Monday, 31 January 2011

Review | The Aristocrats (2005)

Making a documentary film about one of the filthiest jokes ever told might seem to many to be inviting controversy for controversy's sake. Upon its release, The Aristocrats did stir things up a little with one chain of cinemas in the US refusing to screen it. But the style and delivery of the film quickly demonstrate that the intention of filmmakers Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza here is not to directly shock or cause offence (although many watching The Aristocrats will no doubt be shocked or offended) but to look into the nature of comedy, of joke-telling and of the people who make their living in those fields.

The premise of the film is simple: to explore the origins and enduring appeal behind a joke known as "The Aristocrats" which has existed for decades since the vaudeville era. The structure of the joke, as explained within the first ten minutes of the film, is simple: there is little variation in the opening of the joke or the punchline, whereas the middle part of the joke is the exact opposite; it is the chance for the teller of the joke to make it his or her own through ad libbed and improvised description. And here's where the shock and offence come in: the intention of the teller is to make the middle section as boundary-crossing, taboo-breaking and downright filthy as they can.

Essentially, if you don't have a sense of humour, a strong stomach and are easily offended then it's likely that you'll get very little out of The Aristocrats. Jillette and Provenza's documentary consists almost entirely of interview footage of comedians, performers and members of the entertainment industry either talking about the joke or giving their own rendition of it. There are plenty of big names here (Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock to name just three) but also many who aren't so well known, especially as all but a few of the comedians featured are American. The three Brits who feature are Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly and Eric Idle (all of whom, incidentally, have very successfully broken the US market).

With around one hundred people interviewed throughout the film, and with humour being such a subjective and personal thing, there's bound to be a handful who don't quite hit the mark - Drew Carey comes across as smug and grating, and a ventriloquist act credited as "Otto & George" is neither funny nor successful at ventriloquism. But there's also going to be plenty of contributors who you will enjoy. With such a large amount of speakers in the film, in lesser hands the film could have become incredibly unfocused, but Jillette and Provenza keep things vibrant whilst at the same time drawing from the rich array of comedic talent and experience they have at their disposal.

That said, there are points when it's hard to judge what the purpose behind the film is. The opening ten minutes or so feel a little like a false start as we go straight in to the middle of George Carlin (undoubtedly one of the most captivating minds on comedy in the entire film) speaking about the origins of the joke without any form of introduction from the makers of the film. There are also sections throughout the documentary where people are talking about aspects of the joke or the ways it can be told where it is unclear why they are saying what they are saying at that particular point in the film. These sections make the film feel unfocused at times, and occasionally left me waiting for the film to find itself again and continue on a more meaningful track.

However, the good in The Aristocrats far outweighs the bad. The line between a comedy film and a documentary is expertly toed. The film never becomes dull, with many laugh-out-loud moments including regular fantastic renditions of the joke itself - Sarah Silverman's unique and unsettling version immediately springs to mind as a particular highlight. Jillette and Provenza never forget that they are documenters either, resisting the urge to turn the film into a lightweight series of sketches or clips from comedy shows. The film also succeeds in deconstructing what makes the joke successful as well as how each comedian's slant on the joke reflects their personality and brand of humour. Close analysis of comedy in this way can often destroy the entertainment within it, but once again the craftsmanship within the film makes sure this is never the case.

In The Aristocrats, Jillette and Provenza have produced both an entertaining and insightful look into the world of comedy, as well as a keen observation on the nature of comedy itself. Whilst it's not always completely clear what direction the film is going in, the ride is always thoroughly enjoyable. And although this is clearly a documentary about comedy, rather than a comedy film per sé, you'll find the laughs are consistent and the presentation pleasingly high in quality. Probably file this one in the "films not to watch with your mum" pile, though.


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