Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Superhero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich

Another movie review.

Superhero Movie (d. Craig Mazin)

Roger Ebert once wrote of one of the Naked Gun movies that there was nothing instructive for a critic to say about such films beyond either "I laughed" or "I didn't laugh."

Which brings me to Superhero Movie.

I laughed a few times. And that might be the only instructive statement in this review, but don't go away just yet. I have some non-instructive observations to make.

First of all, Mr. Ebert's point is well taken; these films sink or swim on the strength of their jokes and little else. And the jokes her are a rum lot, to be sure. A reviewer might be tempted to blame the writer/director (I'm watching you, Craig Mazin!), but there are some other factors that play a role.

Part of the genius of the greatest parody movie of all time, Airplane!, was its refusal to cast comedians in the key roles. Instead, the writing /directing team of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams utilized the talents of legendary straight arrows like Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack, actors who played idiotic material as if it was Chekhov. They were so steadfastly unfunny, that it was hilarious. The actors in Superhero Movie are all too aware that they're in a dopey parody movie and make no effort to disguise the fact.

Perhaps it's unfair to hold Superhero Movie up to that lofty height, but the film itself begs the comparison by casting not one but two of the stars of Airplane! in pivotal supporting roles (Robert Hays and Leslie Nielsen appear), not to mention the presence of producer David Zucker (one wonders what he thinks about what's become of the genre that he and his buddies wrought) (He probably thinks, "Ah! Another satisfying paycheck!").

The story, an unabashed rip from the Spider-Man movies, with a little Batman and X-Men thrown in for good measure, focuses on Rick Riker (rhymes with "Ted Striker"), a high school zero who gets bitten by a genetically altered dragonfly and becomes a superhero with dragonfly powers cleverly named The Rhinoceros Kid.

Ha! No. That would be amusing. He's actually named "Dragonfly." Even by parody standards, that's pretty unimaginative.

Riker/Dragonfly is played by Drake Bell from Nickelodeon's 'tween hit "Drake and Josh" (it's for those who think Zack and Cody are "for kids") and he actually handles his Tobey Maguire-lite role fairly well. Obviously no one is demanding serious acting chops in one of these films, but he has to anchor almost every scene in the movie and he never overplays his part too much. Compared to the leads in, say, the execrable Epic Movie, he's Olivier.

Well, maybe not Olivier. Maybe Charlton Heston.

Unfortunately for him, the script by director Craig Mazin (still watching!), is flabby and dull, missing easy opportunities for jokes but never failing to show old people farting. A lengthy scene where the great Marion Ross (Mrs. C!) is shown breaking wind for what feels like hours on end is truly sad.

For the record: yes, farts are funny. When your kid lets loose in the bathtub, or it happens during one of those somber moments in church, it's a riot. When Mel Brooks made plain what everyone suspected about cowboys eating beans around a campfire in Blazing Saddles, it was a riot. If the only context you can provide for your fart joke is a decibel level (I'm looking at you, Craig Mazin!), it ain't a riot. There, I said it.

As much as I love superhero stories, there's no denying that they are ripe for parody. Back in the day, Mad used to gleefully savage them. Even Marvel Comics itself published a goof on its heroes with the great Not Brand Ecch! (where's that Marvel Masterwork?). But all through Superhero Movie, potentially funny comic set-ups present themselves, and then are tossed aside. A scene at Professor Xavier's School for the Non-Asian Gifted (See? Not bad!) starts promisingly, with the hilarious Tracy Morgan as a Segway-riding Professor X, but then ends abruptly and is never heard from again.

Morgan is only one of several who provide brief undeveloped cameos and then get the heck out of the film while the getting's good. It's as if no one other than Bell wanted to lose more than 35 consecutive seconds to this project. Maybe it's not "as if" at all.

I've been accused before of taking movies way too seriously, and in this case, I probably have. But I root for the funny. I can't help it. And when something that should be uproarious is, instead, merely unfortunate, I want to try to figure out why.

Superhero Movie is unfortunate. I laughed only a scant few times because no one bothered to make it funny. I'm looking at you writer/director Craig Mazin! And I'm not liking what I see.

1/2 star.

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