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Leave Them Laughing: Dark Comedy Triumph

Leave Them Laughing is at its best when its comedy is darkest. Leave Them Laughing is at its best when its comedy is darkest.

Good comedy walks a fine line. Christopher Hitchens writes the following: “A rule of thumb with humor; if you worry that you might be going too far, you have already not gone far enough. If everybody laughs, you have failed.” Carla Zilbersmith, the subject of John Zaritsky’s documentary Leave Them Laughing, seems to get that rule of thumb and then some. Her self-deprecating jokes about her real life situation - slowing dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease - are heart-wrenching, but reveal a strong woman staying vibrant as she approaches the end of her life. And when they hit, the jokes are hilarious.

Leave Them Laughing follows comedian and singer Zilbersmith as her body deteriorates, and shows how she and her family, in particular her father and her son, Mac, cope with the tragedy introduced into their lives by illness. The film is told largely in Zilbersmith’s own voice through a series of video diary entries, and that voice is wry and sarcastic. So is her son’s, who is almost as funny as his mother, quipping, “Mom you look pretty good for someone who’s old and dying.”

Mac has learned well from his mom. When describing why she holds out hope that some of the world’s hottest men, in particular Johnny Depp, might have sex with her before she dies, she explains, “Until I’m completely paralyzed, technically I still qualify as anything that moves.”

A number of her jokes fall flat, too, but Zilbersmith is at her best when she is most shocking.

Zaritsky does a good job of letting Zilbersmith tell her own story, but at times his approach becomes sappy, which is at odds with his subject’s irreverence. In particular, the film’s soundtrack tends to be maudlin. In one scene where Zilbersmith speaks frankly and without her trademark cutting humor, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” plays in the background. If the filmmaker could have found something more trite, or discovered a method of drenching a moment in more kitsch, I can’t think of how.

Zilbersmith, a balladeer, is partially to blame, as much of her own music is used in the film. Her musical personality sometimes seems in direct opposition to her brash humor. But perhaps that’s merely a function of being a dynamic, intelligent, and unconventional person. Anyway, brief moments of poor filmmaking, like Zilbersmith’s occasional lame joke, aren’t enough to derail a stirring movie.

Overall, Leave Them Laughing creates a compelling portrait of a human being doing an exceptional job of both living and dying. Carla Zilbersmith’s humor is star of the show, and carries the film through some rough patches, much as it does for Zilbersmith and her family. But this isn’t your typical “healing power of laughter” type message. The jokes in the film are often as harsh as the disease destroying the woman telling them. But her strength to “rage against the dying of the light” is illuminated in every shocking punchline. And that attitude, above all, is truly inspirational.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 26 October 2010 19:40

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