The buddy caper 30 Minutes or Less that opens next weekend is but the latest in a long line of comedies about committing crime. Time will tell if 30 Minutes or Less is a classic like A Fish Called Wanda or a dud like Hudson Hawk, so we wanted to compile a list of other great crime comedies in case you’ve got the itch. Scratch this, suckers.
But hey… You already know you should watch A Fish Called Wanda, or Fargo, or The (original) Italian Job, or The (original) Ladykillers. So here instead is our list of some of the crime capers that don’t always make the big Top Ten lists. Here are Ten Great Crime Comedies You’ve Never Seen.
And if you have seen them, seriously, good for you. Go ahead and get smug about it. You’ve earned that right.
10. CRIME WAVE (dir. Sam Raimi, 1985)
Most people haven’t seen Crimewave (a.k.a. The XYZ Murders), Sam Raimi’s ambitious crime comedy follow-up to his first movie, The Evil Dead, co-written by The Coen Bros. There’s a good reason for that, and not because Sam Raimi disowned the fascinating-but-flawed film after losing several of his Evil Dead crew members and not being allowed to cast Bruce Campbell in the lead role. No, it’s because the damned thing hasn’t been released on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is a shame. Paul L. Smith stars as a man going to the electric chair who recounts en route how he got framed. His story introduces us to dangerous bug exterminator hitmen, a wolfish Bruce Campbell and a world so zany that it might as well be Toon Town. A lot of the jokes fall flat, but when Crimewave really gets cooking (as in the surreal chase at a door factory, above) it is truly unforgettable. Hard to find, but worth the trouble.
9. JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY (dir. Amy Heckerling, 1984)
Before the Airplane! style of comedy became a formal institution there was Johnny Dangerously, a broad, broad parody of mob movies starring Michael Keaton as a young goomba on the rise. Pretty danged funny from start to finish, from a bizarre educational video about the dangers of sex (it leads to elephantiasis of the testicles… always) to the scene-stealing Roman Moroni (Richard Dimitri) who swears like he’s already been overdubbed for television, using expressions like “you lousy cork-soakers,” “You farging ice-hole” and “I’m gonna crush your boils in a meat-grinder.” Director Amy Heckerling’s first film after her cult hit Fast Times at Ridgemont High (weird corollary to Crimewave there) is a damn sight better than Jim Abrahams similar but less funny 1998 comedy Jane Austen’s Mafia! starring Jay Mohr and Christina Applegate, but that movie’s kind of okay too.
8. JOHNNY STECCHINO (dir. Roberto Benigni, 1991)
A lot of Americans know who Roberto Benigni is, but they don’t always know that he made movies before Life is Beautiful. In Johnny Stecchino, one of his funniest comedies, writer/director Roberto Benigni plays Dante, a hapless boob with a penchant for stealing bananas who happens to look exactly like the titular mob informant with a contract on his head. Benigni’s real life wife Nicolette Braschi (whose boobs are anything but hapless) plays Stecchino’s girlfriend, Maria, tasked with seducing our poor hero and making him look and act enough like Johnny that the mob kills Dante instead. Benigni is lovably naïve in the lead role and a hilarious jerk as the villain in this wonderful Italian farce.
7. MALCOLM (dir. Nadia Tass, 1986)
The gentlest comedy on our list is easily Malcolm, an independent comedy that swept the Australian Film Institute awards in 1986. Colin Friels of Darkman and (amusingly) Dark City plays a shy young savant who brings in a lodger to help pay the bills. By the time he figures out that his new roommate is an ex-con they’re already close enough friends that Malcolm puts his mechanical genius to work committing fresh new crimes. From the two-piece getaway car to a final heist using adorable robots, Malcolm is a clever but understated comedy about friendship and larceny, and, unfortunately, a practically forgotten gem.
6. MONSIEUR VERDOUX (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1947)
One of comedy legend Charlie Chaplin’s later comedies (and his first in seven years after the classic The Great Dictator) came from an idea by Orson Welles: Chaplin plays – surprise! – Monsieur Henri Verdoux, a gentleman who marries unsuspecting women and kills them for their money. Yes, it’s a little darker than many of his more popular films, but it’s also a strange pleasure, particularly when Verdoux meets his match in Martha Raye, playing a particularly annoying spouse who seemingly cannot be killed. Monsieur Verdoux isn’t afraid to get a little thoughtful towards the end – the final line of dialogue is highly unusual considering the era – but as movies about murderers go it’s still one of the funniest.
5. SUGAR & SPICE (dir. Francine McDougal, 2001)
Overshadowed by that other cheerleader movie Bring It On, Francine McDougal’s upbeat comedy Sugar & Spice remains, in our eyes at least, the better film. (The awful trailer, above, probably didn't do the movie any favors.) When head cheerleader Diane Weston (Marley Shelton) gets pregnant by her dopey jock boyfriend (Enchanted’s Jame Marsden, playing a similar goofball here), she and the rest of her squad turn to crime to help pay the bills. The nicely executed gag is that they bring the same bubbly enthusiasm to pulling a bank heist that they do to planning a pep rally, contrasted nicely by the jealous snark of The Practice’s Marla Sokoloff. The cheerleading themed heist is a hilarious standout, but it’s the film’s boundless enthusiasm that makes it a truly standout comedy.
4. HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (dir. William Wyler, 1966)
Though fairly well remembered by older generations (it was directed by three-time Oscar winner William Wyler and co-starred Audrey Hepburn, Peter O’Toole and Eli Wallach), many young folks don’t know about How To Steal A Million, a sweet and funny romantic heist comedy. In the film, Hepburn plays the daughter of an art forger (played by Ben Hur’s Hugh Griffith) who has just given his latest sculpture to a museum… that’s going to have it professionally appraised. It’s up to Hepburn and cat burglar O’Toole to steal it back before it’s revealed to be a phony. The romantic leads have undeniably British chemistry (that’s good, obviously) and Wyler’s luscious direction makes their silly plan to steal back the statue seem genuinely clever. A merry comedy for the classics crowd.
3. QUICK CHANGE (dirs. Howard Franklin and Bill Murray, 1990)
Bill Murray’s only directorial effort to date (he teamed with screenwriter Howard Franklin after Jonathan Demme became unavailable), this genuinely hilarious comedy stars Murray, Geena Davis and Randy Quaid as a trio of bank robbers who have just pulled off the perfect heist, but have the worst getaway in history. Construction has blocked all the roads to the airport, they have the world’s most anal-retentive bus driver, they’re held at gunpoint while their car is towed, and (naturally) at some point they’re waylaid by an inner city jousting match. A cracking pace, a wonderful star turn by Murray and a witty story adapted from a novel by Jay Cronley (whose work also inspired Funny Farm and Let It Ride, as well as a French version of this film called Hold-Up, which starred Kim Cattrall and Breathless’s Jean-Paul Belmondo), make Quick Change a comedy classic. The people who've seen it love it, but sadly, not everyone has seen it… yet.
2. GAMBIT (dir. Ronald Neame, 1966)
Another classic heist comedy from 1966, Ronald Neame’s Gambit stars Michael Caine as an English thief who has the perfect plan for a heist. The problem is that his patsy, Shirley MacClaine, actually has a mind of her own and his mark, A Shot in the Dark’s Herbert Lom, is smarter than Caine thinks he is. In fact, nothing whatsoever goes right as the charming thief learns that people are far less predictable than he had previously predicted. Caine and MacClaine’s delightfully frustrating chemistry and Neame’s superior direction make the film a hilarious classic that’s being remade as we speak by Soapdish director Michael Hoffman, starring Colin Firth, Alan Rickman and Cameron Diaz, from a script by The Coen Bros. (Another weird corollary to Crimewave.)
1. MY BLUE HEAVEN (dir. Herbert Ross, 1990)
Director Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl, Footloose, Steel Magnolias) directed one of his last great movies in My Blue Heaven, a mafia comedy based on the same story as Goodfellas, about a mob snitch hopelessly out of his element in suburbia while in witness protection. Steve Martin plays the sly Vinnie Antonelli, who can’t keep himself out of trouble, Rick Moranis plays his endlessly frustrated FBI handler and Joan Cusack pulls out another winning performance as the local policewoman whose attempts to throw the book at Vinnie are stymied because his upcoming court date. Martin’s thigh-slapping dialogue (courtesy of screenwriter Nora Ephron) is but the centerpiece of this superlative comedy. When asked why he has 25 copies of a book from a stolen shipment, he perfectly responds, “In case… I want to read it… more than once?” My Blue Heaven is a wonderful film.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE CRIME COMEDIES…?