10 Fantastic Comedies Based on True Stories

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You wouldn’t think that the cold-blooded murder of a defenseless old woman would make for big laughs, but that’s just one of the surprises found in Bernie, Richard Linklater’s wickedly enjoyable Texas comedy, out today on DVD and Blu-ray. And it’s all true — or, as the opening title card notes, “What you’re fixin’ to see is a true story.”

As the old saw goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and in ruminating about the pleasures of Bernie, we discovered that several of our favorite comedies were, in fact, based on real events. After the jump, a few thoughts on that film, and nine others based on (varying degrees of) true stories.

Bernie

Richard Linklater became fascinated by the case of Bernie Tiede, the East Texas funeral director who became the companion of rich widow Marjorie Nugent and then murdered her, when he read Skip Hollandsworth’s article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” in a 1998 issue of Texas Monthly. Linklater thought there was a movie in there, and even attended the Tiede trial in 1999. But he wanted to wait until the time was right to direct the movie, and realized while making School of Rock with Jack Black that he might have his Bernie, once he’d aged a few more years. Linklater wrote the script with Hollandsworth, and they cooked up an interesting format to tell the story: they found the townspeople of Carthage, Texas to be so interesting, their speech so colorful and colloquial, that they made the film a narrative/documentary hybrid, intermingling scenes of Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey with interviews of the townsfolk who knew the real people they were playing. The result is a frisky, funny, enjoyable picture that beautifully captures its very specific time and place.

American Splendor

Linklater was far from the first filmmaker to experiment with the coexistence of fictional and documentary forms in true comedy storytelling; back in 2003, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who both came from documentary backgrounds) adapted Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series into a feature film that not only cast actors like Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and Judah Friedlander, but had them occasionally share the screen with the real people they were playing. The resulting picture is equal parts ingenuity and entertainment, pulling the best qualities of fiction and non-fiction to tell a story that is funny, heartbreaking, and true.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic is one of the most widely performed stage comedies out there, and its 1944 film adaptation — directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant — is among our favorite screwball comedies. But, surprisingly enough, its tale of two eccentric elderly women who bump off lonely old bachelors was based on a real story. Amy Archer-Gilligan ran a convalescent home in Connecticut at the beginning of the 20th century, and offered a special payment plan wherein she would care for residents until their death for a flat fee of $1,000. Those who took her up on the offer found their deaths arriving sooner than they might’ve. The exact number of Archer-Gilligan’s victims is unknown — estimates run from as few as 20 to as many as 100 — and her story was (understandably) softened considerably for Joseph Kesselring’s play and Capra’s film. But it’s still a pretty dark little comedy, considering the era and all, with plenty of gallows humor and corpse-based silliness.

I Love You Phillip Morris

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa) wrote and directed this 1999 comic love story, based on the real exploits of Steven Jay Russell, a Texas con man with a gift for talking his way out of tight corners and escaping from authorities. He conned banks, convinced prison authorities he was dying, faked a heart attack to get out of scam, and did it all for love — the love of Phillip Morris, the fellow inmate he fell in love with. I Love You Phillip Morris tells Russell’s so-strange-it-must-be-true story with wide-eyed disbelief, nicely harnessing the comic energy (and helpful adaptability) of star Jim Carrey, who gives a flat-out terrific performance as Russell.

Catch Me If You Can

Con men have long held a fascination for moviemakers, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the real deals so often find their stories fueling films. Frank Abagnale Jr., who posed successfully as a pilot, a doctor, and a prosecutor, all the while kiting checks across the country, first told his story in his 1980 autobiography Catch Me If You Can. The film rights were snatched up immediately, but the project didn’t get off the ground until Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures picked it up in 1997, with Spielberg finally directing it in 2002. Staying true to its mid-‘60s style, Spielberg directs the picture in a loose, fizzy style that fits like a glove, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s quick-thinking counterfeiter bouncing nicely off the slow burns of Tom Hanks. It gets serious in the end — as these things so often do — but for much of its running time, Catch Me If You Can is a fast, funny, charming winner.

Ed Wood

As you may have noticed, we’re not exactly Tim Burton fans, but we’ll give the man his due: there was a time when his films were inventive, eccentric, and enjoyable, and there’s a pretty good chance that our favorite of them was his lively 1994 biopic Ed Wood. Working from a clever script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who made something of a specialty of offbeat biopics — they also wrote The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon), Burton had the masterstroke of crafting the story of the “world’s worst director” as though it were one of the man’s own films: in black and white, using his flat, straightforward style. It’s a brilliant idea, and it works; the film feels uniquely of that era, while the assortment of wonderful performers (Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, and an Oscar-winning Martin Landau) pull robust laughs without sneering at their characters.

Good Morning, Vietnam

Robin Williams had never really managed to find a big-screen vehicle that fully utilized both his dramatic and comedic skills until he was cast in Barry Levinson’s 1988 film, in which he played an Armed Forces Radio Service deejay in Saigon. The barely scripted radio bits allowed Williams the opportunity to improvise and play, doing something akin to his stand-up schtick; the scenes outside the studio placed his nonconformist character against military brass, trying to make sense of the “police action” around him. His character, Adrian Cronauer, was based on a real AFRS disc jockey, but you could politely say that the film took some liberties with his story; the real Cronauer, a “lifelong card-carrying Republican,” stayed well within the format boundaries, didn’t buck his commanding officers, and makes no claims to mirroring Williams’s on-air wit. So they played fast and loose with the facts, but you’ve got to admit: that sounds like a far less interesting movie.

It Could Happen To You

Originally titled “Cop Tips Waitress $2M,” in the style of the New York tabloids that became fascinated by the tale, Andrew Bergman’s 1994 romantic comedy was based on the story of Robert Cunningham and Phyllis Penzo, a cop and waitress (respectively) who split a New York lotto prize after cop Cunningham gave waitress Penzo half of his ticket in lieu of a tip. In the movie, that act is the first step towards a tender romance between the pair. In real life, not so much; both parties were happily married and stayed that way, telling Entertainment Weekly, “Except for the part about us winning, it’s totally fiction.” So this is another of those loosely based on a true story situations?

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Chuck Barris’s 1984 memoir Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was a bit of an oddity; branded an “unauthorized autobiography,” it found the Dating Game and Gong Show creator claiming to have worked as a CIA assassin in the 1960s and 1970s, using his television work as an elaborate cover to carry out hits abroad. It’s a claim that’s a little hard to buy (especially if you logged any time watching the man himself during his zonked-out Gong Show days), but the genius of George Clooney’s 2002 film adaptation is its unblinking belief — Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay tells the tale with a straight face, getting laughs from the incongruity of Chuck’s double life rather than broadly winking at his far-fetched narrative. For the record, the CIA insists that Barris never worked for them. “It’s ridiculous,” said CIA spokesman Paul Nowack, around the time of the film’s release. “It’s absolutely not true.” But that’s what is so brilliant about Barris’s story: what would you expect them to say?

Fargo

The Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winning 1996 dark comedy begins with the following text: “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Except, ha, ha, not really. The Coens have something of a sense of humor about matters of credit and credibility — for example, they not only edit their films together under the pseudonym “Roderick Jaynes,” but have written introductions to their screenplay books as Mr. Jaynes, a snooty, erudite type who looks down on their work. As far as the Fargo credit goes, the story has some basis in fact — a 1986 murder-by-woodchipper in Connecticut. But the “true story” text was an outright fib; as the debunking site Snopes notes, “nothing so much as vaguely resembling the level of carnage had ever occurred in Minnesota. Not in 1987. Not ever.” And, as they further point out, Fargo ends with the standard “all persons fictitious” disclaimer. It’s almost as if the Coens placed it there to give their story more credibility — as if people were inherently more interested in a story because they thought it was true. Where would they get that idea?

Those are some of our favorite true-story comedies — what are yours? Let us know in the comments!