This is a first.
When I was picking movies for this year’s Film Nerd 2.0 with my sons, we went through books full of DVDs and shelves full of Blu-rays, discussing things that interested them, explaining things they asked about. I thought the final list we chose was a nice mix of styles and filmmakers, and it seemed like a nice trip through several eras of Hollywood.
After our last film together was “To Kill A Mockingbird,” it seemed appropriate to go in the other direction and pick something that was light and fun and that we could enjoy together before I left for a film festival trip. Those long professional moments away from home are hard on the kids, and they’re hard on me as well. At six and four (Allen just had a birthday), they like being silly. They are silly all the time. They are constantly struggling to make each other laugh, and I find myself watching them in the playroom, them unaware that I’m paying attention, and being amazed at what dedicated clowns they are.
Since they remain pretty much non-stop “Star Wars” obsessed right now (it was only complicated by them riding “Star Tours” three times recently), I decided to try the Mel Brooks movie “Spaceballs” with them. I am very fond of Mel Brooks, and I think “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Young Frankenstein” are all just about as perfect as film comedy gets. I’ve always considered “Spaceballs” minor-key Brooks, but for parody to play, you have to understand what it is they’re playing with, what source they’re using for the parody.
When I put on the Blu-ray, which came as part of the “Mel Brooks Collection” Blu-ray box set I bought a few years ago, the boys were immediately onboard. Toshi read the opening crawl, and started laughing as he did so. And then comes the opening shot, the ship that goes on so much longer than any model ship ever should, past the point of ridiculous. And about halfway through the long pullback, both of the boys got the giggles. And once they got rolling, they kept rolling. So from the very start, they were onboard. Once Rick Moranis showed up as Dark Helmet, they fell in love with him, and I don’t blame them. Moranis was underappreciated when he was working, at least critically speaking, and I think he’s one of the best actors to graduate from either “Saturday Night Live” or “SCTV.” He is committed here, and he’s good playing off of George Wyner, one of the hardest-working comedy character actors of the last 40 years.
But as I watched the film this time, it struck me that there is something fundamentally wrong with it, something broken in the very conception of it. It’s always nagged at me, but now I can finally articulate it. When you look at “Blazing Saddles,” there is a deep love of the genre that informs every scene, every composition, every joke. Brooks obviously grew up with Westerns as part of his everyday film vocabulary. And “Young Frankenstein” is the same way, a loving recreation of a very specific film style. You can feel how deeply Brooks has absorbed the Universal horror films, how fluent he is in the film language of that era. And because of that underlying affection, the choices he makes are almost giddy. There’s an inviting quality to those film, and also in “High Anxiety,” where Brooks got his Hitchcock on, that simply does not exist in “Spaceballs.” For the first time, it feels like Brooks made a parody of something he did not personally care for, and that comes through loud and clear. For the first time, he’s on the outside looking in, and there’s a contemptuous tone to the parody.
It’s also full of some of the easiest, cheapest comedy of his career. He names John Candy’s character Barf. His gangster character is Pizza The Hutt. And while Allen thought that was one of the greatest things he’d ever seen, worthy of a verbal recap that he told to me at least ten times in the week after he saw it, that seems like a first-draft joke. It’s the most obvious and uninspired gag you could come up with when picking a funny version of “Jabba The Hutt.” In his earlier films, Brooks took advantage of the conventions of each genre to build out his supporting cast, and he wrote them as character who worked independent of the parody. That’s not true here. Daphne Zuniga and Bill Pullman may be game for whatever Brooks wants to do, but they never get past the thinnest surface of the characters they’re playing.
I was almost shocked by how much I didn’t like the film this time around. I was impatient with it. Annoyed that I was wasting a Film Nerd 2.0 screening on it. And yet, even as I sat there irritated with the film, the boys were on the floor, just loving it. Toshi was delighted by the scene where Moranis and Wyner watch “Spaceballs” on VHS to figure out what to do next, and he loved the way that bent the rules of movie reality.
And afterwards, when we normally share our thoughts about the film and where we normally are able to share that excitement, this time, I found myself listening to their excitement and unable to feel any at all. I always considered this a turning point for Brooks, a moment that began a down-swing for him that felt like he was deflating from film to film, but now, I think this might be my least favorite film by Brooks. It is so indifferent, so slapdash, so woefully unfunny. Even so, I recognize that the boys seem to love it, and so it’s been added to their stack of movies they can re-watch whenever they want. This is one of those times where our tastes don’t synch up. I’m sure we’ll have films where they don’t like something I’ve picked to show them, and we’ll end up in an inverse of this situation. It’s bound to happen when you’re picking movies to show to someone else. I’m just glad they had a good time with it, even if I couldn’t.
Next Tuesday, I’ll be back here with a new Film Nerd 2.0, where we go for some adventure with a trip back to the Disney version of “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.”
“Film Nerd 2.0” remains, in every sense of the word, an irregular column: