Long after 2021 has faded into the rearview, movies will be made about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s inevitable. For as long as they’ve existed, films have commented on troubles happening outside the movie theater. The question, then, isn’t if movies will cover the pandemic, but how? So far, many films grappling with the health crisis have gone down the horror or thriller path, like Shudder’s Zoom ghost story Host or the critically-lambasted apocalypse thriller Songbird; more productions in this vein are on the way, like the slasher 18 & Over and an untitled thriller from Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Conceptually, it’s easy to understand going in a grim direction. With a death toll in the millions, the pandemic is a scary thing and the last 15 months have been nonstop anxiety. But this tonal route is also redundant. We’re all aware the pandemic is terrifying, and while it’s not impossible to make a good movie in this mold, this direction means conveying the same misery we’ve already been surrounded with.
The better option is tackling the pandemic through comedy.
So far, the most successful films to incorporate the pandemic into their plots are raucous laugh fests, like Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Bo Burnham: Inside, and the SXSW 2021 feature Recovery. In all three cases, the pandemic isn’t a background detail, it’s what drives the plot. Inside, for instance, is all about Burnham putting on an elaborate show while confined to one room of his house because of the pandemic. Recovery, meanwhile, is about two sisters (Whitney Call and Mallory Everton) who embark on a road trip to save their grandma from a nursing home having an outbreak.
These premises don’t ignore the fact that this virus is dangerous and something to be taken seriously. But they also realize comedies are the perfect place to tackle a real-world event this ludicrous. Describing this pandemic to anyone in 2019 would have made you sound ridiculous. Parsing the phenomena of people refusing to take basic safety precautions for vague political reasons would make you appear even more deranged. Trying to channel that constant lunacy into a grounded thriller just doesn’t work. It clashes with your intended aesthetic. Reality has become too unbelievable for certain genres of storytelling.
Comedies, meanwhile, have always used heightened terms to make us chuckle at our misfortune. How many people cackled at National Lampoon’s Vacation because it reminded them of their own costly family vacations gone awry? The pandemic, on a day-to-day level, brings to mind the same sort of mundane difficulties plaguing any voyage in a road trip comedy like Recovery. Within this genre, the madness of the pandemic can be captured in an intimate, funhouse mirror reflection of the pandemic. It’s all just comedically disjointed enough to offer up giggles while still being firmly rooted in some version of reality.
It also helps that these comedies know that quarantine and all that comes with it is enough to create conflict. Several upcoming pandemic thrillers feel the need to throw in extra forms of obstacles. Williamson’s untitled film reportedly follows a killer hunting down quarantined college students, while Songbird shifted things into the future and added authoritarian health care workers to intimidate the protagonists. In these stories, a hat gets put on a hat to make the COVID-19 outbreak extra “scary.”
Meanwhile, in recent comedies, just the thought of getting through another day is enough to feel overwhelming. This is especially true in Recovery, which finds humorous turmoil in everyday aspects of navigating quarantine, like being terrified of touching surfaces or dealing with a sibling who refuses to believe in the power of masks. No tired toilet paper shortage gags or post-apocalyptic sci-fi twists here. Recovery is instead focused on the here and now, which results in all kinds of amusing moments that benefit mightily from Call and Everton’s singular performances.
Bo Burnham: Inside goes even deeper into the everyday turmoil in the age of COVID-19. Being confined indoors leads Burnham to simply sit with ideas both big and small, ranging from his insecurities about the state of the internet to the broken way the world operates. No armed guards going door-to-door forcibly taking temperatures in Inside. Yet, the production is still capable of creating harrowing moments simply by being open and vulnerable.
Scenes where Burnham flubs lines, gets visibly frustrated, and even expresses his desire to commit suicide “for just one year” all tap into something raw, something flawed, something deeply relatable. It unnerves the viewer more than any heightened serial killer plot because we see ourselves in Burnham. Without resorting to extra forms of conflict, Inside still makes the stakes of these times palpable. That’s especially impressive because the special’s more simply hilarious moments, like Burnham randomly letting off a sing-songy declaration of “Jeff Bezos!”, are still just really, really funny. Both the vulnerability and the tonal complexities of Inside feel like a perfect match for the utterly idiosyncratic vibes of living through the pandemic.
Then there’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a production that never imagined it would end up as a piece of COVID-19 cinema. Much of the conflict in this film derives from the strained dynamic between Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova), a rapport that would have existed with or without the pandemic. But once the streets get abandoned and Borat must confront a world ravaged by this health crisis, the film puts the event front and center.
Even a film as innately goofy as the Borat sequel finds deeply clever ways to reflect on the ugly realities of living in the pandemic. This is most apparent in the scene that sees Borat pose as a country singer performing at a gathering for right-wing anti-maskers. His ensuing tune, “Wuhan Flu,” gets the (very real) audience singing along and cheer for genuinely disturbing lyrics, a sequence where the brutal dark comedy of it all doesn’t undercut the horror of what you’re watching.
That’s the key to comedies tackling the pandemic. They’re better suited to confront a reality that’s both dark and darkly ridiculous. These three films deliver jokes about genitals, weed, sexting, and all kinds of other topics while also making no bones about the messed-up state of the world. The laughs keep you entertained, but it’s the thoughtfulness that makes these projects stick around in your mind. The intimate nature of all these affairs never loses sight of the humanity of people trying to survive a one-of-a-kind crisis event.
That kind of humanity just hasn’t been tapped into yet in thrillers. Maybe soon there will be an entry in this subgenre that ends up proving this health crisis can be confronted in more than one genre. For now, though, these types of thrillers just fail to speak to reality while also being utterly miserable to watch. By contrast, comedies about COVID-19 have been able to confront challenges unique to this era of history while also being hysterical, an impressive bit of multitasking that’s offered solace in the age of COVID-19.
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