There’s no dignity in spending all of one’s time complaining about how contemporary art isn’t as good as old art, which is why I do it a lot less than I’d like to. And while we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, living through a golden age of cinema right now (those of us living in South America perhaps coming closer than anybody else), there’s undeniably great works of the seventh art being produced in every country every year, with a full assortment of future classics waiting for future generations to linger on them and love them. Grumpy old classicists like myself might grouse over the paucity of masterpiece-level filmmaking of the sort that was thicker on the ground in the late ‘20s, the ‘40s, the ‘70s, or feel free to pick your own favorite filmmaking epoch; but masterpieces are still being made.

Except in one regard. Comedy in American cinema is terrible. Fucking abysmally awful. De gustibus non est disputandum - there’s no arguing taste - but film comedy is dead, and for a full generation there hasn’t been anything to compare to the glorious age of Chaplin and Keaton, or the masterworks of pre-WWII screwball, and the demented anarchy of the Marx Brothers, the cunning of Ernst Lubitsch and his caustic acolyte Billy Wilder, the snappy presence of the last generation of female comedic actors who had full authority and equal power to the men that Hollywood has always been much more comfortable placing in leading roles. There were bad comedies in those eras just as there are good comedies today; but in the present age, good comedy is a rare treasure, while in the ’30s and ‘40s, even a middleweight program-filler was constructed with a love for the craftsmanship of jokes, a sensitivity on the part of the actors, genuinely invested cinematic technique, and a willingness to assume that the audience is intelligent. 80 years ago, a couple of films like that were cranked out every month; we’re lucky to get one movie like that a year nowadays. It is, I concede, entirely possible for someone to love film comedy of the 21st Century and care for older styles not at all. We all know teenagers. But people holding this belief deserve more to be pitied than argued against, though they deserve most of all to be avoided.

This morbidity, never more than a few dark thoughts from the forefront of my mind, has been dragged up in honor of Grown Ups, the 15th highest-grossing film at the U.S. domestic box office in 2010, which makes it the year’s biggest live-action English-language comedy. It is a goddamn piece of shit. Cranked out by Adam Sandler’s Jiggling Boobies, Farts, & Fatties Falling Down Factory, AKA the Happy Madison production company, it is the apex of that man’s art, in so many ways, combining a motherfucking supergroup of Sandler and his buddies Kevin James, David Spade, Rob Schneider, and Chris Rock, along with the inconceivably over-qualified Maria Bello and Maya Rudolph as James and Rock’s wives (Salma Hayek, playing Sandler’s wife I do not think can be called “inconceivably” overqualified, though she’s certainly capable of more than this). It is a story of tacky men being under-matured, to the implausible amusement of the women in their lives, and the nominal amusement of the people in the audience, though finding Grown Ups funny necessitates that one finds it inherently marvelous when fat men talk about eating, old women describe having sexual desires, and old fat women break wind.

The five guys, once the starring lineup of a middle-school basketball team, have all been reunited on the occasion of their former coach’s death. Their walks of life have gone very differently: Sandler’s Lenny is a super-agent with hot designer wife and two disastrously over-privileged children, and the other four just kind of sink into a vague differentiation of not-in-the-real-world problems, like Kurt’s (Rock) feeling that his wife doesn’t respect him, just because he’s a homemaker while she works, or Eric’s (James) mild embarrassment that his wife still breast-feeds their four-year-old son. Bello’s handling of this sub-plot is almost beyond description: faced with the dialogue and infantile female psychology of a script by Sandler & Fred Wolf, she marches right into the thick of things and anchors all of this in a consistent, thoughtfully-built character with feelings and personal history and everything. I don’t know whether this is more or less admirable than Rudolph’s approach to her own microscopically-conceived role, which is to speed-walk through it and make bland faces so the camera stays away from her.

