Mid-autumn, 2001. Myself and a couple dozen other Northwestern University sophomores were in the midst of our first film production class, thrashing about for ideas.
My team of bright young things came upon the brilliant idea of parodying the French New Wave, of all damn things. We were film students, you must understand; it had been only six months since our entire class had seen Masculin-féminin and clips from Sans soleil. All of it terribly heady stuff, even to reasonably educated film buffs like ourselves.
The Voice of Reason, in the body of a wizened old grad student, advised us: don't do this because you think the New Wave is stupid, or silly. If you're going to do this, it has to be because you love the New Wave; it must be your favorite film style of all time.
The three of us exchanged glances...you know what, that actually sounds about right. Yes, I think the New Wave is my favorite film movement. And that is how we produced a short film that I still believe is the finest project I've ever been involved with in any capacity.
I share this story because it speaks to an important truth: successful parody does not come out of superiority. It comes out of deep affection, and encyclopedic knowledge of the thing that is being parodied. Consider Young Frankenstein, created by a man with boundless love for the Universal horror movies; then consider Date Movie, made by soulless studio hacks who apparently watch a lot of trailers.
And lastly, consider Hot Fuzz, a comic riff on high-octane cop movies made by the creative team behind 2004's Shaun of the Dead. It's a movie that is literally, painfully funny, insofar as I occasionally laughed so hard that I thought my chest was about to collapse. But why is it funny? Is it because it makes fun of cop movies for being stupid? No. Well, not entirely
It's instructive to really think about Shaun of the Dead. It's the easiest thing in the world to call it a zombie parody, but it is most definitely not. It's a goddamn homage, it is, made by people who think that George A. Romero is a genius (which is a fair thing to think, because he is), and want to do honor to his canon. If you can remember back to 2004, it was being advertised as "a romantic comedy with zombies." Which is a joke, sure, but it also happens to be accurate. It was a great zombie movie that was also a very, very funny movie. But in terms of making fun of zombie movies? Not for a minute. The zombie parts of the movie were treated with sobriety and respect, even when they were the butt of a gag.
It's a stretch to say that Hot Fuzz is a great cop movie that is also a comedy, but it's close. The jokes here are jokes that require a certain knowing nod of recognition; not "we are smarter than this, so let us mock it," but rather, "this is the sort of thing we love...that's kind of silly of us, don't you think?" It's the difference between broad humor and deep humor: it's broad if someone who has heard of Bad Boys II gets the joke, but it's deep if you have to have seen Bad Boys II, love it, and still recognise that it's total trash, in order to get the joke.
So, that was the hard part. Now comes the easy, fun part: what about Hot Fuzz, exactly, is funny?
Obviously, I'm not going to run down a laundry list of the gags. That's not interesting, and it spoils your viewing experience, which is completely unfair. This is a fantastically hilarious movie, in my opinion the best comedy since...actually, since Shaun of the Dead. So I'm absolutely going to avoid specifics.
But in the general, vague sense of things, here's what's what: Simon Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a London police officer who is reassigned to a tiny, crime-free country town after his hyper-competence embarrasses the rest of the force. Upon arriving, he works his brand of justice on the local underage drinkers and loiterers, under the puppy-loving eyes of Danny Butterman (Shaun's Nick Frost), a pudgy cop with a love of American action pictures.
This allows for two distinct branches of comedy. In one, the filmmakers forthrightly slam absurdity and realism against each other, as Angel attempts to bring reality of bureaucracy to the world of action movies, harping tediously on about the proper semantics and paperwork to be utilised, the minutiae of the British penal code, and so forth. In the other (the more successful, I believe), he and Danny embark on a literal translation of the homosocial attraction that is a core value of just about every action movie with two male leads ever. Cop movies are homoerotic, everyone knows that, and Hot Fuzz is very happy to cast the arc by which Danny and Nick come to work together using the vocabulary of a love story. Call it a romantic comedy with guns. And straight men.
And then there's a third branch, but it's not comedy, so much as it's the best kind of fanboyism. Besides Pegg and Frost, the cast of Hot Fuzz includes such luminaries as Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Paddy Considine, and a whole boatload of character actors you'd recognise if you watch enough British television programs. There is a moment in the first five minutes of the film in which Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy and an uncredited Steve Coogan are present in the very same shot! And there is a cameo by a certain Australian actress that I will not give away (check the IMDb cast list if you're that damn curious), but will make you gawk in amazement when you hear her voice and wonder if it could be, nah, oh my God, it is. Some of these actors are funny just because they're playing against type (Dalton), and some are funny because it is the core of their soul to be funny at all times (Coogan), but there is a truly ridiculous roster of talent in front of the camera.
Comedy is a personal thing, of course, so my raves can only go so far. We laugh at what we find funny, and for me, this did it, over and over again, until I could no longer laugh because I had no air left in me. This is the comic sublime, as intelligent and stoopid and damn well executed as any comedy I can think of recently. Your mileage may vary, but I hope to God it doesn't.