordinary Joe (Gene Wilder) stumbles into an unexpected romance together with a dangerous criminal situation. But the film's masterstroke is the addition of Pryor as a petty thief. Although this film restrains his usual vulgar language, he instantly adds a cool energy and perfect screen chemistry with Gene Wilder. This is a classic road trip flick that would not be made today.
4. Foul Play 1978
Goldie Hawn's best film. She plays the not so dumb blonde, and never looked better. In fact, she looks like a mastermind when paired with the bumbling Chevy Chase, in his movie debut - post SNL. This flick captures the 1970s mood and tastes from Goldie’s lemon yellow VW bug to cornball Barry Manilow tunes, and silly swinger Dudley Moore. The plot against the Pope by a dangerous dwarf is paper thin, but the story rips along at a good pace and skims right over the plot holes.
5. Fletch 1985
Chevy Chase plays Fletch, an undercover journalist with a penchant for funny disguises. The film never takes itself seriously, as we see Fletch dash from place to place making up goofy names, and spouting off classic wisecracks, one after another. This is Chevy at the top of his game in a career best comic performance. It’s hokey at times, but if you're interested in a light-hearted popcorn flick from the 80's, it is worth a look. Skip the sequels and watch the original.
6. Desperately Seeking Susan 1985
How could a sweet, innocent housewife living in New Jersey get mixed up in the theft of a priceless ancient Egyptian artifact? This brilliantly written movie has several good things going for it: Rosanna Arquette fumbling through a bout of amnesia and mistaken identity, a funny off-off Broadway magic show, and a wonderful sense of place in downtown New York City. The chemistry of the talented cast is perfect for the unique storyline. This independent film was Madonna’s movie debut and her career best performance as Susan, a street-smart hustler with a tacky wardrobe. This low budget film was the surprise hit of 1985. Amazing soundtrack – gotta love those 80’s synthesizers.
7. Ruthless People 1986
Only-in-California criminals engaged in a kidnapping plot. Danny DeVito is always worth watching, and Bette Midler is great in her career best comedy performance. Bette hams it up the upper gallery, but she is still very likeable. Good ensemble cast.
8. Bullets Over Broadway 1994
One of my favorite movies of all time, and the best Woody Allen picture because he is right where he should be – directly behind the camera and not on screen. This film is an embarrassment of riches: brilliant storyline, crackerjack dialogue, hilarious characters, top notch performances, and an authentic feel of 1930’s New York City. A delight from beginning to end, and one of the best comedy ensemble casts you will ever see: John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Tilly, Chazz Palminteri, and many more.
9. Get Shorty 1995
In sporting parlance, this is an upper-deck home run of a movie. For once an All-Star ensemble cast adds to, rather than detracts from, the film. This movie is an amusing satire of both Hollywood and mobsters with believable (and funny) characters and dialogue. Danny DeVito nails the pretentious actor role in his best comedy performance. What is not to like here?
10. Go 1999
An oddball film with no famous stars, but instead we get an unheralded ensemble cast of wicked good, young talent. This flick is not for everyone. It is about a trashy group of GenX-ers that make a total wreck of Christmas Eve. In stream of petty crime and minor disasters over 24 hours, the best parts are: Simon’s fear and loathing trip to Las Vegas, a rookie drug dealer get a painful lesson, and a hard to describe dinner with an LA cop and his wife.
11. Lucky Numbers 2000
This underrated movie never quite clicked with the public, or the high-brow critics; yet this DVD is in my private collection, not because it is a masterpiece, but because it managed to entertain me until the credits rolled. Most of the negative comments are due to John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow playing against type, and all the other characters being unlikeable, or outright disgusting. There is no hero for the people to relate, but make no mistake; several of the comedy scenes are very funny. The key idea of the movie is that a nice, popular guy, with no business gene, begins a gradual, unexpected descent into crime while making a series of hilarious amateur mistakes. If this seems like a fun story, you are correct.
12. We’re the Millers 2013
Beware gentle reader, this is a lighthearted look at drug smuggling, and has some raunchy scenes; however, this flick is worth watching to see Jason Sudeikis (Dave) in perhaps his funniest role. His fake family forms a tottering team in which each weak member functions a little better as part of an artificial family unit. Dave is the father but most of the time he’s like the biggest kid in the playground, and the mother, Jennifer Aniston, is a dynamite tease. Some scenes made me LOL: a ridiculous run-in with a Mexican cop, a father and son discussion about kissing girls, drawing pictures and playing games around the old campfire, tent creeping and so on.