When you see a classic like Play Time (1967), which I finally saw last week thanks to the urging of James, it can lay ruin to any chance you might have of enjoying a comedy made in the past 10 to 20 years. I'm tempted to avoid all new comedies until this one begins to dissipate in my memory. They'll feel lazy, obvious and unambitious in comparison. Jacques Tati's near perfect barely verbal urban chaos comedy is mind blowing. I don't mean that in a cheap blurb whore way. When I wasn't giggling (I literally couldn't stop laughing well past the end of certain gags), my jaw was on the floor trying to process how Tati could have possibly staged all of these complicated laughs.
For those who are unfamiliar with this classic, it is without a traditional plot but it's a linear series of four or five comic setpieces. We follow a confused businessman (Tati himself as "Mr. Hulot", a character that must have influenced "Mr Bean") through labyrinthine office structures as he attempts to get a meeting and an American women's tourist group through a Parisian shopping spree. Eventually these two threads collide at the opening night of an upscale club in which almost everything that could go wrong with the launch of a new restaurant does (this final act will be extra hilarious if you have ever worked in the hospitality/restaurant business). Jazzing up the remarkable feats of comic choreography and nimble filmmaking (of particular note are the clever sound work and masterful set designs) are trenchant jokes about tunnel visioned tourism and manic consumerism.
Play Time's only flaw might be its length given that its sight gags are both fleet of foot and piggybacked repetitive... making that two hour plus running time a little incongruous to such a buoyant sense of, well, play. Underlining the wonderment of its achievement is a subdued but gently amusing coda as the tourists leave Paris. It's like that slightly woozy last wind of energy before you collapse from a memorable all-nighter out with friends.
If you haven't seen it, you must. But another warning. It's not a film that will be loved by anyone with a short attention span. DVDs are a godsend for insatiable movie lovers but everything has a dark side and many great films can deflate quite a lot if their power isn't allowed to snowball. DVD culture has encouraged a staccato viewing experience. We're accustomed to stopping and starting movies and sometimes whole days can pass before we finish one. Most carefully crafted movies are meant for one sitting, unlike television which caters specifically to the idea of these break times. This is especially true of an intricate construction like Play Time. Tati's comedy has abundant stray laughs but its very best gags are all cumulative in potency. It gets beaucoup mileage out of super long set-ups which maximize each punchline. Even when you can see them coming for minutes ahead of time, they're no less funny in the