Awards season wouldn’t be complete without the requisite number of controversies, and it got an early one last week when Universal announced it would submit the thriller “Get Out” for a Golden Globe in the comedy category.
The film’s writer-director, Jordan Peele, immediately communicated his disappointment, tweeting, “‘Get Out’ is a documentary.” Although he later moderated his reaction, he maintained that to categorize his directorial debut as a comedy is to fatally misunderstand the seriousness of the movie, in which a young African American man is existentially threatened by a Stepford-like liberal white family in the suburbs.
“The reason for the visceral response to this movie being called a comedy is that we are still living in a time in which African American cries for justice aren’t being taken seriously,” Peele explained in a statement. “It’s important to acknowledge that though there are funny moments, the systemic racism that the movie is about is very real. More than anything, it shows me that film can be a force for change. At the end of the day, call ‘Get Out’ horror, comedy, drama, action or documentary, I don’t care. Whatever you call it, just know it’s our truth.”
Back in February, when “Get Out” was released, Peele seemed more willing to embrace the satirical elements of a film in which, for every jump scare, there’s a wickedly observant laugh. Press notes for the film explained that he approached the screenplay as a mash-up of “humor, satire and horror,” the better to “tackle the current state of race relations in America.” Peele himself explained that his idea “came from my wanting to contribute something to the genres of thriller and horror that was unique to my voice. The fact that it goes to race goes to the area I’ve worked in a lot, which is comedy.”
Not only should Peele feel proud of “Get Out” as a stinging, socially aware satire, but should his movie be nominated for a Golden Globe, he’ll likely be in similarly strong company. In fact, 2017 has been a remarkable year for comedy, a genre that is reliable when it comes to box office but habitually stigmatized when it’s time to confer prestige by way of awards. Not only did “Girls Trip” help save an otherwise moribund summer, but such lighthearted films as “The Big Sick,” “Lady Bird” and even “Thor: Ragnarok” have proved to be hugely popular with viewers.
Lighthearted, but not lightweight: Like “Get Out,” this year’s comedies have shown themselves to be exceptionally elastic vectors for serious content.
Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is full of the filmmaker’s signature lacerating humor, even as it addresses racism, criminal justice and accountability. “Battle of the Sexes,” Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s movie about Billie Jean King’s era-defining tennis match against Bobby Riggs, revisits the infuriating indignities of 1970s sexism, albeit with lots of amusing, sprightly set pieces. Equally timely in a year of rolling harassment and abuse accusations was “Colossal,” a quirky homage to Japanese creature features starring Anne Hathaway as an aimless millennial who becomes a gaslighting victim (until reclaiming her power in a triumphantly fantastical climax). Even Darren Aronofsky, whose movie “Mother!” was a polemic about ecological destruction, auteurism, biblical allegory, misogyny or all of the above, admitted recently that the outrageous physical action of the film owes at least a partial debt to the Marx brothers.
Peele might be disappointed that “Get Out” is being considered a comedy because, historically, the genre gets unjustly short shrift at the Oscars, such master practitioners as Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Elaine May and James L. Brooks notwithstanding. We’re long past due for that snobbery to come to an end, especially when those filmmakers’ temperamental heirs have emerged with such assurance, originality and verve. (And there are more on the way: Two upcoming films, Alexander Payne’s speculative adventure “Downsizing” and “I, Tonya,” about the figure skater Tonya Harding, manage to address loss, self-sacrifice, pain and abuse through lenses that are alternately playful and reflective.)
Whether satirical or sincere, the cardinal strength of these films hasn’t been their nonstop yuks but rather sophisticated, sometimes risky, tonal complexities that are the mark of movies willing to be more than just one thing. Far more effective than pretentious problem pictures or strident social commentaries, these are the films that feel most alert to and engaged with their social environment, capturing what it feels like to be alive in America right this minute — when it hurts to laugh but does no good to cry.