There are two kinds of two kinds of comedy. No, that’s not a misprint. The first duality is between small, sharp, arthouse or subversive black comedy like “Life of Brian” and clever commercial comedy like “The Simpsons”. They’re both good, the writing in both among the highest quality in the genre.
The second spectrum covers comedy that treats its audience with smarts and respect – like both the above examples – versus the sort of crap they bring out at regular intervals to part easily-pleased adolescents from their money. Placing “The Office”, Woody Allen and “Dr Strangelove” in the same genre is almost an insult.
The latest offering from ‘2 of the six writers of the “Scary Movie” films’, as their last abortive attempt to be funny was marketed, “Epic Movie” uses the same modus operandi the spoof genre has enjoyed since it was born in 1980 with the Zucker brothers’ “Airplane”. It lines up a handful of popular movies and lambasts them the way we all do when it’s late on the weekend and there’s been too much beer and pizza at the DVD party.
But as many spoof comedies have proven since the Zucker brothers lost their touch, there’s a reason those sorts of jokes shouldn’t leave the party – they’re not all that funny.
All the effective parody takes place in the first half hour, after which the laughs either dry up or descend into puerile sniggers as the film leaves the broad swipes behind to enter the second act, trying to advance the story to keep the film from getting boring.
A good example is the “Da Vinci Code” send-up of the ultraviolet light message scrawled across the Mona Lisa. Instead of the Dan Brown-penned tagline ‘So Dark the Con of man’, the message is ‘So Lame the Hair of Tom’, and we cut to a portrait of Tom Hanks and his much-derided hairstyle from Ron Howard’s adaptation.
It’s the sort of thing that’s clever in and of itself, but would be far more suited to a series of short vignettes. The common problem with a lot of film comedies is the running time; 90 minutes is a long time for one joke and it soon turns stale. The “South Park” and “Mr Bean” movies both suffered from jokes that suited far shorter formats, and it’ll be interesting to see how “The Simpsons Movie” fares.
Where most films are edited down to a presentable form, you get the distinct feeling “Epic Movie’s” original script ran far short and a mad scramble to shoehorn mini-skits into the running time to pad things out ensued. Most are in the form of the same tired hip-hop parodies you see in every silly comedy made by young white Jewish kids (recall the ‘Jive’ subtitles of “Airplane”), and as they frequently run to several minutes, the script has no choice but to try and insert jokes within jokes, the jokes within jokes with jokes.
There’s just one problem; this curious structure as “Epic Movie” goes off on ever-greater tangents will be lost on most of the audience, not having found the first joke funny and sitting for increasingly long stretches waiting to laugh.
The parody is not a bad genre, as the early Zucker films showed us. It’s just been put in the control of bad filmmakers, from the Wayans’ brothers to Seltzer and Friedberg, whose idea of laughs is frat house toilet humour. Ironically (and sadly), even the Zuckers themselves couldn’t scale their old heights when bought back to helm the “Scary Movie” franchise.
Undoubtedly, “Epic Movie” will find its target audience of guffawing, popcorn-throwing teenagers. But there’s no rulebook that says spoofs need to be lazy and moronic. Seltzer and Friedberg could have used the same premise to make a smart, adult send-up. If they did, they’d find themselves very much in demand and thinking adults would reclaim one of the great institutions of the comedy genre.