Timing is everything, and when it comes to the mysterious quantum physics of comic timing, it’s really everything.
No moviegoer on the planet planned to buy into “The Avengers” for a lesson in light-fingered comic delicacies. It’s a machine, and in the 10-ton franchise genre, a pretty good one. Yet writer-director Joss Whedon’s machine contains one particularly funny sight gag, a capper to one of its many climactic battle sequences within the extended climax.
The bit involves the Hulk, his fellow superhero Thor and an unexpected punch. It’s not spoiling anything to tell you this. The joke is so quick and so shrewdly timed, you will not see it coming. The size of the laugh greeting that gag in weekend screenings was tidal — a lovely sound to hear when you’re seeing a movie with a crowd.
Timing is important even (or especially) in the middle of a noisy diversion. Allowing the audience a second or two to wonder what’s happening next — now there’s a valuable lesson in comedy as well as drama.
Often it isn’t about actors or acting at all. Think back to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Richard Dreyfuss is behind the wheel of his pickup. He parks. Nighttime. The camera has his face in foreground, a car pulls up behind him, he waves it past. Dreyfuss drives off to a new location by the railroad tracks. A second car appears behind the pickup, only this time it’s not a car, and instead of driving past it floats up and out of camera range.
It’s a perfect sight gag, timed with self-effacing brilliance and staged by director Steven Spielberg in such a way as to remind you he is among the very best of the very best commercial artists in any medium.
Timing can, must, be as precise as Peter Sellers on the dance floor with Shelley Winters in “Lolita,” moving like the coolest man in the room who has somehow ended up trapped in the body of the biggest clod in the room. In that same crafty minimalist mode, Dana Stevens of Slate says she adores the scene in “Midnight Run” in which Charles Grodin impersonates an FBI officer in a bar. The scene in question kills. Grodin’s vocal inflection on the line “You dye your hair?” is indescribably right, preceded and made golden by a pause of exquisite shape. Timing, folks. Timing.
Part of the pleasure of “The Five-Year Engagement,” currently in theaters, comes from watching two well-matched stars, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, finesse their scenes and play into the available laughs without running around after them with butterfly nets. Their styles are different, and Segel has a tendency to push. (Actors either have that tendency or the other one, to hang back ineffectively.) But their timing is excellent.
The biggest laugh to be heard in “The Avengers” arrives in the nick of time, as a tasty reward for having watched, dutifully, another imposing but protracted action scene. Bam. Pow. Timing. The moral? Wait a beat. Don’t wink. Set up the moment properly. Whether it’s Grodin in deadpan or a computer-animated Marvel taking it out on another computer-animated Marvel, the audience can be putty in the right hands.