The classic Hollywood screwball comedy, which hit its peak in the 1930s and ’40s, has had a lasting influence, though the genre itself petered out long ago.
In Japan, scriptwriter and director Koki Mitani has incorporated screwball elements into his hit comedies, beginning with his 1997 directorial debut, “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald,” with its fast talk, black humor and hairpin plot turns.
Koji Maeda is more of a screwball purist: his “Cannonball Wedlock” (2011) is the sort of bickering-opposites-fall-in-love comedy that would have warmed the hearts of Preston Sturges (“The Lady Eve,” 1941) or Howard Hawks (“His Girl Friday,” 1940).
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||98 min.|
Now Maeda is back with “You’re Not Normal, Either!,” another laugh-out-loud comedy that fits the screwball label. This time, though, Maeda and scriptwriter Ryo Takada channel Cary Grant of Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), in which he played an unworldly paleontologist.
Their Grant stand-in is Ryo Narita as Yasuomi Ono, a cram school math teacher who is brilliant but socially stunted, as though he disappeared into his beloved equations at age 12 and has just emerged as a 20-something, blinking and confused, into a world where men and women fall in love, a phenomenon that baffles and fascinates him.
His unlikely guide though the maze of romance is Kasumi Akimoto (Kaya Kiyohara), his teenage student. This may sound problematic but Kasumi is a sharp-tongued, no-nonsense sort who disdains her teacher’s nerdy ignorance of normal heterosexual behavior.
But Kasumi is “abnormal” herself. Secretly despising her gossipy high school clique, she is enthralled with a slick educational reformer (Kotaro Koizumi) who thrillingly talks to sold-out crowds about freeing students from rote learning.
Kasumi comes up with a scheme to help Yasuomi practice normality by befriending Minako Togawa (Rika Izumi), the reformer’s bride-to-be. Her goal is as clear as day to everyone but Yasuomi: get rid of a romantic rival. But her plans go awry when Yasuomi and Minako, the proper, strictly raised daughter of a wealthy businessman, start to hit it off.
The key to the film’s laughs is the interplay between Narita and Kiyohara as their characters’ teacher-student roles reverse — and it is flawless. Rattling off reams of dialogue (as in one long cut walking through a parking garage), they hit every comic note with precision and never a hint of strain.
Their relationship has some of the artificiality integral to the screwball genre — the feeling that the clever back-and-forth exists in a realm apart from real life — but they also reveal relatable weaknesses and pain. Yasuomi is not a cartoonish math wonk, but a self-aware human being who is afraid that if he doesn’t change, he’ll end up alone. Narita, a chameleon able to play both sides of the drama and comedy divide, brings this fear across with a sharpness that chills.
Nearly the same age as her character, Kiyohara more than holds her own, despite a shouty breakdown scene that seems to belong in another movie. With Narita, though, she is the perfect tsukkomi — the partner in a manzai comedy act that serves as perpetually peeved straight man.
So “You’re Not Normal, Either!” may not be so far out of the local cultural mainstream after all. But unlike the many Japanese comedies that play strictly to the domestic audience with Japan-specific gags, this one can cross borders with ease. It’s (imaginary) motto: Abnormals of the world unite!
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