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I suppose that any film's success or failure comes down to the distance between idea and ability. In the case of the Canadian documentary Laughology it becomes painfully apparent early on that this is a film with a great driving concept, but the wrong person putting it together.
Apparently prompted by the dual entrance of tragedy (a father's illness) and happiness (the birth of his daughter) in his life, journalist Albert Nerenberg decided to seek out the origins of human laughter. The sadness of death had caused him to lose his ability to laugh, but his four-month-old had developed the capacity for giggling all on her own. How, though, if she hadn't been able to learn it from her old man's example?
Laughology tackles a lot of interesting concepts: what might have constituted the first laugh and whether laughter exists in the animals kingdom; Inuit laughing games as a coping mechanism for harsh weather; professional sitcom laughers; laughing as a natural healer; and a man christened the world's most contagious laugher. (Turns out, his own chortle turns him on, creating something akin to a giggling feedback loop.) Nerenberg also explores less interesting topics, such as laugh yoga, laughing parties, and a Christian pastor who encourages laughing in his congregation. The more informative Laughology is, the better; the more trendy the topic, the more shallow the program feels.
Where poor execution really comes in, however, is in how Nerenberg tells his own story. Clumsy reenactments of his life, alongside his stilted narration (and his seeming inability to ever tighten his ever-present tie), make Laughology look amateurish. There are also bad sequences where people dressed as cavemen demonstrate primitive guffaws and other bits that, frankly, seemed faked. Not just the endless parade of staged clips of people snickering, but conveniently contrived moments that Nerenberg uses to prove his point. Maybe they are real, I don't know. It could be that I was so put off by Nerenberg's ungainly screen presence, I christened him an unreliable narrator and thus couldn't pick up any of what he was laying down.
It seems like the one thing a documentary about laughter shouldn't be is boring, but even at a short sixty minutes, Laughology couldn't hold my attention. I'd be interested in seeing much of this same program if it were re-edited into a more serious special (ironically enough), but as it stands, Laughology doesn't really cut it. If it weren't for Doug Collins and his irresistible tittering, I wouldn't have even laughed once myself during this whole documentary, and that alone constitutes a big fail.
Laughology was produced for Canadian television and put together at 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The DVD transfer is crisp and the image is of regular broadcast quality.
The basic audio mix sounds fine, like a standard television news program. The soundtrack is clear with no glitches.
There are no subtitles or Closed Captioning.
In addition to a trailer for Laughology, there are five extra scenes focusing specifically on participants in the movie and giving them more time to share their ideas. So, more footage with the Laughing Yogi, two more segments with the "laugh doctor" Dr. Kataria, some extra sit-down time with scholar Robert Provine, and more with the neurologist Sophie Scott and her studying the contagious laughter of Doug Collins.
Skip It. Laughology is well intentioned but poorly delivered. This short exploration of the history of laughing and the positive effects it has on our lives is interesting about half the time, boring the rest, and never really very funny itself. The director and star Albert Nerenberg's placement of himself at the center of this film doesn't work, and his amateurish reenactments undercut the integrity of the information he brings together. Laughology is a bust.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.