' ' Cinema Romantico: Death of the Spoof Movie?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Death of the Spoof Movie?

I still remember it. A typical midwestern summer night in Iowa full of frightening thunderstorms and weathermen yapping about potential tornados. It was the mid-80's and so I was still quite young and it was past my bedtime but since the possibility of our family having to flee to the basement was imminent we all gathered in the living room and waited out the sound of wailing sirens. Perhaps to calm our nerves the TV before us was switched to a showing of the movie "Airplane!" while my dad kept his trusty weather radio in hand for any updates. The sirens never sounded but if they had I'm not sure I would have gone downstairs. I was completely hooked on who did or did not "have fish for dinner" and was laughing my youthful ass off.

Despite my raves for one song from last year's "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" the movie as a whole - a spoof of all the recent music biopics - left me indifferent directly regarding the movie itself. It had a few amusing moments, but certainly not a plethora of them. Not even a good deal of them. Nope, just a few. It often seemed more concerned with choosing actors for cameos and making sure the audience knew about the inanity of select plot points from "Walk the Line" then with being funny on its own terms. This is one of the most recent old school spoof movies and with it failing to deliver so often it begs the question, is the spoof movie dead?

If you're a kid of the 80's you grew up with spoof movies. Team ZAZ (i.e. David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker) and the famed Mel Brooks were the Chaplin and Keaton of the spoof movie movement. The aforementioned "Airplane!" and "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and the first two installments of "The Naked Gun". Yes, I can also recall my mom, my sister, and I watching the first "Naked Gun" and rewinding over and over and over the part where Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) slaps the wheelchair bound Nordberg (O.J. Simpson, and I'm not saying anymore about his presence in these movies) on the back and unwittingly sends him cascading down the baseball stadium staircase where he hits the railing and flies into the air.

Outside of perhaps the first "Austin Powers" movie, however, the spoof genre hit a stone wall in the 90's. There have been those to claim that "Scary Movie" revitalized the genre, though for reasons unknownst to me. I didn't think it was anywhere near as clever as its forefathers and it was a franchise that proceeded to batter itself into the ground with poor sequels while spawning a lot of crappy imitators like "Epic Movie" and "Date Movie" which led to the recent debacle "Meet the Spartans".

Again I ask, is the spoof movie dead? And what made the spoof movie so great in its prime?

Let's address the second question first. The early spoof movies (especially in the case of Team ZAZ) operated by the philosophy that by throwing as many jokes at you as humanly possible would cover up any of those that did not work. 1 joke every 3.2 seconds means more will hit than miss. Brooks' early movies did not have quite that same velocity but they made up for that with more elegantly structured jokes (yes, even the bean farts). The primary problem with the recent spate of spoof movies is the prevaling notion that one can simply take the movie and scenes from that movie you're spoofing and insert them into your own film and all by themselves they will be humorous. Uh, no. Doesn't work that way.

"Airplane!" set out to primarily lampoon films like "Airport" while also working in spoofs of films such as "Saturday Night Fever" and "The Godfather" but that wasn't its only intent. It spruced everything up with its own absurd ideas, things like Kareem Abdul Jabbar masquerading as co-pilot Roger Murdock only to come clean to little Bobby that, yes, he really is Kareem Abdul Jabbar or Robert Stack walking out of the mirror. "Blazing Saddles" took aim on westerns but I don't recall any western ever featuring a black sheriff pulling his gun on himself and putting it to his own head. A memorable passage from "The Naked Gun 2 1/2" has villain Robert Goulet introduce "the Redmonds', weekend guests from out of town" and then the movie allows the Redmonds' to still be present in the next shot. And consider this exchange from Abrahams' 1991 "Top Gun" spoof "Hotshots!":

"Holy cow! My cap blew off! Swing around, we'll pick it up."
"Sir, we're on the mission."
"Good thinking. We'll pick it up on the way back. We've gotta' mark the spot, though. Put Rubinowitz in a life raft and have him row in circles until we return."
"It could be days."
"Then put some food in the life raft. For god's sake, man, do I have to think of everything? We'll tape his favorite shows, he won't miss anything."

I'm reasonably certain if you watch "Top Gun" you find an exchange or scene resembling the above one in any way. It's their own, they brought something to the table, they gave the film its own unique spin. Lloyd Bridges' Admiral Tug Benson was a wholly original character, not just a character taken from one film and put in another. Are current filmmakers just too lazy? Not inventive enough? Or is it simply that the spoof movie has met its inglorious demise?

I think not. The great new hope for the spoof movie comes from across the ocean, England's Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the two dudes who brought us "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" - hilarious takes on the zombie and action genres, respectively. These are guys who know their source material - frontwards and backwards - but they don't use it as a crutch. They use earlier films as a jumping off point but make movies that are entirely their own. They don't deviate from their structure to fire off endless zingers and gags at us - to wit, "Hot Fuzz" actually builds to its third act which is off-the-charts funny. Perhaps they're not laugh-a-second but their restraint allows for bigger laughs when the jokes do arrive.

I don't think the spoof movie is dead. I think it's just become something else. And it needs to not try and be what it was anymore.


Wretched Genius said...

I also site Wright & Pegg as the future of the spoof genre, though I do think Apatow's contributions are amusing. I enjoyed Walk Hard, and thought it's success was attributable to the fact that it embraced the cliches of its source material rather than superficially mocking them (which is all the current trend of [Insert Name of Film Genre] Movie spoofs are doing).

Anonymous said...

Walk Hard was disappointing. I thought it was going to be much, much better than it was. Yes, the songs were funny, and the overreaction of the crowds. But everyone seemed to be playing in a melodrama. Melodramas can be very fun, but Leslie Nielsen was never in a melodrama. Even when he was mugging at the camera, he seemed to be a normal guy in an absurd situation. The line "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley," would have been butchered by any comic actor today. There would have been a little smirk in the corner of his or her mouth, with that little understanding that it was a joke. Leslie Nielsen could have kept a straight face through any line. He may not have believed it, but his characters always did. Of course, now he's in the "Scary Movie" franchise wall of shame, so I just don't know what to believe in anymore.