The Onion Movie began production in 2003, and after being dropped by Fox, shelved more than once, shuffling directors a few times and eventually being disavowed by most of the original crew, it’s finally out on DVD. Plenty of the material shows its age and it’s certainly a disjointed affair, but all things considered, it’s still pretty damned funny.
The format is the obvious question. How does a satirical newspaper translate to a feature film, anyway? The answer is that it’s broken into a series of interrelated sketches that transition into one another without pause or introduction a la Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Mr. Show. One minute lead anchorman Norm Archer will be reading a story about how depression hits losers the hardest, and the next we’ll be marching on Washington with a group of alzheimers patients to demand an end to pancakes. Some of the transitions are smoother than others, but who really cares? This structure is something Saturday Night Live should really look into. It’s the kind of short attention span theater that works well on DVD.
Not all of the bits are hilarious and plenty of them go on just a bit too long, but the good ones are good enough that even when they’re not making you laugh you give them credit for trying. Steven Seagal’s Cockpuncher is a running gag, as is a Britney Spears-esque virgin pop singer who sings songs like “I Want You to Spray Your Love All Over My Face” accompanied by a slow motion shot of her drinking from a garden hose. We’re also treated to cameos from Michael Bolton (doing a sponsor an African child commercial in which the sponsored child learns to disdain poor people), the mom from Family Ties (explaining how to batter and fry a kitten for a cooking show), Jin from Lost (playing the Ivy League fraternity guy used to getting what he wants in a rape-themed party game), the oh face guy from Office Space, and even Rodney Dangerfield, who’s been dead since 2004.
A couple of the sketches fall completely flat (I’m sure wiggers were funnier in 2003), but when it’s at its best, The Onion Movie is a great example of how much the little things count in comedy. Even when the concept was played out, well-placed one liners had me rolling. Like the computer store clerk explaining the latest model, “This will knock. The shit. Out of your ass.” Or the nun drinking milk from a glass labeled “Ape Cum”. If that doesn’t make you laugh you’re dead to me.
The best sketches are a soothing reminder that good spoofs are still possible in the age of Meet the Spartans. Some idiot exec sees a script outline of The Onion and Meet the Spartans and probably can’t tell the difference. Same pop culture references, same swear words, same dick jokes. The difference is the people that wrote The Onion Movie know how to write a joke, while Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg wouldn’t know funny if it moved into their house, raped their mom, and made them live in a cage in the basement. They have such an aversion to it you wonder if that’s what their childhood was really like.
Barring a few hiccups here and there, The Onion Movie is smart and stupid in all the right places, like Steven Hawking lighting a fart.