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  • Film, Comedy, and Disability: Understanding Humour and Genre in Cinematic Constructions of Impairment and Disability by Alison Wilde
  • Michael Epp (bio)
Film, Comedy, and Disability: Understanding Humour and Genre in Cinematic Constructions of Impairment and Disability. By Alison Wilde. New York: Routledge, 2018. 196 pp.

This book is published in Routledge's Interdisciplinary Disability Studies series, which seeks to extend "interdisciplinary dialogue between disability studies and other fields by asking how disability studies can influence a particular field" (ii). Although this goal is a challenging and important one, unfortunately, Film, Comedy, and Disability adds little to our [End Page 224] understanding of humor or to what happens when disability and comedy meet in film. Although the book's goals are worthy and meaningful, a disappointing cautiousness and hesitancy characterizes much of the research, limiting the potential of the book to offer valuable insights into a nexus that surely fascinates anyone interested in humor studies and anyone interested in disability and film. While a chapter on the gross-out genre in film (focusing on the work of the Farrelly brothers) makes a real contribution to our understanding of the genre, much of the book is likely of little use to scholars in humor studies or in disability studies.

In seeking to understand the cultural, material, and historical generativity of film, comedy, and disability, the book sets itself a timely and admirable goal. In addition, the effort to "improve representations in film and wider media" (1), offering not only analysis but also a way forward, is characteristic of the best scholarship. The theoretical point of departure is necessarily representation given the subject of the book, and here Wilde gestures to the immediate and familiar political problem of how efforts to improve representations might avoid simplistic "value-driven assertions about 'good' and 'bad' portrayals of disability" and in turn avoid "mechanistic solutions" such as those commonly put forward in the 1990s and 2000s (2). Humor studies and humor theory are very familiar with these problems and continue to grapple with them today. Crucially, the book does not engage with much humor scholarship, and American humor studies in particular is given short shrift. The book's effort to engage with "new representational forms and challenges to normalcy" (20) would certainly have benefited from a more profound engagement with the existing discipline and offered more opportunity for a productive interdisciplinarity.

One of the book's main efforts is to interrogate genre, "contending that an understanding of how genres evolve, and the development of specific tropes and modes of address within them, will illuminate the shifting conditions of possibility for representations of impairment and disability" (56). To this end, Wilde provides lengthy and detailed summaries and analyses of romantic comedies in particular. Although the book does not engage meaningfully with theories of genre (such as those of Fredric Jameson), its main contribution is probably its analysis of romantic comedy and gross-out films, including dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and impairment. Its readings of films such as Me Before You, The Lobster, and films of the Farrelly brothers are a bit labored, but they do provide rewarding [End Page 225] analyses of how representations of disability as funny can rarely be reduced to a simple bad-good dichotomy (except when they can). The conclusion that the Farrelly brothers' "body of work has combined critical deconstructions of conventional disability stereotypes with gross-out strategies in ways which have tested the film industry's acceptance of representational change" (128) is an intriguing one and indeed a useful one for humor scholars seeking to understand what happens when humor and disability meet.

The book concludes by summarizing its contributions "to debates on, and ideas for, representational change" (151), stressing that "it is clear that comedy has played a leading role in the debates about political correctness and should be regarded as a valuable tool in the telling of disabled people's lives" (159). The caution and hesitancy of the claim about comedy indexes the missed opportunity in the book. That comedy is valuable in many ways is a banal starting point for analysis, not a conclusion, and its status here as a tool relies on...