Recently, I saw an advertisement for the upcoming fil…uh…motion picture “Epic Movie.” For the unaware, it’s yet another all-encompassing spoof from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the same no-talent hacks who gave us Scary Movie, Scary Movie 2, Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie 4, Date Movie, and Spy Hard (I’m still trying to figure out why that one wasn’t “Spy Movie.” Guess they hadn’t derived the winning formula yet).
As of right now, Date Movie has a 2.7 rating on IMDB and 7% Rotten Tomato rating, one of the worst of 2006. Even though they had decent talent at their disposal (Fred Williard, Alyson Hannigan, Eddie Griffin, and Jennifer Coolidge), a respectable budget, and two decades worth of god-awful clichéd romantic comedy to work with, they bombed big time.
And yet they’re allowed to insult our intelligence again.
I already know this movie is going to absolutely, positively suck. I don’t have to watch the whole thing. After all, I just saw a trailer where a Magneto-like archvillain stands ready to fight a battle when – gasp – his suit attracts a bunch of metal. In the beginning, a woman eagerly opens a mysterious dresser in the middle of a room when – hardy flippin’ har – a bunch of items falls on her head. In the brief 30-second clip, they made fun of Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Superman, and, well, every other movie made in the last 5 years.
The thing is, to get any of the humor, you have to have actually seen the movie they’re spoofing. Why is it funny when a man wears magnetic armor unless you know that they’re referring to X-Men? Or the Wardrobe/Narnia spoof? The problem with their movies – indeed, most modern spoof films – is that “getting” the humor is not only dependent on getting the joke, but also dependent on actually seeing all the films in question. By the time it registers in the person’s brain what film they’re spoofing, the viewer often figures out the joke ahead of time due to the nature of the film.
This kills the comedy. Worse, films like Scary Movie, Date Movie, and – I’m sure – Epic Movie have no value on their own, that is, they have no fleshed characters, plot lines, or even jokes that are funny without the understanding of pop culture. Furthermore, modern spoof films completely miss the fact that you cannot have effective spoof unless there’s something serious to oppose it against.
To make my point, let us examine two classic films: Airplane! and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Airplane! is a direct spoof of melodramatic airplane crisis dramas like Airport, Airport 1975, and Airport ’77. I have seen none of those films, but Airplane! is still hilarious. There’s no pausing to think what movie they’ve moved on to spoofing now. The jokes are funny in their own right. The premise works on its own. Better yet, the premise and characters have real motivations and depth that’s strikingly similar to that which would be in a dramatic movie. Ted Striker has demons in his past that he has to overcome. Elaine loves him but wonders about his problems. People’s lives are actually at stake in a very real setting. That deathly serious backdrop that allows the spoof to be so much funnier.
No one understood this better than Terry Gilliam. When he co-directed Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, he mandated that the settings look entirely realistic, blood, grime, squalor, and all. Doing so actually creates a plausible setting into which the viewer can let their mind roam. If the mystical “4th Wall” remains mostly in tact, it can be an actual experience where the watcher accepts that environment and it’s rules instead of reality. However, when there is no “4th Wall,” and the world on the screen has no consistency or seriousness and is just an amalgamation of pop culture references, the viewer simply cannot do this; the world is nothing more than an extension of mundane life, and the actors are not deep characters with independent motivations, but rather people in the real world who are behaving stupidly.
In Holy Grail, the knights really do want to find the Grail. King Arthur is serious even though the God who told him to go on his mission was made of paper. The jokes are timed in order to contrast with the setting. Notice at the beginning where there is a thick, dark mist with the title over, and you hear the horse’s hooves as if it were a Shakespearean drama. What if the director had cut directly to two men slapping coconuts together. Would it be as funny? Not in a million years.
This is what I mean when I speak of the lost art of the spoof. Few in Hollywood over the last 25 years have actually understood how to make fun of something in film form. That’s how sad it’s gotten.
See, there is a potential for a film like Epic Movie. The problem is that you can’t just mash 50 worlds together, make some pop culture references, and expect it to work. Part of being a comedy writer is resisting that juvenile urge to make everything as stupid as possible.
Unfortunately, I know they won’t do it right. It’s too bad, because when it’s done right, nothing is funnier than a spoof. When it’s done poorly, almost nothing is worse.