Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.
There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.
“Greenberg,” a new movie by director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”), doesn’t open until tomorrow, but it’s already stirred up a furor among the critics. Well, one critic, anyway.
The movie stars Ben Stiller as the eponymous Roger Greenberg, a miserable musician from Los Angeles who has returned from living in New York after having a nervous breakdown. In a recent piece in the New York Times, film critic Dennis Lim declared the movie to be “an often bruising character study, notable for its emotional violence.”