10 of the Best Highbrow Comedies on Film


On this day back in 1978, Annie Hall beat out Star Wars for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, proving that audiences still had a taste for highbrow jokes over lightsabers. The clever, and often heartbreaking, film contains some of Allen’s best writing.

“Woody Allen’s Annie Hall explores new dimensions of the persona Allen has constructed in movies, on the stage, and even in a comic strip,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1977 review. “We’re all familiar by now with ‘Woody,’ the overanxious, underachieving intellectual with the inept social life. We’ve watched him develop from bits in a stand-up comedy routine to a fully developed comic character in the tradition of Chaplin’s tramp or Fields’s drunk. We know how ‘Woody’ will act in so many situations that we’re already laughing before the punch line. Maybe nobody since Jack Benny has been so hilariously predictable.”

Here are ten other highbrow comedies on film in the vein of Allen’s movie.

Annie Hall

Marshall McLuhan, an intellectual icon and the world’s most famous English teacher who gifted the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” to Timothy Leary, made an appearance in Woody Allen’s 1977 comedy for the movie theater scene. Allen’s Alvy Singer pulls the kind of card we wish we had during an argument with a snobby Columbia professor.

Dr. Strangelove

The “precious bodily fluids” joke in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove about America’s fear of fluoridation was a real thing. Kubrick took a leftist jab at far-right organizations like the John Birch Society, which opposed fluoridation during the 1950s, taking the opposition to the extreme.

The Man with Two Brains

The title of this 1983 Carl Reiner film sums up Steve Martin’s comedic style. The actor, who is an avid art collector, musician, playwright, and author, combines highbrow intellectual puns with low-brow slapstick humor.

Some Like It Hot

This list could contain all of Billy Wilder’s films for their snappy wordplay, sardonic style, and fast-paced repartee. From Roger Ebert’s 2000 review of the film:

Wilder’s 1959 comedy is one of the enduring treasures of the movies, a film of inspiration and meticulous craft, a movie that’s about nothing but sex and yet pretends it’s about crime and greed. It is underwired with Wilder’s cheerful cynicism, so that no time is lost to soppiness and everyone behaves according to basic Darwinian drives. When sincere emotion strikes these characters, it blindsides them: Curtis thinks he wants only sex, Monroe thinks she wants only money, and they are as astonished as delighted to find they want only each other.

Duck Soup

Read Geoff Andrew on the anarchic style of the Marx Brothers in their 1933 movie:

I’d argue that there are two things that make Duck Soup the best of the Marx Brothers’ movies. First, while all of their films delight in taking potshots at figures of authority, Duck Soup is even more irreverent – and more substantial – in its satire in that it mocks militarism, politicians and patriotism.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Few filmmakers portray life’s misfortunes with the same tenderness and beauty as our happiest moments like Wes Anderson. The filmmaker captures the complexities of the human condition, with the twee turned up. J. Hoberman writes about Anderson’s style in The Royal Tenenbaums:

Anderson’s admiration for Preston Sturges and Jean Renoir is evident in his ambitious orchestration of the Tenenbaum ensemble. But the movie also has the homey, familiar quality of the Sunday funnies . . . . Throughout, the Tenenbaum house is shown as a series of cozy dens—each consecrated to a particular individual. More droll than uproarious, albeit stuffed with off-speed gags and surprising one-liners throughout, the humor is similarly predicated on character. Anderson has an abracadabra sense of timing—his nerdy magic realism is enlivened by shock non sequiturs. He loves to populate the frame with unexpected types; he’s a humanist, although not everyone will be equally amused by the deadpan duplicity of Royal’s diminutive South Asian sidekick, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana).

Bringing Up Baby

The 1938 screwball comedy classic by Howard Hawks demonstrates the filmmaker’s unpretentious, but smart approach to comedy with an emphasis on wordplay, physical gags, and visual flair.

Being John Malkovich

A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads him right into the head of actor John Malkovich in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich — in which critic Ed Gonzalez believes all roads lead back to the movie’s primate star, a chimp named Elijah:

When puppeteer Craig (John Cusack) locks his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) inside her chimpanzee Elijah’s cage, this perpetuates all sorts of separation anxieties. Elijah’s recollection of his parents’ kidnapping is at once devastating and hysterical (truly the only one of its kind) but it’s no non sequitur-Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay is a rich tapestry of interconnected wavelengths, both conscious and subconscious, and this monkey is very much part of its complex existential formula. Or, more accurately, the monkey seems to be part of the script’s existential solution. If it looks safe inside Elijah’s cage that’s because the monkey’s relationship to Lotte is the only one in the film that’s pure-it neither hinges on sexual gratification nor is it permitted by an altered state. While everyone is contemplating ways of transcending the reality of their mortality via infinite tunnels of existential highs, you may ask, “Why doesn’t anyone try to Be Elijah?”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

When going for highbrow, get literary and add a Hamlet reference.

Inherent Vice

A stoner film for the highbrow literary crowd. Here’s why The Guardian feels Thomas Pynchon was made for the movies:

In Pynchon’s case, there is a particular melancholy to the long wait, since few postwar authors’ novels are so saturated with cinema. His books are not only obviously produced by an obsessive film buff (as evidenced by one wry recurring trick, the dates in brackets that follow even citations of celluloid ephemera), they often seem to want to be movies, as shown by another signature device, the way his protagonists – from the 1890s European spies and 1950s New Yorkers in the interwoven narratives of his debut, V. in 1963, all the way to Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge in 2013 – break anti-naturalistically into song like characters in musicals.