It may just be a coincidence that the recent US release of the Twilight send-up Vampires Suck fell on the 30th anniversary of the disaster movie spoof Airplane!. But if that’s the case, then it’s one of those tastelessly contrived sort of coincidences — that is to say, not a coincidence at all.
I’m not claiming any sort of masterpiece status for Airplane!; the spoof from that period which I remember with greatest fondness is the more shambolic Top Secret!, which dates from when Val Kilmer was considered a comic presence, rather than a ridiculous one. (His sense of humour was recently spotted in the pleasantly dopey action-movie spoof MacGruber — worth seeing for the knockout comic timing of the splendid Kristen Wiig — but Kilmer’s performance had about it the air of a penance for past on-set tantrums.) I’d also recommend Gary Sinyor’s Stiff Upper Lips, which was as blandly beautiful as any of the Merchant/Ivory films it was laying into (though I prefer its working title: Period!).
Airplane! is not quite the laugh riot you might remember it to be — the cast, which once looked comparatively deadpan, now seems primed for laughs. Maybe that’s just the natural corrosion to be expected from watching two decades of reality-TV performers whose self-awareness levels are through the floor. (If in doubt, blame reality TV, eh?) But Airplane! did establish a new language for film comedy, one in which Mel Brooks, Ken Shapiro, Woody Allen and MAD magazine had all also had a hand.
So it deserves more than to have its memory desecrated by the tin-eared, wit-impaired writing-directing duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who between them have been responsible for most of the lamentable, multiplex-hogging knock-offs with Movie in the title. They had a hand in all but the second of the Scary Movie films, with offences such as Disaster Movie and Epic Movie also littering their charge sheets. There’s no horse left to flog now. The pine box over which they are bent, hammers held aloft, is more nails than coffin.
Critical antipathy toward the pair has never been higher. Over at the excellent In Contention, Chad Hartigan wrote:
The only thing less funny than a spoof movie made by Friedberg & Seltzer is the conceptual gag that America keeps playing where we ironically buy tickets to see them. Just to make fun of it, of course. Only problem is we’re giving them real money and they are super-rich and successful, despite being the worst thing to happen to film-making since, well, ever.
In the words of The AV Club’s box-office report from last weekend, “There is literally nothing you could do to prevent people from seeing Vampires Suck.” That site’s Sean O’Neal speculates that the film’s barnstorming success (over $12m in its opening weekend) can be attributed partly to the fact that “teenagers need a cool, dark place where they can gather and text each other without the distraction of story, or even discernible punchlines”. He’s on to something there.
And if the audience members do accidentally notice what’s on the screen, they are sure to connect with a fleeting image or reference (they are manifestly not gags) that chimes with their cultural landscape. Friedberg and Seltzer’s Meet the Spartans was ostensibly a 300 spoof but its first tne minutes alone (confession time: I didn’t get much further in than that) included references to Brangelina, Happy Feet, American Idol and Casino Royale.
The reason there aren’t jokes in these flicks is that the jokes aren’t the point. The audience is looking for familiarity. Getting the reference is enough: funny is irrelevant. From this meagre moment of recognition — “That’s from High School Musical!” or “That’s supposed to be Lady Gaga!” — comes the buzz of connection, however faint. We’ve all felt it, whether we’re picking up on an allusion to the First Folio Edition of Hamlet, or recognising the jingle from the Cadbury’s Fudge commercial.
It doesn’t make the success of Vampires Suck any more heartening. (Perhaps it was to this that Simon Pegg was referring when he tweeted last Friday: “Sometimes the gulf between commercial success and genuine artistic quality yawns wider than can be jumped by even Jet Bike Steve.”) But maybe America’s teenagers (and the British ones who will flock to the film when it opens here in October) are just looking to nurse their barrels of soda — their equivalent of the barfly’s double bourbon.
Are Friedberg and Seltzer simply providing the succour that high-school counsellors cannot? There could be a movie in that.