Thursday, March 10, 2011

Too much parody vs. too little parody

Fulfilling a promise I made to a recently deceased Leslie Nielsen, I finally watched my copy of Dracula: Dead and Loving It on Sunday afternoon.

You know, it wasn't that bad. I understand the impulse to rake Mel Brooks and Nielsen over the coals for this movie, but to be honest, Nielsen made a dozen movies that were worse than this. (You have no idea how many movies he made in the late 1990s and early 2000s that you've never heard of.) Brooks may not have made that many that were worse, but he certainly made one or two.

However, I freely admit that my limited affection for Dracula: Dead and Loving It may just be relative, when you compare it to what passes for parody in these here modern times of ours.

Yes, I am going to shit on Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer yet again on my blog.

Friedberg and Seltzer, the writer-directors of such landfill as Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans and Vampires Suck, are irritating because of their many sins of commission. A movie like Dracula: Dead and Loving It is notable for its omissions, not its commissions.

Put differently: Epic Movie tries way too hard, while Dracula doesn't try hard enough. And in this case, I vastly prefer the latter sin.

When you think of Mel Brooks, you may think of a guy who is terminally goofy, willing to try anything for a laugh. But he's really quite restrained compared to Friedberg and Seltzer. Brooks at least confines his jokes, relatively speaking, to the context of his plot. There may be the occasional anachronism in his movies, sure, but it's nothing compared to Alice in Wonderland showing up in the middle of a vampire movie. (Which happens in Vampires Suck. Friedberg and Seltzer have done far worse, but that one is fresh in my memory from an unfortunate recent viewing.)

You might say that anachronisms are the raison d'etre for Seltzer and Friedberg, the more off-the-wall, the better. This gets old, fast. But it's what they have to do, since they're determined to end every single shot on a joke. (Note: calling it "what they have to do" is not, for a moment, endorsing anything about their method.)

And that's what I really noticed as I was watching Dracula: Dead and Loving It: Some scenes just ended, without what appeared to be a joke. To some people, that's the very definition of why it isn't a good movie. To me, it brought relief -- relief that the movie takes itself seriously enough not to strain for humor when it just isn't there.

I guess the fact that I noticed it means that they were doing something wrong. And I'm not going to try to tell you that Dracula is in the same league as The Naked Gun (if we're looking at Nielsen movies) or Blazing Saddles (if we're looking at Brooks movies). But it is in the same league as Naked Gun 33 1/3 (Nielsen) or High Anxiety (Brooks) -- which is to say, not great, but worth a watch.

What I like most about Brooks' approach relative to the approach of the Two-Headed Monster (I will refer to them as such from here on out) is that Brooks' approach doesn't date itself. If the Two-Headed Monster had been making Dracula: Dead and Loving It, it would have come across less as a parody of Bram Stoker's famous novel, and more as a parody of the pop culture landscape circa 1995. Which would make it really fun to watch in 2011.

But since the humor in Dracula was almost entirely driven by the scenario, I was able to laugh at it, from time to time, in 2011. Sure, it's not high comedy when Lucy (Lysette Anthony) closes her balcony door, and a bat with Nielsen's head slams face first into a pane of glass. But at least the humor flows organically from the situation.

I did not laugh at the bat-into-the-glass gag, but I did laugh at the following jokes:

1) When Dracula (Nielsen) removes his goofy heart-shaped hairdo, revealing it to be just a "hair hat";

2) When Harker (Steven Weber) gets repeatedly doused by sprays of blood from Lucy's corpse, as he drives a stake through her chest. The sprays of blood alone are funny, but Weber's line deliveries during this scene are priceless;

3) When Renfield (Peter MacNicol) eats all manner of bugs while at a dinner with Dr. Seward (Harvey Korman). I think Peter MacNicol may have been born to play Renfield;

4) When Van Helsing (Brooks) and Dracula have a battle to see who can get in the last word, each prolonging the conversation by throwing down one last Yiddish word as an exclamation point. This bit has a funny payoff in the film's final shot;

5) When the sun melts Dracula at the end, leaving only a bat-shaped pile of ashes on the floor. Renfield gathers the ashes into a neat little pile and draws a smiley face in it. "There, master, you're starting to look like your old self again."

And those are just the times I can remember.

When you legitimately laugh (or "LOL") during a movie at least five times, that means it was worth watching.

I haven't legitimately laughed five times in all the movies I've seen by the Two-Headed Monster -- combined.

I'm glad I got a laugh or two (or five) from Dracula: Dead and Loving It, if only because it's nice to come across a Nielsen movie I hadn't seen that's better than Wrongfully Accused or 2001: A Space Travesty. (I saved you the trouble and saw both, thank you very much.) Seeing his smiling face in the "In Memoriam" section at the Oscars just whetted my appetite for this unique funnyman, all of whose best work I thought I'd already seen.

No, Dracula is not among his best -- but it didn't make me cringe either, and that's a small victory worth applauding.


Thaddeus said...

I'd say that the approach of the "two-headed monster" is this desperate need to make some joke - any joke - at any given second.

Brooks, at his best, could mine offensive material better than anyone. But he also did slapstick and satire and parody and obscure references.

The 2-headed monster just tries to bring in anything - a britney spears gag, a michael jackson joke - because they only have a couple of types of comedy to draw from. Whereas Mel could make a joke about anything, the current batch of "successful failures" can pretty much only hit on MTV and recent headlines. In part, it's the audience they're shooting for; in part, they have nothing better to say...

Daddy Geek Boy said...

I could write a thesis on parody movies and the death of them at the hands of Friedberg and Seltzer. I haven't seen D:D&LI but at least Mel Brooks crafts jokes. Friedberg and Seltzer's kind of comedy is all about references. Stick Britney Spears into 300. Why? Cause she was in the news. Stick James Bond amongst a crowd in a medieval village. Why? Cause he's somebody you recognize. It's lazy and uncreative. And it makes me angry that audiences have gone to their movies enough for them to keep getting work.

Vancetastic said...

Thaddeus - Exactly. There can be no quiet moments. There always has to be a joke. Also, I love the term "successful failures" -- I've never heard it but I get what it means without any further clarification. Thanks for the comment.

DGB - I wish I had used the "Britney Spears in 300" line rather than the "Alice in Wonderland in a vampire movie line." The first is far more absurd, because in the latter case, at least they're both from the fantasy realm.

By the way, I secretly think I keep writing about the two-headed monster in order to keep getting responses from you in my comments section. ;-)