The Aristocrats 2.0 stars

Aristocrats movie poster
  • Rated NR | 1 hour, 29 minutes

Paul Provenza's talking-heads film rounds up a herd of well-known and less-known comedians to tell and to analyze an old gray blue joke, the punch line of which is the film's title. (Alternate and not-as-good punch lines: the Sophisticates, the Debonairs.) The joke seems to be something of a private joke among comedians, seldom told in public out of common decency. It has an unassailable structure, a solid beginning and end, and a lot of room in the middle for extended jazzlike improvisation, often on motifs of incest, bestiality, bodily waste. The set form allows the audience reasonably to gauge who goes "too far," which turns out to be less a question of taste than a question of comprehension, a question of intelligence. Howie Mandel and Bob Saget step up as the top competitors for the worst — most uncomprehending, least intelligent — rendition, with Saget getting the edge by laughing repeatedly at his own idiocy. George Carlin makes the most sensible contributions as an analyst. And Kevin Pollak earns perhaps the biggest laughs, or anyway the most guiltless laughs, with a totally irrelevant impression of Christopher Walken. Other jokes, not all of them blue, some of them variations on or inversions of the central joke, get told as well. The central one, as much as it's a dirty joke, is also a dated joke, a quaint joke, smelling of the musty trunk of vaudeville, dulled a bit by the liberated heirs of Lenny Bruce. Taboos today are in short supply. Yet — in what appears to have been the inspiration for the film — the joke got revived and revitalized in the post-9/11 gloom, when a defiant Gilbert Gottfried chose to tell it for a televised Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner, finding a new or a forgotten meaning in it. "Inspiration," in that context, is not too lofty a word. Gottfried's rendition, plucked from the archives, emerges as hands-down the best and bravest. Overlong for the task at hand, stretched out at a few ticks under ninety minutes, ghastly to look at, the film nonetheless meets the mandate of a documentary in the most fundamental sense. It documents. 2005.

Duncan Shepherd

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