It’s not easy for comedy fanatics to get a fix at the movies. Most films have so many story and character obligations that they can’t compete with sitcoms, let alone articles and web videos, for sheer joke density. Great comic movies tend to be great movies first and great comedies second. There are exceptions—movies like Duck Soup or The Naked Gun in which absurdity matters more than plausibility—but in general, viewers hoping simply to laugh themselves sick would be better served watching any given episode from seasons four – seven of The Simpsons than heading to the cinema.
But if you are a comedy nut at the movies—or streaming at home—there are few better things to see than 2019’s Greener Grass. It’s a detailed and disorienting masterwork that must be seen to be believed. Rarely in its runtime do five seconds go by without a laugh. Its pitch-perfect mayhem is an oasis in the desert of post-Apatovian quirkiness in which we humor fans presently wander.
The first feature from writer-director-costar team Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, Greener Grass is set in an unnamed suburb, a nightmarish wonderland of pastel colors, prim outfits, manicured lawns, and golf carts. The people here are polite to the point of madness. It’s impossible to get through a four-way intersection because every single driver thinks it would be rude to go first.
The politest all—and one of the few whose gracious mien isn’t a trojan horse for cruelty—is Jill (DeBoer), who has a new baby named Madison. When Jill’s friend Lisa (Luebbe) remarks how cute Madison is, Jill, being a good sport, says Lisa can have the baby to raise as her own. Lisa accepts, and Madison—who is promptly renamed Paige—becomes a part of Lisa’s family, the Wetbottoms. This is among the less strange things that happens in the movie.
What follows is a smorgasbord of laughs. Every single element—every line of dialogue, every object in frame, every music cue—everything that possibly could be funny, is funny. There is no effort made at realism, and not once do the characters merely say what needs to be said to move the plot along. Every joke in the movie is too good to spoil, but here are a few out of context: a divorcing couple tells the dog it’s not his fault; a child watches one episode of a PG-13 TV show and instantly turns pure evil; and a woman puts a soccer ball under her shirt to pretend she’s pregnant, then gives birth to the ball and spends the rest of the film raising it.
What’s not in the movie is as important as what is: there are no cliché plot lines, no hokey redemption arcs, and no hyper-adorkable characters played by smug comedians who know how funny they’re being. The characters don’t learn that love conquers all, nor that friendship matters most. That’s how the movie sustains its non-stop hilarity. It doesn’t just amuse you; it immerses you in a comprehensively warped world from which there is seemingly no reprieve.
Greener Grass departs from the precedent of other great dystopian films in that, despite the candy-coated misery in which these characters live, not one of them acknowledges that things shouldn’t be the way they are, that things could ever be different, or that they ever were different. In Brazil, Sam Lowry escapes into his imagination; in Sorry to Bother You, Cassius Green fights for better working conditions; but for the characters in Greener Grass, there’s nothing in sight but brunches, lattes and existential panic. After all, the suburbs shelter their inhabitants, and there’s always the risk of them doing so too well, of keeping people so safe they can’t even imagine what lies beyond their pretty neighborhood. Jill doesn’t want to tear down the town and build a new, freer society; all she wants is a little kindness and understanding. The tragedy is, even that may be too much to ask.
The movie hasn’t gotten a tenth of the attention it deserves. It ran in precious few theaters and didn’t grace any major best-of-the-year or best-of-the-decade lists. Publications like the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly have yet to review it. Covering the movie for NPR, Andee Tagle wrote “You’ll be surprised — or at least, I was — by how much a silly, madcap comedy such as this one might make you think.” She’s right that it’ll make you think, but there’s no need to diss the art of comedy. Greener Grass isn’t thought-provoking despite its absurdity but because of it. That a movie strays from convention is no reason to put an asterisk by its name in the record books.
This movie is a more daring look into the human soul than most works of alleged realism. The reason for its measured reception may be that the truths it unearths are just too scary. Most movies are full of characters who, however flawed, seek love, connection, friendship, fulfillment, understanding, justice, etc. In Greener Grass everyone’s too caught up in a world of pretty fakery to even know what those things are. Not a single character has their priorities straight. Parents obsess over their kids’ academic performance and are vicious when the kids let them down. A woman speaking at her sister’s wake reminds the mourners that her sister was never as thin as she is. A man who has moved into his neighbor’s house uninvited politely asks her a question about the thermostat. What the movie is getting at here is the most terrifying thing about us humble humans, the thing we never want to believe, no matter how many times we see it: we can be programmed, and pretty easily at that.
It’s easy to look at a conspiracist or a cult follower or someone blinded by their own privilege and think “That could never be me, I’m an independent thinker.” But watch Greener Grass, notice how much kinder and smarter the kids are than the grown-ups, and see how confident you feel in your faculties of independent reason. Academics have argued for centuries over the extent to which we can think for ourselves. Do we determine our own beliefs or is it all social conditioning? Greener Grass comes down so heavily in favor of the latter that it could seem nihilistic. But it isn’t because our hero, Jill, has a spark—you could call it a soul. Some tiny part of her knows this is no way to live. It’s buried under so many layers of etiquette that she can’t even put it into speech until the film’s glorious finale, but it’s there. In other words, Jill spends the whole movie getting to where your typical dystopian protagonist starts. For all its loony exaggeration, when it comes to the development of the soul, Greener Grass skips no steps.
The movie is available on Hulu, where it sits singe-handedly justifying $5.99 per month and patiently awaiting any viewer who seeks the ride of their life.
Header image courtesy of Gulp Splash Productions