1941 (1979)

A mantra oft repeated during debates about comedy is “comedy is subjective.” Besides the fact that this is a lame cop-out, a way to completely disengage from looking at the merits or failures of a particular joke, it assumes that what makes a joke good is simply whether or not an individual finds it funny. If that’ the barometer of quality, Steven Spielberg’s epic comedy, 1941, fails. Even if it isn’t Steven Spielberg’s epic comedy, 1941, fails.

A satire of American paranoia after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s a strangely timed piece, released right at the tail end of the 70s. Comedy has been described as tragedy plus distance, but the events are so far distant that it’s hard for audiences to connect with the time and see how various issues of that era are being reworked. This element is exaggerated even further when watched by audiences today, the events of Pearl Harbor more than two generations back.

But audiences will probably get the opening joke of the film. It might even make them wonder if they’re watching the wrong film. Spielberg reuses the opening of Jaws, even reuses the music, but this time the terror from beneath is a Japanese sub, bent on attacking a major American target before returning home. The gag fails for a number of reasons; the odd initial confusion is followed by a poorly timed gag and a disturbingly Freudian attack that’s cringe-worthy.

This scene sets the tone most of the humor, a lot of which is in bad taste. This is not because the material deals with sensitive issues, but just that it’s handled in the bluntest and most obvious way. A recurring gag through the film is that women should give themselves over to men simply because they’re the good ole boys in uniform. Maybe this could be funny, but it’s handled with such a crass, brunt and obvious way that there’s no distance from the gag at all. It’s too immediate and dark, making for more grimaces than laughs.

This effect is enhanced even more when the scale of the film grows even larger and larger. This is an epic comedy, with a scale so grandiose and large that there are more explosions in this film than an average ‘80s action flick. Something can become funny when it’s exaggerated, taken to an extreme (see Southland Tales), but here most of the spectacle doesn’t exist as a punch line to a joke, it’s just there.

In this way, 1941 is more of an unintentional satire of the excess of American cinema, a prime example of a film that does not need spectacle, but will simply have it because spectacles sale. And indeed, 1941 made almost 3 times as much as its cost. The problem with this satire is that it isn’t funny. It would be less painful to watch someone burn stacks of money instead of watching the grandiose and pointless waste of money throughout 1941.

However, 1941 did have one good gag going for it. A group of Japanese ninjas make their way on land and disguise themselves as evergreens and a woodsman comes up and decides to chop them down. There was some good physical humor here. Plus, ninjas make every movie better, right? (They don’t actually make this film any better, but they do make it slightly funny.)

In the epic run-time of this film, this was the only funny gag. Everything else was akin to watching a train-wreck, too hypnotizing to turn away from the awfulness. It’s likely that this is the low point of Spielberg’s career, but the true fault lies with screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale who couldn’t write a funny line in this film to save their reputations. Then again, this critic didn’t find their Back to the Future antics all that funny either.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing