One-joke comedies are so hard to pull off. It’s Pat, The Hot Chick, Chairman of the Board, Bio-Dome, Dude, Where’s My Car? and just about anything by the Wayans brothers and/or Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are just terrible. And yet there is a way to make a good one-joke comedy. It’s been done before. The joke in Ghostbusters (1984) is that they’re pest control for ghosts, but they somehow manage to make that joke work the whole way through the film. The joke in Arsenic and Old Lace is that two sweet old women are serial killers, and only their nephew knows it. Groundhog Day repeats the same day’s events over and over, but it keeps getting funnier and more dramatic as time goes by.
And then there are the two films I’m going to talk about: Liar Liar and Mr. Magoo. The respective jokes are that one character can’t lie and the other can’t see. Despite both revolving around a single joke, these two films could not be more divergent in terms of execution. Liar Liar is so good that it singlehandedly changed Roger Ebert’s mind about Jim Carrey, suddenly turning him into a fan of the comedian overnight. Mr. Magoo, on the other hand, was so bad that it earned a spot in Ebert’s book, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, in which he described it as, “transcendently bad… There is not a laugh in it. Not one. I counted.”
Both of these films were released in 1997, and I think there are no better examples of the right way and the wrong way to do a one-joke comedy than these two. So let’s go through all the ways that one film got everything right and the other got everything wrong.
Only a gifted actor can successfully do a one-joke movie, especially if the entire film rests on his shoulders. I know Jim Carrey had already done fine work in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask, transforming those films into something memorable purely through his performance. But Liar Liar is probably his finest hour. He lives up to his name by carrying this film by himself. He puts his face, body, voice, and soul through the wringer in the role of Fletcher Reede. He has to go from loving father to sleazy lawyer to jealous ex-husband, sometimes all in the same scene, and make the transitions believable and natural. And he pulls it off beautifully.
Compare that to Leslie Nielsen in Mr. Magoo. Don’t get me wrong, Nielsen was great in The Naked Gun, Wrongfully Accused, and other ZAZ/Proft movies, and he can hold his own when he’s called upon to carry a film. But his talents are wasted in the role of Mr. Magoo. He’s a one-note character. It’s supposed to be funny when he gets into wacky hijinks because he can’t see, but it never generates much humor. Nielsen just acts aloof and he mumbles a lot, which is just like the Mr. Magoo cartoon character, but it doesn’t make for an interesting movie character. Nielsen was on the decline in his comedic acting, and it really shows in this film.
The Movie’s Heart
A one-joke movie desperately needs a heart. It should center on something relatable in order to connect with the audience. Liar Liar does this perfectly. When you boil it all down, the movie is about a father who loves his son. He keeps letting things get in the way of their relationship, but in the end he learns a valuable lesson and he’s ready to put his son first so he’ll never risk losing him again.
What is at Mr. Magoo’s heart? When you boil everything down to its essence, what is it? Honestly, there is no heart to this film. It tries to imply one with Mr. Magoo’s nephew caring about him and a pretty girl played by Jennifer Garner, but that subplot doesn’t really go anywhere. Sadly, Mr. Magoo’s dog is the only likable character in the film. There is just nothing to relate to or feel happy or sad about in this movie.
Characters shouldn’t be stagnant. They should make choices and learn something about themselves or others by the end of the film. Fletcher is a lawyer who lies all the time, even to his young son. He can’t stop lying, even when honesty would actually help him. So it’s hilarious and heartbreaking to watch him try to cope with the fact that he cannot lie for 24 pivotal hours. At one point he is shocked when he declares himself to be a bad father. That’s a real turning point for him because he finally has to confront the painful truth about himself. He’s also horrified after he wins a big court case on a technicality and he realizes that he’s made a horrible mistake in so doing. He’s deprived two children of their loving father and put them solely in the hands of their hateful mother. He holds himself in contempt for his behavior, and it’s at that point that he finally realizes that he wants to be a good father, like the man he just destroyed. He desperately fights to keep his ex-wife and son from leaving him forever, and he promises to always be honest with his son, even after he regains the ability to lie.
Mr. Magoo is the same at the end as he is in the beginning. He hasn’t grown or changed at all. And that’s a problem because he was insufferable at the start of the film. He never transforms into anything even approaching a likable character. There’s just a big zero when I try to think of him. We don’t even get to see him explain his way out of the mess his blindness got him into, and he still refuses to admit how poor his eyesight is when everything is over.
New Ways to Be Funny
The trick to making a one-joke movie work is to keep its core concept from getting stale. Liar Liar constantly finds new ways to be funny. At first, Fletcher is surprised when he finds himself unable to be subtle in his sexual innuendo to a couple of ladies. Then he finds himself speechless as he tries to describe his lie-filled legal case to a rival lawyer. The jokes up to this point have been great, but they’re in danger of becoming routine. The idea of being unable to lie has been firmly planted, and we can see where it’s going with the court case. So the movie takes a timeout to have Fletcher try to lie about the tiniest thing: the color of a pen. And it’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Then Fletcher breaks all kinds of traffic laws and has to admit them all to a traffic cop. And then we get two brilliant scenes back to back with his secretary and the boardroom. And it’s all capped off by his return to the courtroom, as well as an incredible bathroom fight with himself. Along the way, Fletcher learns that not only can’t he lie verbally, but he also can’t write a lie, nor can he ask a question when he knows the answer will be a lie. These revelations add more complications and offer additional opportunities for humor. It all builds to an ironic conclusion where it turns out that the truth is the answer to all of Fletcher’s problems.
Mr. Magoo has quite a few obvious and lazy jokes, all of which center around the fact that Mr. Magoo can’t see clearly. Trying to describe the level of humor in this movie is like trying to describe the contents of a blank piece of paper. It’s pointless. There’s a botched jewel heist at the start of the film that is almost anti-funny in the way it plays out. Then Mr. Magoo finds himself in setup after setup for slapstick humor where the joke is usually that he accidentally hurts someone else while narrowly escaping serious injury himself. That’s pretty much the whole movie. There is no progression to the film, even though they change locations several times.
A one-joke movie needs to be fairly short. It has to be just barely long enough to tell a good story. Liar Liar and Mr. Magoo are both 87 minutes long. Liar Liar uses its time wisely, spending the first half-hour setting up the fact that Fletcher is a good lawyer and an undependable father. We know the film’s stakes, the characters involved, and what they want to do. Then the rest of the film is free to hand the reins to Jim Carrey and let him do his thing. It’s perfectly paced, letting the jokes play out for the right amount of time and then come to a speedy resolution. But it never feels rushed. It’s controlled mania.
The opening credits of Mr. Magoo is a cartoon, and then the film proper opens with a mess of character introductions. We sort of get to know the main characters, but everything feels hurried. The movie can’t wait to get to its first big comedic sequence, so it cuts short what should be a nice, slow scene. By the end of the opening scene, it’s unclear what most of the characters want or even who they are. This is a pattern for the rest of the film. It rushes from one scene to the next, constantly introducing new characters only to forget about them and move onto others. It all starts to feel like padding, and long before it reaches its climax in South America the movie has clearly run out of ideas, and it’s just trying to get to a respectable runtime.
If they’re going to include outtakes at the end of the film, they should make sure they’re funny. Every outtake in Liar Liar is pure gold. And it’s all building up to the part where the rival lawyer calls Jim Carrey an “over-actor.” That takes him completely by surprise and he just has to laugh before slyly replying, “Oh no. They’re onto me.” That self-aware line just endeared him as an actor, and I can easily see why Roger Ebert was won over by him.
Mr. Magoo includes many outtakes that are incredibly unfunny. Some of them are just baffling, like all of the embarrassing shots of Leslie Nielsen or his stunt double bumbling around in a raft. Most of them are just shots of people looking awkward or falling down. I guess that summarizes the movie perfectly, though, so bravo for putting together those lazy outtakes.
The Hard Truth
It’s perfectly possible to stretch a single joke out for the length of a whole movie. But I’d be lying if I said it was easy. It takes a lot of talent to do that. Liar Liar is a special film that showcases a world-class comedian working at the pinnacle of his talent. Mr. Magoo is an embarrassment that demonstrates the sad descent of one of the formerly funniest men in Hollywood. And that’s the truth of the matter.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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