Another Fine Mess: A History Of American Film Comedy

Saul Austerlitz, Chicago Review, $24.95 (512p) ISBN 9781556529511

American film comedy is barely a century old and already commentary on it can fill bookshelves, with countless pages devoted to the evolution of physical comedy, the influence of notable comedians like Charlie Chaplin, and the effects of technology on the form. Austerlitz touches on all of these things, but his objective is to provide a chronological set of biographies of the most important figures, both major (the top 30) and minor (over 100 more), and comment on their achievements and influence. The result is a comprehensive textbook that traces a legitimate line of succession from Chaplin to Apatow. Clearly Austerlitz has great affection for and knowledge of his subject; he can comment with equal skill on Renee Zellweger and W.C. Fields. Still, his take on the century is not without bias. Never less than candid ("Mel Brooks is overrated"), his tastes are also present in what he leaves out (Hal Ashby, Hal Hartley, and Cameron Crowe are all missing). Though readers will surely disagree with some of his choices, the breadth of material Austerlitz has compiled here is a feat. Photos. (Sept.)