Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The pointlessness of mocking that which is already inherently funny or which has already been parodied incessantly by others is pretty much self-evident but don’t tell that to filmmakers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer who’ve been ignoring that axiom rather lucratively for the better part of a decade. Their particular brand of generic plain-wrap satire seen in such films as Date Movie Epic Movie and Disaster Movie (I’m still waiting for them to parody themselves with Movie Movie but that might be a bit too meta) still holds a firm foothold over the shrinking yet nonetheless significant segment of the movie-watching audience that lacks broadband access to the internet where better parodies can be found in abundance on such sites as funnyordie.com or colleghumor.com or even among the amateur offerings on YouTube.
Their latest effort Vampires Suck has them taking on the current vampire-obsessed zeitgeist with a special emphasis placed on the Twilight franchise. Stephenie Meyers’ teen vampire saga is the Jenna Jameson of parody targets already ravaged every which way and from every angle and yet always ripe for another impaling.
And so it’s time for Friedberg and Seltzer’s ride on Twilight’s community bicycle ragged and worn as its seat may be and they predictably skewer its chaste melodrama with their trademark blend of lowbrow slapstick and obvious puns many of which involve little more than the switching of a few letters in a word: Twilight’s setting of Forks Washington is re-christened Sporks; its heroine Bella Swan becomes Becca Crane (newcomer Jenn Proske impressively mimicing Kristen Stewart's famously twitchy demeanor); her vampiric boyfriend Edward Cullen becomes Edward Sullen (Matt Lanter) Jacob Black becomes Jacob White (Christopher N. Riggi) and the Volturi become the Zolturi. Scattered about are similarly uninspired pokes at other pop-culture phenomena including Gossip Girl The Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Vampires Suck’s hit-to-miss joke ratio averages around one in five just below the Mendoza Line but still better than the average re-run of King of Queens. Which I fear is more than enough for some lazy studio exec to greenlight still more stale Friedberg and Seltzer collaborations. I can only assume 3D Movie is already in the pipeline.
To say that Meet the Spartans is a spoof of 300 is to suggest that there is some semblance of a storyline mocking that the 2007 blockbuster epic; I refuse to give it that much credit. Rather this movie is a lame-ass excuse to randomly throw jabs at pop culture and in extreme emergencies “advance” the “plot”--which only really makes fun of 300’s subtexts not its story. It all starts in ancient Sparta where a young Leonidas (Sean Maguire) is groomed to defeat the evil Xerxes (Ken Davitian “the fat guy from Borat ” which is essentially how the movie introduces him) and the invading Persians (led by Method Man). But really Spartans is all about the atrociously unfunny parodies that litter its not-brief-enough 80 minutes: Transformers Stomp the Yard Happy Feet American Idol Dancing with the Stars Ugly Betty Anna Nicole Britney Paris homosexuality bodily functions--they’re all spoofed here! A truly groundbreaking concept indeed. Formerly up-and-coming British actor Maguire (England's EastEnders) must’ve thought a lead role no matter how bad the movie would beget bigger jobs in the near future. Oops! Didn’t he ever hear of Adam Campbell the like-minded bloke whose biggest role since headlining Date Movie was last year’s Epic Movie? In short actors looking to break out should not be tempted by crap like this. It’s the same story: Maguire can obviously act but he makes a complete fool of himself in the process and now must give his career time to recover. He only bears a slight physical resemblance to the actor he’s parodying Gerard Butler (when heavily bearded) and otherwise spends the movie uttering the worst possible lines when not subjecting himself to scenes so mortifying that they’re like some kind of Fear Factor for Actors. Elsewhere the usual D-listers pop up for a shot at regaining quasi-relevance. Carmen Electra now a veteran of this franchise--lucky her!--plays Leonidas' wife and is leaned on for nothing more than her hotness. Which is more than can be said about everyone else from a clearly desperate-for-work Kevin Sorbo (Andromeda) as one of Leonidas’ ‘yes’ men to Method Man whose heretofore-horrible film résumé just got worse. Whereas Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s Scary/Epic/Date Movie spoofs might’ve bore the “this probably wasn’t as easy to come up with as it seems” tag Spartans looks like something from a script they found in the garbage can at a middle school: Not only is it pure trash unworthy of being released but the “jokes ” if you will were seemingly written by and for 13- to-14-year-olds. Not one second of the movie is even implicitly deserving of a snicker; instead it’s actually antagonizing to watch as Friedberg and Seltzer bombard us with scene after scene of the shallowest material ever committed to celluloid. This is the absolute dreg of cinema the lowest of the low not to be confused with “lowbrow ” which would be an unfair compliment in this case. Spartans even fails miserably in trying to make fun of the few pop-culturisms that deserve it and the least the writer-directors could’ve done was hire actors who physically resemble the celebs they’re spoofing! Friedberg and Seltzer are just utterly allergic to originality: Obviously you don’t expect the story to be original since it’s all a rip-off to begin with but they can’t even spin any of it into a single original gag. And they're so lost during the few non-spoof scenes that they resort to the dreaded pratfalls. Seriously these dudes make Uwe Boll look like Orson Welles.
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.
Date Movie doesn’t have a story as much as it does a series of miss-or-really-miss spoofs of date movies and cultural hodgepodge; the thin “story” is just enough to keep the film from being a series of vignettes. Julia (Alyson Hannigan) who makes Big Momma look little is determined to find her Prince Charming instead of wasting away in her lonely apartment. She briefly finds him in Grant Fonckyerdoder (Adam Campbell) before losing him (so ends any originality). So she visits a date doctor named Hitch (Tony Cox)—yes that movie—who takes her to get barbaric liposuction. Then she meets Grant again they fall in love and she meets his parents Mr. and Mrs. Fonckyerdoder (Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge) making for a Meet the Fockers spoof (the biggest spoof-ee). Julia has competition from Grant’s ex (Sophie Monk) allowing for more film references but ultimately they live clumsily ever after.
It’s hard to see through the utter mess that is Date Movie enough to evaluate its acting but Hannigan seems to be at least serviceable. Although it seems like “acting” here means merely nauseating the audience enough so they can taste the vomit but manage to hold it in. Like when she licks Tony Cox’s face for 15 or so seconds—in slow motion… It’s more Fear Factor than Inside the Actor’s Studio. As for Campbell Date Movie is his first. There’s no frame of reference whatsoever and yet it’s still clear that he’s above this. He almost seems like a classically trained actor who’s forced to stretch his comfort zone by performing horrendous impressions such as the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. The lone semblance of a bright spot comes from Coolidge impersonating Barbra Streisand’s Roz Focker. Again way too classy for this Movie.
Date Movie's trailer brags “From two of the six writers of Scary Movie...” After seeing it you can’t help but muse “It took two writers for that movie?!” The writers in question are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer who also co-directed. The film should at the very least be an appetizer for Scary Movie 4’s upcoming entrée (to which they did not contribute) but with no hint of continuity or a passable storyline it even fails that menial task—and where the Scary Movies have succeeded is in the satisfactory stories that surround the film references. The biggest problem though lies in the spoofs: While the rules mandate that only chick flicks/date movies can be parodied the writer/directors abandon their target audience by referencing movies like When Harry Met Sally. Luckily there’s always an audience member who feels the need to solve the conundrum aloud.