The humble gag reel is not only a document of embarrassing flubs, it’s a privileged glimpse at the very essence of filmmaking.
About a month ago, for reasons I still can’t entirely explain, I watched New Year’s Eve, Garry Marshall’s latest A-lister gong show. The film was a dud. But I was desperate for distraction, so I made it all the way to the special features. And there was Marshall himself proselytizing on behalf of his pet cause: The gag reel, he said, is the reason he does movies.
Marshall was half joking. I’d argue that bloopers, those cast-offs relegated to end credits and DVD bonus menus, are entertainment at its purest and most elegant. The humble gag reel is not only a document of embarrassing flubs, it’s a privileged glimpse at the very essence of filmmaking.
You can gain insight into comic timing and precision, for instance, by parsing the many takes of Justin Theroux as the hippie cult leader in Wanderlust, spewing a dazzling array of metaphors to describe Paul Rudd’s wife’s vagina. And watching Channing Tatum maintain his composure after flubbing a line (“You want me to beat your dick off?”) in the 21 Jump Street outtakes will deepen your appreciation of the man’s acting talents.
Simplicity is the secret to a gag reel’s success. A few weeks back, rogue footage from The Avengers surfaced online. There were some great glimpses of Cobie Smulders mugging and Robert Downey Jr. being Robert Downey Jr., but most of the gaffes were predicated on how weird a CGI-heavy film looks when it’s just people waving their limbs in front of a green screen. Neat, but not all that funny.
Bloopers are awesome because they’re hilarious, and they’re hilarious because they invite us to witness celebrities with their guards fully down. To his credit, Marshall’s a master of capturing those elusive moments. Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey in hysterics during bleak scenes from Beaches? Ha! Julia Roberts unable to speak after taking a mouthful of freezing-cold ice cream in Pretty Woman? Ha! For all of the grandeur and polish in big-budget movies, there’s something far more timeless and magical about a series of mistakes.