Sloppy Seconds (or Thirds?)

Play on auto-repeat: Adam Campbell in 'Date Movie'
20th Century Fox

Is there a cinematic bottom-feeder that our culture deserves more than the spoof movie? In its failsafe box-office appeal (Give 'em the movies they love! Again! As parody!), the spoof assuages the anxiety of risk-averse studio honchos. And in its sheer inbred meta-mutancy, it strokes the intellects of hip media critics: The multiplex is the message!

Last weekend's rom-com spoof Date Movie is lame even by the genre's most idiotic standards, and dissecting its unfunnyness can prove more entertaining than anything onscreen. Most of Date Movie's gags trip up awkwardly not because they're poorly executed, but because the jokes' targets are themselves semi-ironic. This is the undeniable curse of the contemporary spoof: So many of their references possess a destabilizing self-awareness of their own--and it begs an increasingly pertinent question: Do spoofs have any relevance anymore now that movies often come prepackaged with tongue-in-cheek attitude?

In Date Movie, Julia Jones (Alyson Hannigan) is a sweet, white suburban girl who happens to have a jive-talking black father (Eddie Griffin). This, of course, is a sendup of There's Something About Mary, in which Cameron Diaz's character also has a black father (Keith David). But Mary was anything but a by-the-numbers rom com. By giving Diaz an Afro-sporting, white man-hating dad, the Farrelly brothers were roasting their leading lady's squeaky WASP appeal. Date Movie dumbly Xeroxes Mary's joke, effectively turning it into a non-joke. It's a poor choice for a spoof, proving that you can't mock a movie that's already mocking itself.

The same logic applies to Date Movie's parodies of Kill Bill, Napoleon Dynamite, and Paris Hilton's Carl's Jr. car-wash commercial. For each, the spoof's target easily out-sophisticates the spoof. True, watching a plasticene slut smear beef patties across a soapy windshield in slow motion is pretty funny, but Hilton's original was even funnier: It unapologetically equated sex and greasy fast food, whoring its actress and its product in the most exaggerated way possible. Date Movie merely replicates the whole randy equation and then pats us on the back for having recognized it.

This clueless parodying of a parody dates back at least as far as 2000's Scary Movie, which obliviously satirized the already reflexive Scream franchise. A true spoof of Scream would've been a strange creation--a thrice-removed parody and probably avant-garde. Scary Movie's creators settled instead for blockbuster name-checking and body-malfunction humor, which have since become the reigning genre template. Spoofs today may claim to skewer Hollywood formula-think, but much of the time, they inadvertently serve as examples of same. After all, they're spewed out of the same studio orifice.

Like most of American cinema, the spoof glanced its creative apex during the disillusioned ferment of the '70s. Mel Brooks released Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in the same year (1974), illustrating a cardinal spoof law that still holds today: These movies should be made fast if they're to have any cultural currency at all. Like sketch comedy, only with a bigger budget, the spoof races through its jokes like a sprinter over hurdles--clearing some, knocking others over--but never, ever looking back or thinking twice. Velocity is of the essence, and Brooks's movies have the feel of mad, messy improvisations, even if they were tightly scripted. In 1978, Kentucky Fried Movie took this rushed aesthetic even further, perhaps to an extreme, food-processing anything its makers could get their unwashed hands on and then serving up the resulting slurry on a fragrant bed of hemp. (If any spoof approximates that headlong tipsiness today, it's the amateur pastiches that are proliferating online. The recent "Brokeback to the Future," barely three minutes long, shames all 75 minutes of Date Movie.)

Brooks et al. had thick, meaty targets to fry: the Western, the '30s horror flick, the kung-fu odyssey (parodied in Kentucky's "A Fistful of Yen" sequence)--all of which have the requisite kitschy sinew that makes for fun, energetic mastication. More than that, Brooks esteemed his targets even as he ingested them. Blazing Saddles is as much a hymn to the oater as it is a sendup; ditto Young Frankenstein and low-budget studio horror. What do we have today that can withstand that kind of tough love? Saw II? The Bachlorette?

Not all contemporary spoofs suck as bad as Date Movie, and for this modicum of hope we can thank M. Night Shyamalan. The stilted, asphyxiated style of the "new Spielberg" pleads to be torn into a million tiny pieces. Scary Movie 3 ranks as the best in its franchise (not saying much) because it latched onto Shyamalan's retarded Signs as the plot from which to hang its other parodies. Swing away! As trailers for the upcoming Scary Movie 4 testify, Shyamalan is the gift that keeps on giving. The Village has a slightly higher IQ than Signs, and thus poses a potential problem for literal-minded spoofers. But that probably won't stop me from at least smirking when that annoying blind girl smashes her face into an oak tree.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan only makes a movie every other year. That's scant fodder for the voracious, indiscriminate appetite that's endemic to today's spoof. Opening weekend grosses tell us otherwise, but the spoof machine's reincarnative loop has never looked so wobbly. When I was 12, Top Secret! and Spaceballs aired practically every week on TV, and it seemed like I was tuning in every time. We would quote Dark Helmet and Pizza the Hut on the playground. ("And he ate death!") Can we stand to watch Date Movie even once? The spoof has failed to evolve with the rest of the world. Like softcore porn, the spoof feels obsolete because its transgressions have been thoroughly absorbed, refracted, and mainstreamed by the very society that once ghettoized it. For a movie culture that sustains itself on unexamined recycling, the existence of Date Movie and its ilk is perhaps best rationalized as a case of the punishment fitting the crime.

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