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Two Very 2020 Films that Are Actually Very Funny

To relax at the end of this helluva year, I recommend ‘Palm Springs’ and ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead.’

Dorothy Woodend 18 Dec

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

This was a year of staring fixedly at screens, big and small. Like anything that’s initially kind of fun but then begins to pall with endless repetition, so it was with watching movies.

It seems a lifetime ago that I sat through a preview screening of To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You at the Cinematheque in Vancouver — a surreal experience in and of itself. Surrounded on all sides by sighing, squeaking teenage girls and a few boys, I felt strangely at peace. When a few members of the cast showed up after the screening to answer questions, the place went wild.

Turns out the online experience of filmgoing just ain’t quite the same.

But in this profoundly strange and challenging year, there were some bright lights in cinema. Bits of wit, heat and fizzy fun to make one feel alive and whole once more. The two following films had something to recommend them: big or little, silly or serious, thoughtful or kind of nuts. A lot like the past year itself. And I’ll have more reviews to share later this month.

'Palm Springs'

If you’re stuck in an infinity of days, repeatedly replaying themselves, do you really want to watch a film about a couple similarly stuck in a time loop? Sure, you do! In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.

In any other year, Palm Springs might be have been a lark, but this year it reads less like a comedy and more like a documentary.

If you can handle more repetition in the name of fun and entertainment there’s actually a lot to be gained from the film’s gentle dissection of human foibles and the meaningless nature of time.

Palm Springs opens with a wedding at a desert hotel: the bride is radiant, the groom is handsome, the parents beam with joy. But when the drunken sister of the bride is called upon to give her maid of honour speech, something strange happens. A goofy looking stranger suddenly interrupts to give his own heartfelt soliloquy on the nature of love and commitment.

Afterwards, this same goofy dude makes his way through the crowd of dancing wedding guests, moving like he can anticipate their every bum wiggle and hip thrust, because, well, he can. He’s snaked his way through this same crowd before, maybe thousands of times.

Maid of honour Sarah (Cristin Milioti), meet Nyles (Andy Samberg).

Nyles, wreck Sarah’s life.

This is a meet cute on a whole new time scale. After a round of drinks and hijinks, the pair make their way out into the desert for a little drunken sexy stuff. Things grow stranger still. Cue up a random attacker with a bow and arrow, a mysterious glowing cave, and repeat. Sarah follows Nyles into the weird cave and wakes up the next morning in the same day. It’s always the same day, every day. FOREVER! The wedding, the guests, all doing exactly the same stuff. The only thing different is the two humans at the centre of the cycle: Sarah and Nyles, who are the only two aware of being trapped for an eternity in Palm Springs. What fresh hell is this?

The time loop concept has long been a useful springboard for an examination of the things that have perpetually plagued humankind. Are we more than our actions? Is everything meaningless? If we go through all this stuff only to die at the end, what exactly was the point?

But there’s plenty of silliness amidst the heavy ideas, as the pair experiment with new and interesting ways to die, thus restarting the day anew. Crashing airplanes, attacking random state troopers, and of course, a little light homicide. Riling up rednecks is also a good way to go. As they loop around and around, almost without noticing, Sarah and Nyles are falling in love.

Palm Springs is a film that bears repeating, and that’s not even a joke. Really, one could create one’s own mini-time loop with additional re-watching of the film. There are funny little moments interspersed throughout, dance sequences and frolics and a fair amount of weird sex scenes. If you’re trapped in an infinite series of the same day, with the same people, what else are you going to do to pass the time?

Palm Springs is available on Prime Video.*

'Dick Johnson Is Dead'

If there was a single predominating quality to this year, it was the fear of death. A miasma of dread has floated over the last nine months, rising and falling as the tide of the pandemic waxed, waned and waxed again.

Fear of death and disease is at the heart of Kirsten Johnson’s new film Dick Johnson Is Dead, but what’s even more terrifying is the fear of loss.

Johnson started making her film about her father, Dick, several years earlier, when the elder Johnson was closing down his psychiatry practice in Seattle and dealing with the first indicators of dementia.

Kirsten is frank about the fact that she views her father as more than a parent. He is also her best friend, co-conspirator and a willing patsy/participant when she suggests that they make a film together.

851px version of DickJohnson.jpg

The result is a documentary-cum-fantasia of all the ridiculous ways that he might perish from the Earth. These include getting hit on the head with a falling air conditioner, stabbed in the neck by a random nail-spiked board or even something as relatively unexciting as falling down a flight of stairs.

The not-so-secret secret at the heart of these death follies is the very real fear of mortality and perhaps even worse, the diminishment of self, stolen away, piece by piece by dementia. This prospect is made doubly cruel by the fact that Kirsten has already lived through it once before, losing her mother from the same condition years earlier, which she captured in her film Cameraperson.

The film’s looming grief is compounded by the nature of her father. Dick Johnson is a remarkably funny human being. Funny, buoyant, thoughtful and so adorable that his daughter’s fear of losing him is not only understandable, but by the end of the film, you feel something of the same emotion.

Of course, death comes for us all. But if ever there was a means to forestall this inevitability and give our most beloved folk some measure of immortality, it is through the magic of cinema. And that is exactly what happens, as the younger Johnson stages musical numbers to celebrate her father’s ascension into heaven, where he dances and dines with the likes of Bruce Lee, Farrah Fawcett and Frida Kahlo. Even a rather sexy Jesus puts in an appearance.

The final dramatic staging of his death does away with the more theatrical trappings and pulls a page from observational documentary. In the back of an ambulance, paramedics are working hard to restart Johnson’s aging heart. And for a moment, one’s own heart hangs in the balance, hoping that this isn’t, in fact, the real end.

Just as I started to cry, the film loops backwards in time to an earlier moment, catching the elder Johnson in full flight, this time attending his own funeral, where he greets the crowd of assembled mourners with a big grin and even bigger hugs. Dick Johnson isn’t dead. Dick Johnson lives!

The film is available on Netflix, if you don’t have an account, beg, borrow or steal someone else’s password, it’s worth it!

*Story updated on Dec. 23 at 11:06 a.m. to correct the mention of a streaming service to one that is available in Canada.  [Tyee]

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