When asked about their inclination for kidnapping comedies, Joel Coen recently told Variety, “I’m not sure why. They are all very different. We should probably give that a rest.” He and Ethan Coen are responsible for three of the finest kidnapping comedies ever made, and are perhaps adding a fourth to their résumé this weekend.
The addition of comedy into a crime story is hardly a new prospect, but the kidnapping comedy is a wonderfully specific little nook in this often darkly funny cinematic world. The Coens practically own this genre — if you can call it a genre –having covered and re-covered it in such uniquely different ways.
Their fourth kidnapping comedy (although I doubt they would refer to any of these films as such), Hail, Caesar!, follows a Hollywood studio fixer (Josh Brolin) whose work life begins to unravel after the kidnapping of one of his biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clofumbledoney). This causes major turmoil, for Whitlock was midway through production on a big-budget sword-and-sandals picture titled (you guessed it) Hail, Caesar.
Inspired by the Coens’ fascination with this unofficial genre, we put together a list of the greatest kidnapping comedies ever made. From Paul Thomas Anderson to Martin Scorsese, and from Pixar to Vincent Gallo, this collection of films runs the gamut from crowd-pleasing to downright polarizing. We hope you enjoy, and feel free to recommend your own favorites in the comments.
Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen)
The Coen brothers’ Academy Award-winning black comedy follows Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a bumbling car salesman who orchestrates the kidnapping of his own wife. It’s almost unfair to point out Lundegaard’s ineptitude, as he’s just one of a myriad of inept stooges in this story who contribute to the bloody and tragic conclusion. The only character who’s actually good at their job is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a police detective investigating the murders connected to this kidnapping. Having spawned a silly and over-the-top TV show, it’s easy to forget the simple power of this film. Unlike the show, which employs digital blood splatters, the movie flaunts its analog gore, gleefully splashing Steve Buscemi‘s face with the consequences of these evil acts. Out of the entire cast of characters, it’s only young Scotty Lundegaard, a child who will lose one parent to murder and the other to prison, who even thinks to ask his father: “What if something goes wrong?” Indeed, something goes horribly wrong. Yet the Coens’ bleak humor shines through in every scene, underlining the situation’s mounting absurdity. One of the most subtle comedic moments comes when Marge and her husband watch a nature program about bark beetles. Just before the scene ends, we hear the TV narrator dryly proclaim: “Here it is throwing off a larval envelope.” Fargo is a profound masterpiece of macabre comedy whose nuances become all the more defined as the FX show continues on its inferior path.
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) never really intended to become a kidnapper. He dreamed of being a stand-up comedy star, sharing jocular chuckles with his TV hero, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), on his favorite show. However, when confined to a life of banality and mediocrity, Pupkin’s puny mind snaps. He doesn’t want to go through with this kidnapping, but he knows it’s merely a means to an end. He envisions the kidnapping of Langford in the same way he thinks of pushing his awful comedy tape on Langford’s mercifully patient producers. He truly believes it could be good for his career. Networking is networking, even if you have a gun aimed at the other person. Pupkin’s delusional entitlement is so vast and unchained that he believes this felony will be worth it in the end. Tucked into ugly suits and sporting a feeble mustache, Scorsese‘s protagonist has no friends, save for a woman whose delusions are even deeper than his own. Marsha (Sandra Bernhard, in a career-best performance) isn’t shooting for the stars like Rupert. All she wants is one candle-lit night alone with her TV idol, a feat far easier to accomplish than her cohort’s unhinged master plan. Perhaps his plan does work. The final shot, which may take place entirely within Pupkin’s damaged mind, shows our protagonist returning to TV once more for a redemptive comeback performance. Smiling for a roaring crowd, Pupkin is vindicated and accepted — a legend in his own mind, at the very least.
Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and Ash Brannon)
Looking back at Toy Story 2, arguably the weakest entry in a charming series, it’s easy to forget the nuts-and-bolts suspense that co-director John Lasseter achieves. As a kidnapping movie, it works splendidly. Woody has been stolen by an unscrupulous store owner, and Buzz Lightyear and the gang must head out on a daring rescue mission to save their friend. Revisiting the film today, it becomes clear that the technical capabilities of Pixar’s animation has greatly evolved over the years, as some of the human faces in the film occasionally feel as plastic as their toy counterparts. However, the narrative is as engaging as their best works, ratcheting up the tension with each colorful sequence. At separate moments, both Woody and Buzz are forcibly held against their will, a tense choice which endows the tone with a genuinely claustrophobic feel. There are even shades of espionage thrillers in the mix, complete with a fight in a working elevator shaft, and a thrilling Mission: Impossible-style climax on the outside of a moving jet. Pixar is equally adept in the comedy department, as they are often acclaimed, inspiring laughs in the young and old alike. Among many titters, I genuinely laughed out loud at Buzz looking upon his frozen toy-store counterpart and wondering aloud, “Am I really that fat?”
Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
Unlike the majority of the films on this list, Seven Psychopaths presents us with a rather unique type of kidnapper. Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell at his most endearingly deranged) makes a not-so-healthy living kidnapping dogs and collecting the eventual rewards offered by the animal’s desperate owners. (“Dog-borrower!” Billy is quick to correct.) The dogs always make it home safe, but not without Billy and his cohort, Hans (Christopher Walken in a weirdly moving turn), making a quick buck. One day, Billy kidnaps the wrong dog and finds himself and his screenwriter buddy, Marty (Colin Farrell), pursued by the dog’s gangster owner. Meanwhile, Marty is writing a screenplay titled Seven Psychopaths, which he wants to be about peace and love… and seven psychopaths. Billy disagrees, insisting the film needs brutal violence, gory shootouts, and, of course, exploding heads. Half-Charlie-Kaufman-esque mind-trip and half-genre-infused morality tale, the film builds to a violent climax from an unusually pacifist point of view. In the end, Marty (named for writer-director Martin McDonagh, Oscar-winning creator of the masterpiece In Bruges) pulled it off. Seven Psychopaths is indeed a heartfelt film about peace and friendship. And it still manages to weave all the blood, guts, and bullets one could hope for into the tapestry in hilarious and clever ways.
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
It should come as no surprise that the first Thomas Pynchon novel to be adapted into a film was initially met with some shrugged shoulders. The intentionally indecipherable narrative may or may not involve the kidnapping of Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), a wealthy L.A. real-estate mogul who just so happens to be dating Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the ex-girlfriend of our protagonist, Doc Sportello, PI (a reliably watchable Joaquin Phoenix). There’s a lot to take in. P.T. Anderson weaves Doc into his strangely specific tapestry of Pynchon amidst the fading utopia of ’70s Los Angeles. It’s psychedelic psuedo-noir mixed in with a smattering of manically silly, Marx Brothers-esque comedy. Inherent Vice owes less to Altman’s The Long Goodbye than to Anderson’s other cinematic stepfather named Robert: Downey Sr., and films such as Putney Swope and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight. At one point, Doc flashes back to a memory of his happier days with Shasta and playing with a Ouija board. Bizarrely, that happy-sad memory somehow leads him to the next piece of the puzzle. Indeed, the plot will conclude with Owen Wilson‘s character, a druggie musician caught up in a “vast” conspiracy. However, this ever-expanding mystery seems somehow hinged on Doc’s broken relationship with Shasta. No matter how it’s read, Inherent Vice is an enjoyably confounding riddle that pays loving tribute to Pynchon’s text while also delivering Anderson’s funniest film since Boogie Nights.
The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen)
It struck me, revisiting The Big Lebowski after all these years, how far the film has seeped into contemporary pop culture. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is a pot-smoking bowler whose favorite rug is tragically urinated upon by two thugs who mistake him for someone else. One joint leads to another and the Dude finds himself a reluctant bagman in a kidnapping involving a young trophy wife and a wealthy businessman whose name also happens to be Jeffrey Lebowski. The plan goes awry, the hand-off botched, and the Dude suddenly has the seedy underbelly of L.A. creeping at his doorstep. Or perhaps there was no kidnapping? Perhaps the trophy wife kidnapped herself. The Dude is left to wander this neon landscape like a curious dog, carelessly sticking his nose into the crotch of a mystery he can barely comprehend. The film is a confirmed cult classic, a sleeper whose own fans can sometimes spoil the fun for the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong: I love the film, and can quote its memorable lines as much as anyone, but the culture which has sprung up surrounding The Big Lebowski strikes me as dangerously similar to that of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. Oddly enough, I doubt the Dude would approve of the dudebro-ization of the film. Think about that before you show up at the next Lebowski Fest or ironically pester a bartender for a White Russian.
Dumb and Dumber (Peter and Bobby Farrelly)
The Farrelly Brothers‘ charmingly juvenile debut, Dumb and Dumber, begins with what should have been the delivery of a kidnapping ransom. Mary’s (Lauren Holly) husband has been abducted and she is left to deliver the money. She leaves a cash-filled briefcase in the airport terminal, only to be noticed by her lovestruck limo driver, Lloyd (Jim Carrey), who thinks she’s just forgot her bag. Before the kidnappers can pick up the money, which likely would have led to her husband’s safe release, Lloyd grabs the case and makes off with it, intending to return the bag to its owner. Made prior to the Farrellys’ finest works, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber is undoubtedly their most narratively primitive work, which feels oddly fitting upon a rewatch. Again and again, the Farrellys favor punchlines over narrative elegance, wisely allowing the laughs to stem from their characters and not the well-trodden, rudimentary kidnapping plot. Carrey and Jeff Daniels wring big laughs from the screenplay, their charming commitment and precise delivery allowing the material to transcend its infantile, bodily-fluid-obsessed gaze. It’s unfortunately more known for diarrhea gags than a melancholy sweetness, and so it’s easy to forget that we’re building towards a surprisingly touching downbeat ending. Sadly, there is no prize or payoff for poor Lloyd and Harry, even after order has been restored to the universe. I mean, come on — at least Shakespeare put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern out of their misery.
