WHEN YOU REVIEW MOVIES you occasionally have to go to more than one screening a day. This isn't any sort of hardship, but it can result in bizarre pairings. The weirdest movie day I've had was in the summer of '98 when I saw "Saving Private Ryan" at 10:00 a.m., followed, a few short hours later, by "There's Something About Mary."
A few days ago I caught a screening of the earnestly pretentious adaptation of Philip Roth's "The Human Stain." Lots of Anthony Hopkins's winter passion and Nicole Kidman's flat little stomach. Kidman plays a 34-year-old, hard-on-her-luck janitor, who has an exquisitely developed and maintained body. Janitors don't have bodies like that--most models don't have bodies like that. Why is it that actors routinely put on weight or let themselves go to seed if the role requires it, but actresses almost never do? Is this a matter of vanity or studio economics? I suspect it's both.
The second half of my double feature was "Scary Movie 3." Whatever else might be wrong with this slight film, you can say this much: It has no pretensions whatsoever.
THIS LATEST INSTALLMENT of the "Scary Movie" franchise, which was launched in 2000, bears little resemblance to its predecessors. That's because the first two "Scary Movies" were written and directed by the Wayans brothers (Keenen, Shawn, and Marlon), of "In Living Color" and "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" fame. With "Scary Movie 3" the series has been taken over by David Zucker, the man responsible for "Airplane," "The Naked Gun," and "BASEketball."
Among several changes, Zucker has replaced the Wayans brothers' crass humping and penis jokes with crass urination and kick-to-the-groin gags. Also, he has jettisoned Shawn and Marlon Wayans's characters (and their attendant anal-sex and stoner humor) in favor of Leslie Nielsen and Charlie Sheen (with their customary pratfalls and befuddled stares). Whether or not Zucker represents a step up for the franchise is a question only the young men from America's middle schools can answer.
WHAT IS CERTAIN is that the "Scary Movie" series itself represents the low-water mark in the history of film spoofs. The spoof has been in decline for nearly 20 years. Its golden age was the late 1970s, when Monty Python and Mel Brooks were putting out classics such as "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Life of Brian," "Blazing Saddles," and "Young Frankenstein" (1981's "History of the World, Part I" should be included here, too).
In 1980, Zucker and his partner Jim Abrahams got in on the act with "Airplane." "Airplane" was shorter than the more leisurely written spoofs that preceded it, and contained probably five times as many jokes. Where Brooks and the Monty Python troupe looked for precise humor, Zucker and Abrahams took an approach that was simultaneously scattershot and rapid-fire.
Still, the jokes in "Airplane" hit as often as they missed because the comedy was tied to wordplay ("We have clearance Clarence." "Roger, Roger. What's our vector Victor?") and off-beat timing ("Joey, have you ever been to a Turkish prison?"). But as Zucker and Abrahams kept cranking out spoofs, their movies became formulaic, devolving from "Airplane" to "Top Secret!" to "The Naked Gun" to "Hot Shots!" (made by Abrahams without Zucker).
And as went Zucker and Abrahams, so went the genre. The spoof went from being pleasantly juvenile to, well, unpleasantly juvenile.
In the last 20 years the spoof has misfired over and over--"Not Another Teen Movie," "Spaceballs," "Major League," "High School High," "Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," "Jane Austen's Mafia!"--turkeys all. The only genuinely funny entries came recently in the form of the first two Austin Powers movies, yet in comparison to the spoofs of the '70s, even these can only be regarded as guilty pleasures.
SO WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SPOOF? For one thing, comedy has migrated away from the big screen and onto television, where the economics are more favorable. For another, people who might have become the next Abrahams or Zucker have set off in different directions. You could argue that Christopher Guest's mocumentaries are the great spoofs of our time, but I would suggest that the difference in quality is so great as to be a difference in kind.
The spoof has devolved from Monty Python to David Zucker's "Scary Movie 3," where sophistication crests with men (and aliens) kicking one another in the cojones. As far as artistic tragedies go, it's a tiny one, but it registers nonetheless.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.