Tears of Embarrassment
It’s not an easy task to say something fresh and insightful about a film like Epic Movie, as it was almost universally panned upon its theatrical release. Plenty of excellent films have been summarily dismissed by mainstream critics throughout the years. Epic Movie does not number among them.
Epic Movie, much more than any of its predecessors in the Scary Movie-satire franchise, is actually embarrassing to watch. It’s embarrassing in the same way watching your white, suburbanite father attempting to rap in front of all your friends would be embarrassing.
Think back to high school. Remember that jock who believed his sense of humor was on par with the class clown’s, but was so brick-dumb that he was unable, fundamentally, to grasp what makes things funny? He sat in the back making painfully unfunny yet smug wisecracks that invariably made the class fall into an awkward silence. Watching Epic Movie is like watching a feature film written and directed by that guy.
There have doubtlessly been hundreds of reviews exploring the myriad ways in which this send-up of the loosely-defined “epic” film genre is unfunny. The critical feeding frenzy following the film’s theatrical release was exhaustive, with only Entertainment Weekly offering up a lone, inexplicable ass-kissing review (one that doesn’t appear to be rooted in critical contrarianism, but simply an underdeveloped sense of humor.) Rather than review the film scene-by-scene, it seems more worthwhile, for critical purposes, to examine a few of the unfunny tropes it consistently employs.
Throughout Epic Movie, actors are featured impersonating and spoofing the titular characters from other contemporary comedies, such as Borat and Nacho Libre. These attempts at lampoon somehow miss the fact that the characters in those films were meant to be funny, and thus that pointing out their flaws isn’t funny, it’s just kind of baffling. It’s tantamount to making fun of Homer Simpson for being dumb, or ALF for being a cat-eating alien.
Epic Movie delights in having look-a-likes of characters from recently released films bust out dancing to booty music for no apparent reason, as if that particular juxtaposition is funny in-itself, and simply needs to be inserted anywhere in a script to make an audience laugh themselves into oblivion. It’s uncomfortable to think about how many times this happens. A decent amount of the comedy is also meant to stem from unlikely characters speaking in hip-hop slang, e.g., Peter (Adam Campbell) demanding in a polite British accent that the Mystique knock-off shape-shifting character grow a “ghetto booty”, and that she have “a lot of junk in the trunk.” These scenes will bring tears of embarrassment to your eyes.
Epic Movie is host to copious jokes intended to break down the “fourth wall” that fail horrendously. Edward (Kal Penn) is called “Kumar”, referencing his appearance in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The character (unfortunately) known as the “White Bitch”, played by Jennifer Coolidge, is at one point called “Stifler’s mom.” A Samuel L. Jackson look-a-like makes reference to the “Snakes on a Plane” blogosphere phenomenon about a half-dozen times in a single scene. The audience is expected to derive child-like glee from the realization that the people starring in the movie are not actually the characters they portray, but are actors who have portrayed other characters in other films. Most people above the age of about six have already arrived at this conclusion.
It’s possible, though, that in its brazen stupidity, Epic Movie might be able to tell us something about the world in which we live.
The film asks us to laugh at a joke not because it is cleverly referential, but because it refers to anything. It asks the audience to be blindly, uncritically excited by seeing something vaguely familiar. Increasingly, mass culture operates the same way.
I’m not exactly slaughtering a sacred calf, at least not among people who care about film, art, music, etc., when I say that we inhabit a cultural landscape that encourages us to get excited about the images with which we’re inundated, regardless of their artistic merit. American Idol offers us a musical “competition” in which the audience watches the creation of a pre-fab product from start-to-finish. Viewers garner untold satisfaction from watching Contestant X become famous, knowing that it’s neither artistic vision, nor talent, nor originality that makes Contestant X famous, just the contestant’s participation in a TV show that bestows fame upon people who take part in it.
