Fans of Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson should revisit the work of Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth.
With the release of Noah Baumbach’s latest film While We’re Young, there needs to be a larger conversation about the lack of comedies like it in the current cinematic marketplace. Humbly conceived and warmly rendered movies that have a strong core of pathos and humanity have been pushed aside for the Get Hards of the world.
Even Judd Apatow-related work, as heartfelt as it is, is rife with gross-out gags and bawdy bullshit. And now with bigger budgets at his disposal, Wes Anderson can create more grandiose and quirky visions that sometimes dwarf the conviviality he builds into them. And I say that as an avowed fan of both men.
This is what leads me to revisit the work of Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth. In the ‘80s, he directed a series of films that were most assuredly quirky and often silly, but were also grounded and calm and understanding of human nature. While his best known films, Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, brought him a lot of international acclaim, the film that I think speaks best to his comedic sensibilities is 1984’s Comfort and Joy.
The plot concerns a popular radio DJ named Alan Bird (Bill Paterson) who goes through a small life-crisis when his longtime girlfriend decides to leave him. As he tries to recover from the blow, he happens upon a lovely girl (Clare Grogan, better known to ‘80s pop aficionados as the lead singer of Altered Images) in an ice cream truck. He follows it to one of its stops and purchases a treat, and after he does, three men in masks run up and start bashing the truck with baseball bats. From there, Bird finds himself wrapped up in a ridiculous turf war between rival ice cream purveyors, even as he tries to repair his broken heart.
Comfort is as ridiculous as all that sounds (though, strangely, the story of vicious rival ice cream sellers is actually based on a real incidents that took place in Glasgow). And it often feels like the main plot is really there just to frame the silly and charming gags that Forsyth sprinkles throughout, like the one where the two gents inside the dispatch center of one ice cream company record the silly earworm jingle for their trucks; or the one where Bird gets ice cream cones stuck all over the seats of his car as retaliation; or the one where a masked assailant stops Bird for an autograph after attacking the rival truck; or the one where the former seaman turned therapist gets bent out of shape when he learns that Bird has already heard his big naval-themed metaphor.
Ultimately, this film, like Baumbach’s, is really about an older man finally coming to accept himself after finding a strange new purpose in life. In Bird’s case, it’s helping the two sides of an ice cream war come to an accord. It’s a relatively selfless act, and one of the first of its kind that it seems Bird has allowed himself in his entire life. By the end, he’s still single, still doing his chirpy DJ gig in spite of his efforts to try serious radio journalism, and the upholstery on his car is still ruined, but there’s so much more comfort and joy exuding from his spirit. We should all be so lucky.