9 to 5 (Colin Higgins)
Despite the dated surface details, 9 to 5 is a charmingly bubbly and quaintly empowering piece of feminist popcorn cinema. Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton are a trio of underpaid and underpraised office employees working under the selfish, sexist, and racist Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman), who also happens to be a conniving corporate embezzler. After Hart’s lecherous and cruel behavior crosses the line for the umpteenth time, the women decide to exact some revenge, which leads to their boss’ kidnapping and incarceration. The women are left to run the company in his absence, transforming their sullen work environment into a hive of hard-working, happy employees. The remainder of the plot plays out at a paced, frothy fashion, scored by Charles Fox‘s uplifting compositions and Parton’s now-iconic song, which she composed for the film. It’s comedy with a capital C and an exclamation mark, cartoonish, conventional and safe, despite the inclusion of a stolen corpse, a handbag revolver, and an unusually powerful marijuana cigarette. Filmmaker Colin Higgins, writer of Harold and Maude, has obviously made superior films, but the feel-good appeal of 9 to 5 hasn’t worn off yet. Even if you roll your eyes at the costumes or cultural references, you cannot help but give into the beguiling allure of its plucky protagonists.
Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock)
As much as Family Plot indeed centers on two kidnappers and a couple of mysterious killings, the film is really about the pitfalls of criminal arrogance. A fiendish mastermind (William Devane) finds himself for the first time under the careful eye of a detective. The “detective” in question (Bruce Dern, proving he’d mastered playing cranky decades before The Hateful Eight) is actually just an unemployed actor forced to work as a cab driver to pay his bills. Sound complicated? Indeed. Despite possibly the most convoluted plot Alfred Hitchcock ever employed, the narrative nevertheless arrives at its conclusion with the skillful touch of a seasoned storyteller. Hitchcock’s use of comedy is less macabre than expected, surprisingly bordering on Benny Hill-esque in its tone. Note the performance of Barbara Harris, the film’s intended comedic relief, whose behavior alternates between charmingly weird and mawkishly over-the-top. It feels like Hitchcock shares the same antiquated sense of humor one would expect to find in a stuffy British schoolmaster. You might weakly smile, recognizing the presence of a joke without actually laughing at its punchline. In the end, Hitch isn’t known for his sense of humor, and, rightly, Family Plot‘s strengths lie in the thrilling execution of screenwriter Ernest Lehman‘s enticing suspense narrative. Sometimes you just have to stick to what you do best, as the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography will attest.
Buffalo ’66 (Vincent Gallo)
When evaluating the work of filmmaker Vincent Gallo, it can be understandably hard for contemporary audiences to see past all of the… well… Vincent Gallo. He’s a polarizing and sometimes infuriating figure, one whose films are often discussed more than they’re seen. Since his notorious critical dud, The Brown Bunny, Gallo has directed two full features, Promises Written in Water and April, neither of which will likely be seen, since Gallo has no plans to distribute the films. Feel free to read into that what you will. His debut, Buffalo ’66, follows Billy Brown, a man recently released from prison who kidnaps a dance student (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pose as his wife at a family dinner with his parents. Mr. and Mrs. Brown are played brilliantly by Ben Gazzarra and Angelica Huston, whose hilarious exuberance anchors the manic protagonist in this floaty, dream-like narrative. Just like his parents, Billy is a total psycho. He has all the bratty emotional immaturity of a little boy with the spiteful anger of a frustrated grown man, always threatening violence he’s too timid to ever deliver. The film’s production has become infamous for Gallo’s behavior on-set, which Ricci described to the Huffington Post from her perspective as “being trapped in a car with a raving lunatic.” It’s sad, but reluctantly funny to think of poor Ricci hating her director and co-star, as she is forced to recite lines to Gallo’s character with a straight face, such as: “You’re such a nice person.” Yet the film’s strength and emotional center lies in her wounded performance, which breathtakingly portrays this naive, tender abductee with a wide open heart.
Raising Arizona (Joel and Ethan Coen)
What makes Raising Arizona stand out from the rest of the kidnapping genre (let’s set comedy aside for a moment) is its protagonists, H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter). They’re a loving couple – a convicted armed robber and a resigned police officer – who are unable to have children of their own. Hardly innocents, as they knowingly commit a crime, the fumbled kidnapping of one of the recently born Arizona Quintuplets, the sons of wealthy unpainted furniture mogul Nathan Arizona. Their crime unleashes something awful into the world: the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, who rides a Harley and kills any helpless creature he encounters. As the police set about finding the missing child, the biker embarks on his own search, biding his time before coming for the baby. Raising Arizona is a film that works marvelously on several different levels. As a piece of comedic storytelling, it’s perhaps the best of the Coens’ career. A rewatch confirms that nearly every gesture, cut, and uttered word is indeed a punchline, the tone like that of a frenzied Looney Tunes short made real. In the final fight sequence between H.I. and the Lone Biker, there’s almost a little spark of the style that would become synonymous with Neveldine / Taylor. As a piece of physical filmmaking, it’s as intimidatingly layered and dense as anything Spielberg or Scorsese have ever created.
What’s your favorite kidnapping comedy?