Divine Comedy: The Art of Comedy Film Festival at Main Street Cinema

Comedy. It's a dirty little business, but someone's got to do it. Of all the different bits and pieces that make up the world of movies, there are few quite so subjective as the whole notion of humor. We all know there's no accounting for taste, but what's funny and what's not goes way beyond a simple matter of taste and often becomes a source for blood feuds: You say Adam Sandler and I say Jacques Tati. She says The Naked Gun movies and he says Preston Sturges. And 50-million Frenchmen can't be wrong about the genius of Jerry Lewis, right?

It's been said that comedy is the great unifier of people, and that may very well be true (that's the whole point behind Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, one of the finest comedies ever made). What's equally true, though, is that comedy is sometimes the great divider — a divining rod for locating that inexplicable something that makes each of us the unique, screwed-up and wonderful individual we are.

That's only one of the reasons why we should all take a moment to bow our heads in thanks and then fling a friendly cream pie directly into the faces of the folks behind the latest addition to Tampa Bay's loosely knit family of film events: The Art of Comedy Film Festival.

A joint production of the Dunedin Fine Arts Center and Clearwater's Main Street Cinema (the forward-thinking little venue hosting the event), The Art of Comedy Film Festival will present eight extremely funny motion pictures from Friday, March 8, through Sunday, March 10. Although all of the films are generally considered first-class comedies of one sort or another, the sense of humor at play in each is anything but similar from one film to the next — so rest assured that, just as there's pretty much something here for everyone, so is there bound to be something guaranteed to piss off at least a few. (And, of course, the very fact that some folks will inevitably be pissed off will only increase the amusement felt by the rest of us, and so it goes: The Great Comedic Circle of Life.) Proceeds from the festival will benefit a variety of visual arts programs offered at the Dunedin Fine Art Center.

The festival kicks off at 7 p.m. on Friday with, what else, one of the greatest comedies ever — in my opinion, at least — Stanley Kubrick's gloriously over the top, end-of-the-world satire Dr. Strangelove. One of the first movies to treat the apocalypse in the manner it deserves — as a comedy — Dr. Strangelove remains a groundbreaking masterpiece of paranoia, filled with wonderfully absurd scenarios, razor-sharp dialogue and spot-on performances by the likes of George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and, of course, Peter Sellers. I'll be on hand to deliver a brief introduction to Kubrick's film, so you might want to stock up on a supply of past-their-prime fruits and veggies just in case you feel the need to hurl something at the stage. Now, that's comedy.

The screening of Dr. Strangelove will be followed by a red carpet gala (film festival lingo for a fancy party with hors d'oeuvres) at the Chick-A-Boom Room, a new hot spot in Dunedin. (And no snickering from those of you who never thought you'd see the words "hot spot" and "Dunedin" in the same sentence in this column.)

The movies start up again bright and early on Saturday morning with an 11:45 matinee of The Odd Couple, the lively Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau collaboration that spawned a million imitations, spin-offs and a TV sitcom that wouldn't die. The original still feels surprisingly fresh, though, so put everything that came after out of you mind and you might just find yourself having a really good time.

Next up, at 2:30 on Saturday afternoon, is Woody Allen's most seamless, consistently funny comedy, Sleeper, a classic bit of slapstick about an ordinary 20th Century schlub who wakes up 200 years in the future and finds himself a kind of outlaw. Sleeper contains some of Allen's most inspired bits, including a brilliant turn as a mute robot servant that recalls the sublime silent silliness of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

Festivalgoers asking the question "What's a film festival without at least one subtitled film?" will have that question answered at the 7 p.m. screening of The Closet, a pleasantly silly offering from French filmmaker Francis Veber (whose French-language originals have been remade by Hollywood as Father's Day, The Man With One Red Shoe, Three Fugitives, The Birdcage and The Toy). Veber's premise this time involves an insignificant little man (Daniel Auteuil) who pretends to be gay in order to keep from being fired from his dead-end job at a condom factory. Veber's big joke is that the newly "outed" Pignon doesn't change his behavior in the slightest, but everyone's perceptions of him alter radically. The movie suffers a bit from its one-joke premise but benefits immeasurably from a hysterical, scene-stealing performance by Gerard Depardieu, as a blustery, macho co-worker who's desperately trying to be sensitive. The Closet is light, frothy and fast-paced in the manner of an enjoyable but relatively disposable sitcom. Former film criticism and literature instructor Mim Anne Houk will lead a discussion on the movie preceding the screening.

Following the screening of the festival's obligatory foreign film comes their equivalent of a midnight movie, albeit one that screens at the more Florida-friendly hour of 9:30 p.m. Kingpin, the token bit of '90s raunch in the festival's lineup, is a prime example of everything the notorious Farrelly Brothers do right. Directed in the Farrellys' prime, just before the onset of the pandering cuteness that's been creeping into their movies beginning with There's Something About Mary, Kingpin is the ridiculous, offensive, tasteless and absolutely hilarious tale of a one-armed sleazeball (Woody Harrelson) and an Amish doofus (Randy Quaid) who take on the world of professional bowling. A final bit of advice: Don't leave before the final credits or you'll miss some truly outrageous gags.

Sunday is the festival's final day, and it begins with an 11:45 matinee of director Hal Ashby's sweetly eccentric cult classic Harold and Maude. Bud Cort stars as death-worshiping rich kid and Ruth Gordon (the creepy neighbor from Rosemary's Baby) plays the tree-hugging bag lady who shows him how to live. The film may have aged a bit since it first played in the early 1970s — when impressionable young film buffs spent hours in dark theaters memorizing its quirky tidbits of counter-cultural wisdom — but it's still a charming little ditty, and, in fits and starts, quite a treat. Just to be sure to cover your ears when that cloying Cat Stevens score kicks in.

The festival goes from quirky to quirkier at 2:30, when the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona lights up the screen. Coming on the heels of their moody, noirish debut Blood Simple, the Coens defied all expectations with this elaborately stylized, wildly inventive mutation of cartoonish lowlife, spaghetti western-styled excess and all-out screwball comedy. The film is a constant visual delight, Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter head up a wonderful cast, and the movie remains one of the Coens' most accessible and enjoyable films.

The festival concludes with the 7 p.m. screening of the much loved Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Pythons' movie is really just a series of loosely connected medieval set pieces that are often as grotesque as they are funny, but it all hangs together splendidly thanks largely to the cohesive hand of co-director Terry Gilliam (much of whose future work is prefigured in Holy Grail). An absurdist romp filled with mud and blood and bad teeth and worse, the Dark Ages have rarely seemed so dark and never so funny as they do in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The movie can be rather gruesome as well, but hey, you know what the experts all say about comedy: It ain't pretty.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.