'30 Minutes Or Less' And The Problem Of Tragedy As Comedy The new comedy 30 Minutes Or Less is causing some controversy among those who know a story to which it bears an unsettling resemblance. But when is it okay to base black comedies on things that would be tragedies if they were true?

'30 Minutes Or Less' And The Problem Of Tragedy As Comedy

Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari star in 30 Minutes Or Less, which bears an unsettling resemblance to an awful real-life incident. Sony Pictures hide caption

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Sony Pictures

Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari star in 30 Minutes Or Less, which bears an unsettling resemblance to an awful real-life incident.

Sony Pictures

The comedy 30 Minutes Or Less, which opens this week, tells the story of a pizza delivery guy who is attacked by criminals and has a bomb strapped to his chest. He's ordered to rob a bank, under threat that if he doesn't, the bomb will explode. He's played by Jesse Eisenberg; his wacky friend is played by Aziz Ansari.

Maybe you think that's a funny premise; maybe you don't. Bumbling criminals are certainly not a new development in comedy, from kidnappers in films like Raising Arizona and Ruthless People to the brutal murderers in the at least partially comic Fargo.

But what's causing some controversy surrounding 30 Minutes Or Less is that as bizarre as this premise sounds, there was, in fact, a pizza delivery guy by the name of Brian Wells who wound up robbing a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest, which he insisted had been put there at gunpoint. It exploded while the police were waiting at a safe distance for the bomb squad to arrive, and it killed him.

Wired magazine wrote a lengthy piece about the case in December, explaining how authorities later concluded that Wells had originally been a part of the conspiracy to rob the bank, but believed the bomb wouldn't be real — in short, that he was double-crossed by his co-conspirators. Wells' family strongly disagrees and says he was entirely an innocent victim.

In either case, Wells' sister takes exception to the film, and she told the Associated Press it was "hard for [her] to grasp" how anyone could make a comedy out of such a tale. Similarly, an FBI agent who was there when the bomb killed Wells called it "difficult for [him] to comprehend." The filmmakers acknowledge that they were, as they say, "vaguely familiar" with the story, but that they didn't base the film on it specifically.

It's easy to sympathize with the family; how could you not feel horrified at such a bizarre manner of death being played for laughs? While the film may not end with an explosion and a death, there are certainly enough similar details to create the impression that this is, in fact, a comedic take on a horrifying story.

Again, though, there are a lot of comedies that are based on premises that wouldn't be anything like humor if they really happened. Not just the kidnappings and the murderers and the botched robberies of modern film, but even something like O.Henry's "The Ransom Of Red Chief," about a kidnapping of a child so obnoxious his parents might just let him stay kidnapped, would be a horror show if it were real.

In a sense, every black comedy about a murder makes light of every murder; every black comedy about a kidnapping makes light of every kidnapping. Bank-robber comedies are legion — in 1990's Quick Change, Bill Murray was a bank robber literally dressed as a clown. But people do really die in bank robberies, and their families also seem likely to suffer some considerable misery over encountering that as a comedic idea, even without the details being similar. (It's worth noting that there are many moments played for laughs in Dog Day Afternoon, a 1975 Al Pacino film that was also based on the story of a real bank robbery that ended very badly.)

But here's a question: Is it any worse to take real tragedies and make them into comedies than it is to take real tragedies and make their general outlines into slick, cynical, by-the-numbers action films, which happens all the time? Rapes and murders and war fatalities and brutal victimizations of all kinds — things that happen to real people in real situations — regularly make their way into films that are sold not for laughs but for cheap thrills, which seems like it might be even worse. If 30 Minutes Or Less weren't a comedy but a formulaic action film in which a down-on-his-luck bomb-squad technician played by Ben Affleck successfully defused the device and saved the life of the purported robber, would that be better? Would the family or the agent be as bothered and baffled by the monetizing of the story's excitement as they are by the monetizing of its weirdness?

It's an old saying — sometimes attributed to Carol Burnett or Mel Brooks or Woody Allen or someone else — that comedy equals tragedy plus time; that eventually, everything can become funny. Sometimes, you don't even need the "time" part if the comedy is good enough. (See: The Onion, staff members of which have talked about this very equation.) What's nightmarish and what's hilarious are close cousins, from dark comedies about bloodshed all the way down to seeing a model fall on the runway.

But it does create a trickier question when it seems like a goofy buddy film is borrowing facts from a family's misery. Most of the people who see the movie may well not have ever heard of Brian Wells, and others will know the rough outlines but not the details or the ending. And of those who do, some will think it's tacky and some won't.

Here's a question: What do you think?