“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” – Edmund Kean
Whether or not the early 19th century Shakespearian stage performer actually uttered those words on his death bed, they’re still metaphorically accurate. Everybody dies. Not everybody can get a laugh. Humor has so many intangible and subjective elements that two people can tell the exact same joke and one can be hilarious while the other bombs harder than Hiroshima.
See? That line would have killed in 1953.
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown examines what makes something funny or not and whether a good comedy really needs to be about more than prying a few chuckles out of the audience. To do so we’ll pit an original British film against its stultifying American remake. It’s “Bedazzled” (1967) vs. “Bedazzled” (2000) in a battle that proves Y2K may not have been such a bad idea.
And yeah, you would have laughed at that on March 14, 2000.
Your daily reminder that EVERYONE from the 1960s would be cancelled today.
The plot of both films is exactly the same: A hapless loser sells his soul to the Devil for a series of wishes to try and capture the affection of his workplace crush. In 1967, comedy duo Peter Cook and Dudley Moore took that concept and turned out a quietly clever little film that was as much about its alleged villain as its supposed hero. In 2000, Hollywood legend Harold Ramis took that concept and turned out something that made you wonder how Harold Ramis had ever made anyone laugh at all.
“Bedazzled” (1967) has fry cook Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) mooning over his co-worker Margaret (Eleanor Bron) to the point where knowing he’s never going to have her drives him to suicide. That’s when the Devil (Peter Cook) shows up and offers Stanley seven wishes to win the girl of his dreams. Because this is a movie and not a three-page short story, Stanley doesn’t just say “I wish Margaret loved me.” Instead he wishes to be a different kind of person who Margaret would fall in love with, only to see his desires foiled each time as the Devil gives Stanly what he wished for but not what he wants.
In between the extended sketches of Stanley’s wishes, we see Stanley palling around with the Devil, who has adopted the Earthly identity of tawdry nightclub owner George Spiggott. As Stanley watches George plague the world with things like scratched record albums and books with the last page torn out, they also discuss the theology of good and evil and the Devil’s relationship with Man and God. Along the way, Stanley also meets George’s helpers, the Seven Deadly Sins.
By 2027, this is the only thing police officers will be allowed to do.
To be honest, I didn’t laugh out loud watching “Bedazzled” (1967) until the film was more than half over. Stanley’s first three wishes involved:
1. Stanley as an articulate intellectual trying to seduce an equally intellectual Margaret where I really couldn’t tell exactly what they were making fun of.
2. Stanley as a timid and bloodless member of the English aristocracy whose wife, Margaret, was cheating on him. The comedic trope of British elites being a bunch of clueless cuckolded weaklings is one I’m familiar with but it’s not that funny to this American viewer.
3. Stanley as a rock star who finds himself supplanted in his fans’ (and Margaret’s) affections by a new singer with a different style, which is more something that makes you say “Oh, that’s funny” than bust-a-gut with laughter.
After that, “Bedazzled” (1967) starts to spin off into some Monty Python-esque humor that did make me laugh out loud but it also made me realize that while I may not have been laughing before, I was never bored. That’s because the movie, from start to finish, carries on a legitimately interesting conversation between Stanley and George about Christian theology. Is the Devil the source of evil in the world? Why does God let him do it? Why does the Devil want to do it? Are Man and the Devil closer to each other than they are their Maker? It’s not all that intellectually deep and any answers offered are more of a punch line than a revelation but it demonstrates that Cook and Moore took their concept seriously. They weren’t just randomly stringing Christian proverbs together in search of a joke. They put genuine thought into pondering things like “What would the Devil actually do in the world and why would he do it” and “Why did the Devil rebel against God and how does that relate to what human beings want” and found what was funny about them.
In 1684, Parliament passed a law mandating that all comedic productions include at least one scene of men dressing as women. Violating the “Benny Hill Act” was punishable by beheading.
The only thought put into “Bedazzled” (2000) had to be the cast and crew wondering how they were going to spend the money they were paid for this remarkably wrongheaded effort. This time around our “hero” is an awkward office worker named Elliot (Brendan Fraser) who sells his soul to the Devil (Elizabeth Hurley) for the love of utterly indifferent Alison (Frances O’Connor).
According to the credits, it was written by Ramis, Larry Gelbart of MASH fame, and veteran writer Peter Tolan and I don’t know if I’ve ever watched a movie that was more obviously written by multiple different people. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were another half-dozen uncredited contributors to this screenplay and all involved just went back into their old notebooks to pull up unused gags or sketchs and just stapled them all together. There was zero intelligence put into this motion picture. Not in the concept. Not in the meaning. Not in the execution.
