The buddy movie is a risky medium. So many experiments in this genre have failed so horribly, that we often forget all of the great buddy films throughout cinematic history. In honor of the The Other Guys, a new release with Will Ferrell and Mark Whalberg as two mismatched cops, I have decided to examine what really makes a buddy movie succeed on a mass level. What makes these movies such huge hits is the fact that each film presents a friend dynamic that the viewer may be wanting in his or her life. From the leader dynamic, to the “oh crap, now we’re in it” dynamic, the movies offer to the viewer a sense of friendship and company, even if the reality is that you’re sitting in a dark living room. Alone. With a pizza.
Many of the great buddy movies remain classics because of their classic point of view characters. For example, in The Sting, easily one of the greatest films of the 1970’s, the character Johnny Hooker is an everyman that we can all relate to, but he’s still unique enough to be interesting. As a character, he strikes the balance between an entertaining figure to be observed, and our own eyes and ears in the world of the 1930’s Chicago con circle. Henry Gondorff (played brilliantly by Paul Newman) acts as our mentor, and shows us the ropes on how to rip somebody off in 1940’s Chicago. For those that need some sense of mentorship in their lives, these movies are perfect. The film brings us into another world, shows us the ropes, and then gives us the reward. It’s like the American dream without all that work.
Of course, sometimes people just want to get in trouble. The consistent theme in all of these movies is adventure, but adventure varies in definition. Whether it’s the conquering of a foreign land in The Man Who Would Be King, or just holding up a small Bolivian village in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, adventure is the point of all buddy films. In Butch Cassidy, the two title characters are on the run from a squad of overpaid hit men, and in an act of desperation and stupidity, they relocate to Bolivia. The dynamic is simple, two guys go get in trouble and have a lot of fun doing it, but it’s not something that’s found too easily in modern life. People need a sense of danger in some form or another, and it’s often simpler to just watch a movie of people doing what you want instead of going out and endangering your life. Or you could just endanger your life. That’s fine too.
Then again, there are always the bad times. Those times when you just feel so very low that you would like nothing better than to watch someone be lower than you just so that you could know that there’s a lower level than where you are. If you’re in one of these god-awful moods, then boy do we have movies for you. The first that obviously comes to mind is Midnight Cowboy, the story of a young Texan by the name of Joe Buck who goes to New York in search of his fortune as a gigolo. On arrival, Joe befriends a small-time drug dealer named Rico “Ratso” Rizzo. The two move into a condemned building together and pursue their indecent lines of work. Yeeesh. I would like to remind parents that are reading this that this is an extremely dark movie which almost was held back at the time of its release for fear of an NC-17 rating. However, this movie is one of the most outstanding pieces of work I have ever seen on film, and I would recommend it to anyone who has the stomach. This definitely leaves you happy to be alive, and the dynamic between Rizzo and Joe, always sticking together for dear life, is admirable.
After you watch Midnight Cowboy, and take a long, long shower just to wash away all the soot that rubs off that movie, I recommend that you watch something a little more lighthearted. Fast. Occasionally you just want to celebrate the adventure of being in a tight spot. For this, I recommend one of the eternal classics, Some Like it Hot. Over the years, this movie has been viewed less and less, to the point that few know what it’s about. When I asked one of my young friends what it’s about, he responded with “It’s about drag queens right?” Contrary to popular misconception, this is not the precursor to Rocky Horror Picture Show. Some Like it Hot is the story of two Chicago musicians who go into hiding in an all girl’s jazz band to escape a group of mobsters. Jack Lemmon is hilarious as Jerry, a bass player who gets a little too into character, and Tony Curtis is the saxophone player who falls for the band’s lead singer, played by Marilyn Monroe. Hijinks ensue, and the more trouble they get into, the funnier it gets.
Adventure and trouble are all well and good, but what about money? The get-rich-quick scheme is a staple of 20th century filmmaking, and it remains present even in this genre. The Man Who Would Be King, one of the greatest adventure stories ever told, is the story of two rowdy ex-British Soldiers (Michael Caine and Sean Connery) who travel to Kafiristan on a quest to become kings of the warring tribes. Instead, they succeeded in becoming Gods. I started watching this movie with the expectation that it would be a long historical drama, the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, or Ben-Hur. What unraveled before me was an exciting, humorous, and spectacular adventure that remains effective to this day. The dynamic between Connery and Caine is flat-out brilliant, and you feel like you’re at a party the entire time. At one point, the two stop in the Himalayas, resigned to their deaths, and start laughing at stories of their old times in the service, only to start an avalanche with their laughter that seals the ice bridge required to cross safely. Their friendship is so memorable, that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost filmed out-takes of themselves enacting scenes from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead whilst imitating Caine and Connery. To watch these outtakes, rent the Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead DVDs. They’re hilarious, and the movies are also sure to be classic buddy films someday.
The buddy movie is a staple of American cinema. The feeling of camaraderie that it provides is indispensable, and it always manages to lift us up no matter how low we’re feeling. If you’re feeling lonely or down this holiday season, I suggest that you pick a few of these movies up, get comfortable on the sofa, and enjoy the show, with or without a buddy.