Parodies walk an extremely thin line. Stray too far to one side and the joke becomes obvious or tired. Drift the other way and it’s stupid (or worse, unfunny and offensive). Parodies only work on the edge, creatively reinventing or reinterpreting subjects already on viewers’ minds.
Scary Movie 4 doesn’t manage any of this. From the opening scene that features Dr. Phil and Shaq mocking Saw to the repeated potshots directed at Brokeback Mountain, it takes the easiest route possible. Like the previous three movies, 4 is full of topical references, name-checking MySpace and Yahoo maps while lining up jokes about terrorism (a suicide bomber who can’t blow himself up), gay marriage (a domestic partnership ceremony during The Village spoof), and the President (showing him more concerned about the welfare of a fictional duck than the American people). The problem is that none of this is new. We’ve seen these jokes on late night television, heard them on the radio or even thought of them ourselves.
A few moments in Scary Movie 4, however, do break new ground. Borrowing a scene from The Grudge, the movie has homecare worker Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris) confronting a ghostly Asian child who knows the secret to defeating the aliens (who are drawn from War of the Worlds, 4‘s second primary plotline). The boy proceeds to speak in sentences such as “Sashimi tempura Toyota Mitsubishi,” which, according to the accompanying subtitles, means “My father is the key.”
The humor here is based in oblique cultural commentary. The list of “Japanese” words underlines the American stereotype that all such words sound alike, and that the U.S. understanding of Japan is measured via consumer items. Admittedly, this scene might offend some who perceive it to be insulting to Asians. But they shouldn’t. Rather than only reinforcing Asian stereotypes, it pokes fun at Americans’ collective insensitivity.
A similar critique of U.S. excess and egotism is leveled during the movie’s denouement. Here Tom Ryan (Craig Bierko) appears as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s (Debra Wilson) show, identified as “the man who saved the world.” Throughout the film, his experiences mimic those of Ray Ferrier, Tom Cruise’s character in War of the Worlds: he sees the Tripod emerge from beneath the ground, his daughter screams incessantly, his son joins the military. (He also falls in love with Cindy, which allows a brief intersection of Scary Movie 4‘s major storylines.) In this closing sketch, Ryan becomes Cruise (just as, really, all Cruise characters—Ethan Hunt, Scientologist—are Cruise in the public imagination). He jumps on the couch, hugging then punching Oprah, eating couch cushions and generally acting “insane,” or, as Oprah puts it, “gone.”
Surely, other performers and venues have offered versions of this parody (and so, it is overdone like the Brokeback bits). But what the scene lacks in originality, it makes up for in outrageousness. But while Bierko’s Cruise is over-the-top, whether he’s beating up Oprah, launching Campbell across the room or eating pillow stuffing, he’s also making a point that recalls the Grudge parody: the point here is that Cruise is a product of his fans and consumers, rather than the other way around. The studio audience in the film thrills to his violent, abusive insanity, even the supposedly socially conscious Oprah loves it until her hands are broken. By scene’s end, the film audience is also implicated, as Tom literally runs himself into the camera, collapsing the distance between those who adore him and his own raving self-love.
But for these few instances of what might be termed “hyper-criticism,” however, Scary Movie 4 does what the franchise has done before. It also made a ton of money on opening (Easter) weekend, $40 million, ensuring Scary Movie 5. Which means still more of the same.