Genius in Their Simplicity

by: Douglas Grant

A look at a  few film classics, and the simplicity that made them brilliant…..

People who know me recognize that I have strange sense of humor. Sometimes I laugh at comments that, although are worth a chuckle, don’t warrant the kind of outbursts of mirth that I’m prone to. Other times I’ll let loose with a guffaw that is completely inappropriate within the context of the situation. It doesn’t take much to amuse me.

Many will laugh at a stand-up comic’s long and detail-oriented buildup before the clever and perfectly timed punch line. Some will find humor in pure and unadulterated shock value. There are those who value physical comedy over all other forms, and yet others who prefer dry, and often satirical, expressions of unique insight that are usually dressed up as social commentary. To each his own.

Lately I’ve been reminded of some of my favorite lines of dialogue in movies. It’s strange, because I haven’t watched any of these movies recently, nor have I discussed them with anyone in a long time. Yet I find myself thinking about some of these very terse and cleverly blunt deliveries of lines that still, to this day, get me every time. I can’t possibly hope to translate the comedic genius of these simple zingers here on the printed page, but I’m sure that most of you have seen these movies before, and that we can reminisce and have a good laugh together. Here are a few of my favorites.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Charlie Sheen only had a cameo in this classic, and his movie career had only just gotten going at this point. However, there’s no denying that he was perfectly suited for this role, Boy in the Police Station, so much so that the line separating the character from the actor is blurred. Even Robert Downey Jr. couldn’t have pulled this role off in his darkest days.

Ferris’ sister, Jeanie, has been taken down to the police station, and is patiently waiting on a couch for her mother to come pick her up. On the other end of the couch sits a young man in a 1950’s greaser era black leather jacket, cracking his knuckles and looking like he’s just come off of a five-day bender. He stares right at her, and she holds his gaze for a moment before looking away.

“Drugs?” he finally says.

She exhales in irritation and locks eyes with him. “Thank you, no. I’m straight,” she replies somewhat sardonically.

“I meant are you in here for drugs?” he clarifies.

The setup: She ignores his question, and asks him, “Why are you here?”

The line: “Drugs,” he states matter-of-factly.

Years later, after a very public melt-down, he will respond to the comedians and fellow actors who will roast him on Comedy Central, and during his retaliatory monologue he will cite this role—not Chris from Platoon—as one of the milestones of his long, bumpy Hollywood career.

Clerks (1994)

Kevin Smith lost me somewhere along the way. I think it might have been between Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Maybe even before that. Nevertheless, I hold a very special place in my heart for his grainy, low-budget directorial debut. Part of what makes the dynamic between Dante and Randal work so well is their opposing natures: Dante is uptight and takes both himself and his job at the Quick Stop too seriously, whereas Randal is utterly indifferent regarding customer service or his current station in life.

In this scene, a faceless customer in a hoodie approaches the counter and asks for a pack of cigarettes. Dante respectfully complies with the request. Randal comes up and joins Dante behind the register, releasing the black cat in his arms onto the counter before it scurries off.

The setup: The anonymous customer comments, “Cute cat. What’s its name?”

The line: Randal, settling back onto his stool and taking a pint out his pocket, responds neutrally, “Annoying Customer.”

The response: “Fucking dickhead.”

While Dante appeals to Randal to be halfway decent to the customers from time to time, it takes all of five seconds for Randal to put the annoying customer and the diatribe completely out of mind.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult classic is so laden with one-liners that it almost seems foolish to isolate a simple exchange of words between The Dude and Maude. But the dialogue here is so exemplary of the script that is stands out when people talk about it. I laugh every time I hear it as if I was watching the film for the first time.

Maude is attempting to provide the context of her relationship with her younger step-mother, Bunny, and she opts to show this to The Dude, rather than tell, by putting on Jackie Treehorn’s porno, ‘Logjammin’, in which Bunny is one of the stars. The Dude, while fixing himself a drink, glances over his shoulder to take in the opening scene. Bunny’s character, clad in kinky lingerie, opens the front door of her apartment for a burly, long-haired cable repairman with an eastern-European accent.

“You recognize her, of course,” Maude says bemusedly, while onscreen another stark-naked porn actress joins the pair in the living room. Maude continues, “The story is ludicrous,” as the male star of the film, Karl Hungus, goes on to proclaim his expertise in cable repair.

The setup: Maude, mentally rolling her eyes, says, “Lord, you can imagine where it goes from here.”

The line: “He fixes the cable?” The Dude responds casually while stirring together the contents of his White Russian.

The response: “Don’t be fatuous, Jeffrey.”

Perhaps here, without showing it outwardly, she appreciates how wry The Dude can be, and this is why she later chooses him as a partner to conceive a child with.

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