A man sunk his life, financial safety and energy into PlayTime, and in return received little, if anything. His legacy was temporarily tarnished, but contemporary eyes have been far kinder to the work of Jacques Tati. Rightly so. His work here is by far the highlight of his career, the high point that blended his unique eye for comedy in detail and detail in comedy. It is here that the blend works best, a beautiful adventure with Monsieur Hulot takes us to the future of a consumerist Paris, where everything is fit to order and funded by bland corporations and grey suits inside drab buildings.
Much of the humour here comes from how out of place Tati feels. He is surrounded by characters and concepts he understands but rejects. Take the office building, for instance, a maze of identical-looking buildings that leads to the brilliant slapstick Tati could always rely on. His humour comes from timing, primarily, and the lack of dialogue makes it feel similar to that of Charlie Chaplin. Not quite similar, in the sense that their comedy styles varied and shot them to different areas of comedy, but the two overlap from time to time. It is the barely-audible protagonist who blunders his way through a series of events without so much as a scratch, when danger or death is seemingly around every corner.
It is that which Tati relies on. Hulot is a fool, but the man playing him isn’t too far from displaying his genius. Naturally, not all of the comedy works, and some sight gags will fly by to those paying less than intense attention, but that is the beauty of PlayTime. It has value in a rewatch, although not as much as the greats of the comedy genre. It is, for example, not as heavy on laughs as Airplane!, nor does it conform to any set variety. The sight gag and foolish, endearing hero can only take someone so far, but for Tati, it took him through an entire career. A final act that makes up the grand finale is the best example, though, of Tati’s brand of humour. He finds the comedy in the normal way of life, it is the act of adapting, or lack thereof, that he works with so well. Despite splashing the cash out on such a grand and intensely beautiful city with an incredibly strong set design, it is not here where most of the comedy lies.
Tati reminds us time and time again that Hulot is only as funny as the man portraying him. He was able to capture some of this magic again in the follow-up, Trafic, but the flow of that film was not as strong as PlayTime. Here, PlayTime has a very natural flow to it, and it always centres on Tati has he stumbles from room to room, waiting for something or someone to pounce upon him. That they do, and because of it, his audience are in for treat after treat. It is hard to talk specifics of this craft, other than the comedy that comes from the slight chuckles are soon expanded upon, especially in the final third. It is the style of the director that brings about this humour. His distaste for intimate, close-up shots paints a picture, rather than a reaction. Characters do react, but the event they are provoked by and the people that cause it are there for the moment of their panic. PlayTime is vivid, engaging, and, most crucial of all, funny.