To start with, Elliot is a truly unlikeable character. 1967’s Stanley was the quiet guy who just can’t summon up the courage to talk to the girl he likes. That’s something almost everyone can understand and empathize with. Elliot is that aggressively off-putting guy at work who makes the other employees uncomfortable with his complete lack of social graces. And the viewer never finds out the reason or explanation for Elliot’s awkwardness or gets to watch Elliot go through a series of challenges where he learns to understand and correct his annoying character flaws. He’s an annoying dweeb who remains an annoying dweeb until the movie realizes it’s about to end and he becomes Brendan Fraser.
The smokin’ hot Devil is another thing that ruins the film. Why doesn’t Elliot just wish to bang her?
“Bedazzled” (2000) also has that hallmark of all awful comedies where because it is supposed to be funny, it’s okay if things don’t make any sense. One of Elliot’s wishes is to be the sort of powerful man Alison would love, so the Devil makes him a South American drug lord where his wife, Alison, is opening cheating on him. It’s a direct call back to Stanley’s wish to be a rich man. In 1967, however, the joke is playing off the cliché of an English elite being so proper and so straight-laced and so…well, lacking in machismo that he can’t even bring himself to acknowledge his wife’s obvious infidelity. As I mentioned before, it’s more of a British trope than an American one but it’s recognizable to any consumer of UK literature or pop culture.
It doesn’t help that Elizabeth Hurley is more British Hot than American Hot. Women this good looking have been waiting tables in Los Angeles for generations.
But making Elliot a South American drug lord? Drug lords have two jobs; sell drugs and kill anyone who gets in the way. The idea that a wife would blatantly advertise her infidelity to her murderous husband makes no sense. The idea that a man who routinely cuts throats and shoots people in the head would be perplexed and ineffectual when confronted by that betrayal MAKES NO SENSE. “Bedazzled” (2000)’s filmmakers simply copied the original, changed a few things to make it appear as if they did some work, but never considered why the original was funny or how their changes to it would affect the humor. It’s like taking the “Why did the chicken cross the road” joke and replacing “To get to the other side” with “Because he was German.” It’s not funny because it doesn’t make sense.
To be fair, that kind of non sequitur comedy can be enjoyable. Seth MacFarlane made a lot of money with it on “Family Guy.” But when “Family Guy” was good, you could tell there was still a lot of thought put into it and not just a bunch of manatees moving balls through an aquarium. “Bedazzled” is merely a bunch of random skits recycled enough times to fill out 93 minutes. We’re introduced to three of Elliot’s co-workers at the beginning of the movie. They obviously don’t like and have no actual relationship with him. Those actors then reappear as different characters in all of Elliot’s wishes. WHY? What is the purpose? How is seeing those guys in different wigs and outfits supposed to be funny? What does their presence have to do with Elliot and the journey he is on?
Brendan Fraser thanks God every night that at least they didn’t put him in blackface here.
One of the things that makes comedy so hard is that it requires much more intellectual energy than most people appreciate. Very few people act out dramatic soliloquies for fun or perform elaborate stunt sequences in their backyards. Everybody tells a joke now and again. Being marginally amusing a few times a week at work, however, is a long way from getting people to laugh and enjoy themselves for an hour-and-a-half to two hours. It takes a lot more work. “Bedazzled” (1967) put the effort in and wins this Throwdown. “Bedazzled” (2000) is a lazy failure that gives star vehicles a bad name.
Written by Peter Cook.
Directed by Stanley Donen.
Starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Eleanor Bron, Raquel Welch, Alba, Robert Russell, Barry Humphries, Parnell McGarry, Daniele Noel, Howard Goorney, Michael Bates, Bernard Spear, Robin Hawdon, and Michael Trubshawe.
Written by Harold Ramis, Larry Gelbart, and Peter Tolan.
Directed by Harold Ramis.
Starring Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley, Frances O’Connor, Miriam Shor, Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein, Toby Huss, Gabriel Caseus, and Brian Doyle-Murphy.
Anothe example of “comedy” where no actual thought was involved. When Elliot is transformed into a Latino drug lord or a pro basketball star, he looks different and that makes sense. In this scene, Elliot is just supposed to be the most emotionally sensitive man in the world. So, why does he turn into this ginger abomination? Somebody just thought it would be funny but there’s no REASON for it.