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Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder) 1959 / Tootsie (Sydney Pollack) 1982 

    When the American Film Institute released their list of the “100 Funniest American Films” some time ago, two cross-dressing comedies – Some Like It Hot and Tootsie - placed at the top of the lists. That organization’s web site allows viewers to vote on their favorite funny films, and perhaps tellingly, the so-called amateurs placed the films at #36 and #68, respectively. I find that somewhat gratifying, as upon re-watching the two films, I find neither of them particularly funny (incidentally, I find the viewers’ #1 choice, “Young Frankenstein” is a funnier film than either of the AFI’s top two, even if it’s far from the funniest of all time). I suppose, “funny” is a completely subjective term though, so I don’t particularly begrudge the organization’s choice. I never have had much faith in honors bestowed by committee, as the broadest, most middle-of-the-road films possible tend to be awarded, as the Oscars consistently prove. Still, I don’t believe that I would be able to give a definitive answer to the question posed by the survey. Even my favorite comedies of all time, Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, wouldn’t really qualify as “funniest.” 

    So, basically, the films, despite their new endowments, can still be judged as any other film is. Unfortunately, I find they both come up lacking. Let us first consider Some Like it Hot, the better of the two. The film, which is a bit too long to start with, takes its time getting to its one-joke premise. In order to justify the leads’ cross-dressing hyjinks, the film creates an elaborate, gangster-filled plot set during the Prohibition era. This element seems to be at odds with the film’s admirable central theme of the arbitrary nature of sexual identity. There seems to be no attempt to tie the film’s two crises together, and as a result much of the material feels slack. Even when the film’s central topic is on full display, many of the comedic scenes are played with such a telegraphed obviousness that the film’s comedic impact is severely dulled. Out of the entire cast, the only one to truly hit the right note consistently is Marilyn Monroe, as the sweet, dumb blonde.

   Tootsie has even less going for it. The film centers on Dustin Hoffman, as Michael, an actor that’s so notorious for his perfectionism that he gets blacklisted. The film puts him into women’s clothing with much less fuss than Some Like it Hot does, thankfully, but once he’s dressed up as a woman, no real issues are raised. He forms a friendship in his disguise with his female costar (Jessica Lange), and, predictably, grows to love her. At the same time, he gains the admiration of his costar’s father and a national viewing audience. The film doesn’t seem to be much concerned with Michael’s gender switch beyond the fact that it impedes his relationship with Lange’s character (who is portrayed as a single-mother martyr). The politics of the film seem to be a bit out of whack as well. The portrayal of Michael’s alter ego seems to suggest that an empowered woman is clearly functioning as a man underneath her makeup. The film seems rather homophobic as well. Much of the supposed humor arises when men are made to unwittingly kiss another man! Shocking! 

    It is odd that Some Like it Hot is the much more relaxed film when it comes to the subject matter, since it's much older. Still, both feel far too broad to attain any sort of relevance. The bottom line is that neither of these comedies is that funny. They both manage their greatest comedic charms when they work at their simplest levels, but always manage to spoil the fun with elaboration. For example, in Hot, several speakeasy operators are seen drinking milk when a police raid occurs. This is an excellent background visual gag, but surely enough, the dialogue calls our attention to it. Both films also manage to amuse through simply showing their gangly male leads as they awkwardly move about in woman’s clothing. But in both films, the pleasure derived from this is moved off the screen so plot can continue. It’s a shame both filmmakers felt it necessary to make important films about such ultimately silly subjects. Perhaps that’s why the proceedings feel forced on both counts.

Some Like it Hot * * 1/2

Tootsie * 1/2

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman