Feel like kicking back with a laffer tonight? Thanks to Netflix streaming, there is a bewildering array of mediocrity available at your fingertips, and you’ve already seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Back to School and 48 Hrs. But in the rubbish pile there are lots of hidden gems. Here are a few of my favorite on-demand Netflix comedies. Just don’t let your thumb slip and exactly dial up Kathy Griffin: Tired Hooker.
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1) Bernie (2012)
Tamping down his usual crazy-man instincts, Jack Black is brilliant as the title figure, a strangely polite, perfectionist funeral-home director who becomes a civic treasure in his small Texas town. Black gets across the sense of another personality hidden below the surface as Bernie becomes an almost slavish associate of a wealthy but exasperatingly demanding widow (Shirley MacLaine, who is perfectly obnoxious). Eventually he can’t stand her demands any more, and murders her. What happens next, as retold by an incredulous D.A. (Matthew McConaughey, also very funny) on Bernie’s trail, is even more bizarre. Full of fond Texas touches, this true story has to be seen to be believed.
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2) Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)
A 200-proof ’80s movie starring Hollywood lefty stalwarts Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler winds up being an incisive satire of smug liberals who sentimentalize the supposed superior wisdom of the poor. Dreyfuss plays a coat-hanger zillionaire with a spoiled daughter and a nervous wreck of a wife. Everyone’s lives are redirected by the arrival of a depressed derelict (Nick Nolte) who tries to commit suicide in the rich man’s swimming pool, but soon becomes a trusted family advisor with a simple solution to every problem. Without turning the rich folks into meaningless caricatures, and finally acknowledging the superiority of ordinary bourgeois family life, writer-director Paul Mazursky (who had already exposed the moral obtuseness of ’70s swinger parties in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) deftly satirizes the naivety of the pampered classes.
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3) Extract (2009)
“King of the Hill” and “Beavis and Butt-Head” creator Mike Judge starts with what sounds like a trite sitcom idea about a sexually deprived husband (Jason Bateman) getting even with his chilly wife (Kristen Wiig), but Judge’s eye for detail makes the comedy painfully real. Bateman plays a scientist whose invention led him to start a flavor-extract factory. He’s doing very well professionally, but at home, thanks in part to work demands that keep him at the office late, his wife is growing distant. She has taken to symbolizing her sexual unavailability with a dreaded pair of drawstring sweat pants that function as “closed for business” sign. But he doesn’t feel good about his developing flirtation with a new employee (Mila Kunis), so he sets a honey trap for his wife to see if she’ll have an affair with a pool boy that’ll liberate him to cheat also. Judge creates a range of complicated, colorful characters that make this increasingly twisted comedy seem like a crazy story that happened to someone you know.
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4) Adventureland (2009)
Coming-of-age movies rarely have as much soul as this memoir-ish take on working at an amusement park in 1987. Jesse Eisenberg (pre-The Social Network) plays a newly minted college graduate, hopeless romantic and pretentious would-be intellectual trying to get rid of his virginity while striking up a friendship with a fellow employee (Kristen Stewart). She, immune to his charms, is having an affair with a much older and cooler would-be rocker (Ryan Reynolds). Writer-director Greg Mottola, who based the script on his own painful transition into adulthood, sidesteps broad comedy in favor of more convincing, genuine moments of awkwardness at the intersection of lofty student dreams and the mundane real world.
5) Beautiful Girls (1996)
An uncharacteristically relaxed Timothy Hutton, a hilarious Michael Rapaport and a precocious, early-teens Natalie Portman are among the New Englanders dealing with questions of love and maturity when the Hutton character returns home from New York City for a visit during a chilly period in his relationship with his girlfriend. He arrives to find that a lot of his friends haven’t changed much since high school, but there’s more to them than a simple refusal to grow up. Dead-on characterizations, a witty and soulful script and a convincing sense of the importance of home give the members of a stellar cast (Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman and Mira Sorvino are also on hand) all they need to make this low-key romcom ring true.
image courtesy shutterstock / Mircea BEZERGHEANU