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Friday, August 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Aristocrats": One big dirty joke, again, again and again

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The Aristocrats," a documentary by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette. 86 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains graphic language; no one under 18 admitted). Neptune, Meridian.

"I heard the joke," says Phyllis Diller, "and I fainted."

Well, maybe she hadn't had enough to eat that day. Don't expect to see too much fainting in the aisles at the adults-only screenings of "The Aristocrats," the documentary that's squeezed as much publicity as possible out of the fact that it features no sex, no violence, and a lot of very, very filthy language.

As you've undoubtedly heard, the film is essentially a parade of comedians (Robin Williams, Diller, Steven Wright, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Billy Connolly and many more) who face the camera and tell the same dirty joke, in many different ways.

The joke? Oh, you wouldn't want me to tell it; I wouldn't do it justice.

Anyway, supposedly it's a very old joke (though I couldn't help but wonder if the filmmakers made it up for the occasion) that involves a theatrical agent and a vaudeville act so repellently off-color it requires an entire documentary to analyze it, and an endless series of comedians eager to give its unexpected punch line their very own personal stamp. (Drew Carey insists that the punch line must be delivered with a cute little "ta-da" finger-snap at the end.)

And it's — did I mention this? — quite cheerfully and intentionally filthy, not to mention depraved, disturbed, repellent, offensive ...

Oh, sorry; I nodded off for a moment there. Here, alas, is the dirty little truth about "The Aristocrats": It's very funny, but it's also a bit dull. Director Paul Provenza gets more mileage from the joke than you might imagine, but it all gets old long before the movie's over. This is true for anything shocking: Once we're exposed to it for a while, it's not shocking any more.

And once the shock value's gone from "The Aristocrats," what's left are a series of variations on a can-you-top-this theme. You may find this hilarious — and I certainly did, some of it — or you may not, but it's not especially interesting.

The more the incest jokes and scatological jokes and sex jokes pile on, the more "The Aristocrats" starts to seem like a bunch of kids on the playground, competing to see who can gross each other out the most.

Peeking through is a more compelling idea that gets lost amidst all the filth: the tradition of yarn-spinning, of how comedians tailor stories to make them their own. (Wendy Liebman, who has a soft, polite style of delivery, tells a hilarious reverse version of the joke: The story is squeaky-clean, the punch line is suddenly and wonderfully profane.)

And there are, along the way, some reflections on the history of standup comedy from this film's talented cast that raise the film above the dirty-joke realm, just for a moment — then it's back to that long-suffering theatrical agent's office. After a while, you keep wondering — surely these people know some better jokes than this one.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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