I would slag the film a bit harder for how it presents its women, especially Hayek’s Roxanne, who shifts from prickly career-oriented nag into loving mom and wife with no in-story justification nor even the slightest authentic human emotion underpinning it. But that would be missing the forest for the trees, since that’s how basically everybody is written. Sure, Sandler has given himself the most obnoxiously overblown fantasy life, aware enough that this could read as unpleasant that he and Wolf put in some boilerplate about getting away from Hollywood living and back to nature, but it doesn’t feel like they actually believe it. But Grown Ups is an equal-opportunity misanthrope, scornful of all its characters. The rich ones such because they’re out of touch; the poor ones suck because they’re unsophisticated. The women suck because they’re dumb shrews; the men suck because they’re clueless boys in need of a kindly feminine touch. The old suck because they haven’t died yet. From all this, comedy ostensibly springs, though virtually nothing actually does, especially since the film prefers to divert to unimaginative slapstick whenever the work of writing modestly clever sarcastic asides proves too taxing.

It is a cruel film that mouths platitudes about family and coming together that makes it infinitely more offensive than the cruelty would be if it were left alone. And it is a film that stitches together anecdotes into a plot rather than creates a mechanism that picks up steam of its own accord and produces humor as the inevitable byproduct of its storytelling. This is perhaps the most frustrating and galling thing about the film, and the thing about it most symptomatic of contemporary film comedy. The whole affair turns on the notion that “Wouldn’t it be funny if X and Y did Z?” When “Z” is complex enough, you end up with the likes of Judd Apatow’s movies, shaggy improv that tries to remember that it’s about characters. In Grown Ups, “Z” isn’t complex. “Z” is Kevin James pissing in a pool, Rob Schneider getting his foot shot with an arrow, Kevin James swinging into a tree. Is there some specific trait that makes it funnier for Schneider’s character to be shot in the foot, or for James’s character to piss in a pool? There isn’t at all, though the film leaves open the possibility that “because Kevin James is overweight” is the reason. This is, anyway, the difference between tight, disciplined comedy and shallow gagging. There should be irreducible comedy of this one man being shot with an arrow, because of who he is and where that arrow came from. Instead, it’s most like primitive grunting - arrowfoot is violencelaugh.

This merry horror show of aimless shouting and slapstick and sleepy gross-out humor (15 years after the Farrelly brothers’ heyday, the Happy Madison folks should be ashamed that they couldn’t come up with more outlandishly tasteless breast milk jokes, even in a PG-13 environment) is all shepherded by Sandler’s good lackey Dennis Dugan, who keeps things light and harmless and makes certain to always keep Sandler seeming like the one sane man in a world of insufficiently weird goofballs, and presents jokes rather than sculpting and building them. More importantly, he keeps his eyes and ears focused on the film’s inordinately large product placement library, silently drawing our eyes to KFC buckets and Dunkin’ Donuts cups, and serving with religious fealty the idea that Grown Ups is a consumable product of no greater nutritional value than either of those things, with its only purpose to provide an audience with exactly the experience the audience was promised, right down to the easily predictable heartburn. This is the antithesis of great comedy: great comedy should be impossibly surprising right before it strikes and completely inevitable after it strikes. “Watch the famous people be silly idiots” is not that. It is a stone-faced ritual of the notional form of comedy divorced from the energy or content that would actually make it comic.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2010
-With Iron Man 2, Marvel Studios blurs the line between feature film and two-hour advertisement for other feature films
-3-D reaches its artistic pinnacle in Step Up 3D, wherein bright green frozen drinks fly right the fuck into your face
-A culture's doom is sealed when some nameless Warner executive asks the question, "what if we called it Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1?"

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2010
-Abbas Kiarostami, leading light of the Iranian New Wave, travels to France to make Certified Copy
-The found-footage horror game travels as far as Norway, and André Øvredal's Trollhunter
-Chilean experimental director Raúl Ruiz goes to Portugal to make the last major film of his life, the 4.5-hour Mysteries of Lisbon