I wrote about contemporary relationships with film in my review of The Big Chill and would be remiss to repeat myself but I feel Tom Jones, 1963’s Best Picture winner, requires a requisite analysis because I honestly can’t understand how this movie is funny or why it won Best Picture. The win is likened to a comedy club’s performances being booked by a promoter with no sense of humor.
With Tom Jones, there’s mythos and adaptation that stretches the meaning of “action” and “comedy.” Outside a carefree plot and handful of innovative storytelling gags ripe for parody, the two-hour-plus run-time is devoted to characters I can’t care about, a hackneyed plot based on the assumption that I care about our eponymous character’s whereabouts post-credits and humor that seems almost purposefully meant to be dated. Actually, since this film is set in 18th century England and uses mechanical 20th century humor, the story, based off an actual 18th century novel relies on the director/actor pushing anachronism as always funny all the time. I am open to believing that my 21st century brain is simply tired of this benign technique, but more likely than not, the film is simply not funny.
Tom Jones might be built solely on anti-humor, too; purposefully being unfunny in an attempt to cajole the audience inside the joke. The character Tom Jones is certainly based on true characterization from the early- to mid-18th century prim-and-proper Britain, when, as most media had portrayed (and continues to, albeit somewhat self-referential, today) the stoicism as a desirable trait. By establishing this idea as the foil, early, and reinforcing it often, Tom Jones becomes funny because it is not funny – or so the idea would be. Unfortunately, it’s just a head-scratcher. That said, I am equally certain that in a more favorable set of circumstances, this movie is both funny and poignant.
As I teetered with in The Big Chill, the idea of viewing a movie out of temporal context changes as the multitude of variables that surround “reaction” do. How old is the viewer? Are cultural references dated? Has the mood around humor changed? Has the political climate changed? Have film-making techniques changed so much as to make the story less about plot and more about the reasons behind the plot? Simply put, does a viewer have to transport his or her own frame of mind into a more contemporary one in order to deconstruct the movie or enjoy it? Tom Jones may have broken the mold in 1963, but 52 years later its self-referential humor and absurdity has lost most of its luster.
So how did this deeply unfunny film win Best Picture? In addition to the contemporary haze necessary to understand this movie in context, the field was incredibly complex and improbably dense and goofy. For its shortcomings, Tom Jones displayed a remarkably linear story and Albert Finney in the titular role did wonders in bringing the character to life. Perhaps with crisper editing or a slightly punchier script this film could have succeeded and remained a classic despite its contemporary crawling.
The complex and goofy films that Tom Jones beat in 1963 – Cleopatra, How The West Was Won, America, America and Lillies of the Field – the eventual winner possibly created some hype behind Finney’s performance as the driver for a classic – and pre-classic – film. More telling was the bizarre Best Actress category, of which three of five nominations went to ladies from Tom Jones, with no winners. Given a 60% likelihood, the film obviously suffered from its divisiveness and lopsided performances cleverly concealed by fourth-wall-breaking hilarity.