There’s an overwhelming and inescapable sense of malaise surrounding the movie business these days. Theater attendance has been declining for a few years and every new project announcement that drives the news cycle for a few hours — a new Matrix movie, Sony and Marvel fighting over Spider-man — seems like both transparent IP maintenance (ie, trying to make money on existing and recognizable intellectual property) and/or slightly desperate attempts to get the ole band back together. Where we could once be movie fans, more and more it feels like we’re expected to be armchair industry analysts.
The biggest loser in this current studio environment of big brands and long-term plans seems to be comedies. Which makes sense. Comedy relies on spontaneity, and spontaneity is antithetical to the current paradigm. There hasn’t been a comedy in the top 10 highest-grossing movies of the year since Ted, in 2012. Industry watchers have taken note. “Whither the big screen comedy,” asked the Washington Post. “The genre can’t seem to escape a big-screen slump,” wrote the LA Times.
All of which makes the success of Universal’s Good Boys, which won its opening weekend this past week with a $21 million domestic gross, beating out Hobbs & Shaw (a movie with 12 and a half times its budget, not even including marketing), that much more impressive. Good Boys is only the third original (non-sequel, not-based-on-an-existing-property) film to top the weekend box office this year (along with Us and The Curse Of La Llorona), and the first comedy.
The movie itself even feels like the throwback to happier times. In the sense that it’s solidly funny in a refreshingly low-stakes, non-niche kind of way. That it stars 11 and 12-year-olds swearing and doing sex jokes is its chief hook, but it doesn’t feel especially gimmicky, just winningly naughty. It’s uniquely non-culture war-y in the current environment — you don’t get the sense that it’s your civic duty to laugh at it because it will make the wingnuts or the libtards super mad, you can just sit back and laugh at Jacob Tremblay from Room describe tampons as something “girls put in their butt to keep babies from coming out.”
Getting a comedy movie made nowadays, let alone having it be successful, comes with an incredibly high degree of difficulty. For Gene Stupnitsky, who directed Good Boys with his long-time writing partner Lee Eisenberg (Stupnitsky says the DGA wouldn’t give them dual credit), it’s not exactly a breakout success. The pair started writing for The Office and later created Hello Ladies with Stephen Merchant for HBO. Their film credits include the much-panned flop Year One, the successful but middlingly-reviewed Bad Teacher, and countless unproduced drafts of Ghostbusters 3, which they’d been hired to write but could never get Bill Murray to actually read.
In that sense, the successful and well-reviewed Good Boys is kind of a culmination, a triumph of hard work and an example of the way clever writing can still, occasionally, defy prevailing trends. I spoke to Stupnitsky this week about how it feels.