If you ever happen to work in Midtown Manhattan, the advertising butthole of the universe, you’ll find an obsession with fame, or more accurately the proximity to fame, that makes that behavior in the rest of the country pale in comparison. In any number of offices you’ll find fairly interchangeable people making tremendous amounts of money, whose sole interest consists of getting seated at restaurants at which movie stars are also seated. It’s no big shock that the desire to be near a movie star isn’t an outward expression of a reverence for that particular movie star’s oeuvre. It’s instead the fact that said celebrity’s image is instantly recognizable, and there’s some intangible importance placed upon that. It is exciting to see famous people, not because they are talented, but because people get excited about seeing them.
Looking at Epic Movie with that in mind, it’s kind of a wonder that it wasn’t a huge hit. It demands absolutely nothing of the audience except that they recognize the likeness of someone immediately recognizable. Shouldn’t that, for an audience obsessed with celebrity, provide the necessary stimulation? It’s kind of funny that Paris Hilton-in-effigy appears for a moment in Epic Movie, says “I’m hot,” and is crushed by a falling body. Outside of having given a hummer on camera once or twice, Paris Hilton is famous pretty much only because of the media outlets can’t stop plastering her frighteningly angular countenance all over everything (ironically lamenting all the while that the public takes such an interest in her.) Ersatz-Paris may die on screen, but the spectre of unthinking, uncritical Paris Hiltonian spectacle doesn’t just pervade this comedy; it’s Epic Movie’s main joke.
So Epic Movie isn’t funny, and most every critic (with the exception, again, of that guy at Entertainment Weekly) has said as much, and if you subscribe to a particular paranoid worldview, it might in some ever-so-small way speak to everything that’s wrong with the entertainment industry, nay, the world. You’d hope that given the reviews, the director’s commentary might offer some sort of explanation, or an apology, or that it might, at the very least, give the two writer / directors a chance to prove their capacity to be at least mildly amusing.
That’s not the case, though, as the director’s commentary consists entirely of Friedburg and Seltzer riffing on a single bad joke (they talk about the special effects that the film employs, when no corresponding effects appear on screen) ad nauseaum.
In addition to the director’s commentary, the DVD comes stocked with more special features than you could ever dream of. It’s enough to make you wish that good movies would come equipped with so many bells and whistles. There’s a second additional audio track entitled “Breaking Wind: An Epic Journey into the Sounds of an Epic Movie”, which when enabled just plays the normal audio of the film with various farting noises dubbed in every time a character bends down (a joke lifted directly from those online “Farting Preacher” videos.) There are alternate endings, film contest winners, cut scenes, and outtakes. There’s more than one segment in which members of the cast are asked bawdy questions and do their best to improvise decent answers, and Fred Willard is the only one who’s really able to deliver a decent joke.
The fact that Fred Willard appears at all in Epic Movie is a little upsetting, not to mention the cameo by Kids in the Hall alum Kevin McDonald. Kal Penn is pretty funny in most of his films, and he’s one of Epic Movie’s main characters. It’s almost a shame to see names like that attached to a movie this weak. In another special feature, Fred Willard narrates a “Fox Movie Channel” presentation about the making of the movie that is by far funnier than anything that actually occurs in the feature.
Most telling of all is the segment that details the making of the “Lazy Pirate Day” portion of Epic Movie. “Lazy Pirate Day” is a spoof of Pirates of the Caribbean done in the style of the “Lazy Sunday” Saturday Night Live skit. The special feature gives you the impression, first of all, that Sony sank an absurd amount of money into the making of this film. Second of all, you get the feeling that the producers, unable to really discern what’s funny themselves, sort of got fleeced on the deal. The producers are both interviewed, and they gush over how “up to date” and “plugged-in” the directors are, and how comedy is all about being able to make as many current pop-culture references as possible. That sums up the premise that Epic Movie is founded on; that just referring to things, without even attempting to do so in an inventive, witty, or critical way, is funny. It’s not.