Returning to the silly and smart world of Jacques Tati

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • November 12, 2014

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When critics and magazine columnists compile a list of the greatest film comedians, the answers are always the same: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, maybe Robin Williams or Bill Murray. But there’s one name you almost never see: Jacques Tati. 

A French filmmaker who wore many hats—writer, director, star—Tati is perhaps best known for the literal bowler hat he wore as Monsieur Hulot, the hapless, awkward everyman who served as the main character in several of Tati’s films. 

To our generation, however, Tati’s name often doesn’t ring a bell. Embarrassingly, I must admit only recently discovering the cinematic pleasure that is a Tati production thanks to my local library. But now that I have, I’m flabbergasted more reviews, critics, and blogs don’t mention his work. 

Long before films like The Social Network or The Truman Show skewered the ever-increasing presence of technology in our everyday lives, there was Tati. His 1967 film Playtime is often considered his magnum opus, and for good reason. The nearly wordless 124 minute film finds the auteur’s character Hulot navigating a baffling, cold world where technology has turned even the most mundane kitchen gadget into a confusing, and comically kooky, tool. 

Tati’s brilliance comes not only in the satire itself, but also in the way it’s delivered. Hulot plays the “straight man” to this befuddling world; the film gathers just as many laughs from Hulot’s attempts to understand these technological revolutions as from the hyperbolic props themselves, making the comedy multifaceted.

Unfortunately, the current comedy landscape is not nearly that interesting. Tati’s subtly insightful, humorous physicality is long gone. When Tati walks through a clear glass door in Playtime, it’s comical for two reasons. The first is that a man just shattered a door with his full body, creating an awkward kerfuffle at a swanky hotel. But the second layer of the joke comes in the context of the film: a man lost in a sea of revolution—in this case, the glass door replacing a more traditional knob door. 

Instead, today’s filmgoers experience a glut of cloying and bombastic antics, as practiced by comedians like Melissa McCarthy. But I don’t mean to single her out. One must only watch the outrageously overt gags in summer blockbusters like Neighbors, in which Seth Rogen is repeatedly injured by an exploding car airbag, to realize that today’s filmmakers are providing audiences with cheap laughs and not thoughtfully designed comedy. 

Thankfully, Tati’s influences live on in a different genre: animation. Baymax, the inflatable robot sidekick in Disney’s new film Big Hero 6, is very Tati-esque as the robot’s clumsy, awkward oafishness is the main source of the movie’s humor. The same could be said for characters in other animated films too, like the clownish yellow minions from the Despicable Me movies. 

The physical comedy within these animated movies are expertly choreographed for maximum laughter. And the characters who inhabit these Tati trademarks are often the most memorable and beloved element of the movie. 

But still, it’s missing that special something. As cute and clever as those minions are, there’s a certain cheapness to the proceedings. There is no meaning behind the gags. The minions exist only for our hollow amusement. Nothing grander. Nothing as ambitious as Tati’s social commentary. 

Luckily for filmgoers, when successors fail, you can always return to the forebear. Last month, The Criterion Collection­­—a video-distribution company that sells “important classic and contemporary films”—released The Complete Jacques Tati, a gorgeously designed Blu-Ray box set compiling all six of his feature films.

Currently, the boxset is running for roughly $100 on Criterion’s website and Amazon, which is a pretty steep price for college students who probably still mooch off their parents’ Amazon Prime account.  

I fear, however, that the price of not watching these movies might be far greater.