What makes a movie controversial? Well, yes, it incites conversation, that much we know. But there are plenty of comedies out there that deal with sex, politics, religion, and all sorts of hot-button topics, and only a handful go down as memorably daring, provocative, or truly controversial. One fine candidate for the list opens this weekend in limited release: 'Four Lions' is a witheringly trenchant farce about a group of clueless terrorists -- and if finds even a small audience, the film was most certainly be controversial to some degree.
But the theory as to specifically WHY certain comedies become (and remain) controversial, we do what The History Channel does: we look to the past.
'The Producers' -- One can certainly understand why a Jewish person may take offense at jokes about WWII, concentration camps, Hitler, etc., but here's an example of why you have to SEE the movie before you break out your picket signs. If the film's central joke is that "the producers" are trying to make a stunningly offensive stage play, then it all becomes more clear: "Springtime for Hitler" is not only appropriate to the film, but also pretty hilarious.
'Blazing Saddles' -- Once again, Mel Brooks is accused of supporting that which he is deflating. In this case, basic ol' white on black racism. Sure, all those nasty epithets may sound funny in an old-fashioned way, but the real wit lies beneath the surface; Brooks deposits a few amusingly anachronistic characters and attitudes into a period piece western, and the result is both outrageously profane and colorfully brilliant. Some people didn't see it that way.
'Life of Brian' -- Earned all sorts of complaints from religious groups, which is weird because Jesus only appears in the film for a few seconds, and he's never the butt of a joke of any kind. Here the (Monty) Pythons take square aim at the hypocrisy found within organized religion ... and suffice to say they hit a little too close to home for some people.
'Network' -- A very smart movie geek I know questioned whether 'Network' (directed by Sidney Lumet; written by Paddy Chayefsky) is actually a comedy. That's how deceptively clever this icy, brilliant satire really is. Ostensibly about a news anchorman who promises to kill himself on the air, 'Network' remains the most on-target deconstruction of our obsession with television ever produced.
'Tropic Thunder' -- Ben Stiller's broad and rather hilarious Hollywood farce drew ire from both black groups and those who work with mentally disabled children, to which one would logically respond .... "It's a joke! Downey is actually making fun of method acting, and Stiller is lampooning Hollywood's predilection for praising performers who "go full retard." The movie is mocking ignorance, not celebrating it, but some folks didn't get the jokes.
So what is it that makes these comedies controversial, while other ones that deal with the same subject matter may go uncelebrated? Based only on the films mentioned above, it seems clear that the formula is this:
Brave + Smart = Controversial
Best of all, these are components that a filmmaker cannot fake. Parker and Stone produce controversial films ('South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut'; 'Team America: World Police') because they're smart satirists who take aim on worthy targets. And when a comedy takes sight on a target, and does so with courage and intelligence ... really good things can happen.
Things like, yes, 'Four Lions.'