Announced years ago but barely glimpsed since then, The Onion Movie—a comedy based on the satirical newspaper—seemed to be heading for urban-legend status until Fox finally and unceremoniously released it straight to DVD in June 2008. In the post-Internet era, it’s rare for a major studio to complete a film with so little known about it. The Onion Movie turns out to be an ideal case for this unusual (and probably, in some part, unintentional) secrecy; confusion extends all the way back to the concept. How do you turn a print-based parody into a feature film?
Actually watching The Onion Movie brings to light other factors that made it an easy project to conceal: it has no stars (unless you count a Steven Seagal cameo) and the adaptation tactic turns out to be sketch comedy, a somewhat nebulous form for a feature film. There is a loose framing device involving an “Onion News” broadcast anchored by Norm Archer (Len Cariou), which intersperses pointless rehashes of some strong print headlines with mock news reports and, more often, barely-related sketches, strung together by the conceit that the various characters can be found watching the news broadcast.
Norm Archer also has his own plot, about a creeping corporate influence on his news show, but the satire is wan, especially for a movie with the Onion logo plastered throughout to no satirical (and little practical) end. The print version actually has more vivid characters in its recurring columnists; some of the film characters, like the Britney Spears parody Melissa Cherry (Sarah McElligott), pop up after their initial sketches, as if the filmmakers are attempting an improvisation-style “Harold” (a type of long-form improve seen on the Upright Citizens Brigade TV series, among others), but they don’t resonate. More often, the comedy resembles an amateur production of Saturday Night Live on shuffle.
The sketches here aren’t embarrassingly bad, just—despite a lot of profanity—mild and often obvious. Maybe time on the shelf is to blame for bits that make fun of the sexuality in Britney Spears lyrics, or white teenagers who act “black”, or the corporation that insists on running on-screen promotions during all of its shows, but most of these tropes were well-worn even back in 2003.
SNL can traffic in obvious material, too, but The Onion Movie lacks both the energy of a live performance and the chemistry of an established troupe. Few actors get more than a few minutes of screentime, and no one seems particularly invested in the project, so the cast mostly engages in halfhearted overacting, broadly telegraphing the quasi-satirical intentions that should be stealthy and sly. McElligott, for example, is so clearly “doing” Britney Spears that she misses both the dead-on accuracy of a strong impression and the potential to make the Melissa Cherry character into something more inspired. She’s just doing Britney, but, like, a little more!
Some of the shorter sketches manage to play like video extensions of actual Onion pieces, like “reports” on overcrowded prisons expanding into suburbia or “lesser-known” racial stereotypes. But just as many lose the paper’s deadpan sociological observation. The movie sets the bar so low that the running gag about Seagal starring in a movie called “Cockpuncher” turns into a highlight just for its intense dedication to a cheap, gratuitous joke.
As fictional movies-within-movies go, “Cockpuncher” doesn’t look nearly as amazing as Bowfinger‘s “Fake Purse Ninjas” or Grindhouse‘s “Machete”, but a lengthier excerpt still would’ve made a good DVD extra—as would a commentary from the Onion writers who worked on and reportedly eventually left the project—which, granted, makes a commentary a wishful-thinking issue. Instead, there’s just a batch of outtakes and deleted scenes, the latter of which may be the only deleted-material reel to incorporate axed reaction shots from otherwise identical sketches (imagine those “line-o-rama” features on Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow DVDs, only not funny).
The Onion Movie isn’t much worse than any other number of theatrically released comedies—it probably has more chuckles, in fact, than a number of recent comedy hits. It’s so far from either a crazy boondoggle or a misunderstood gem, though, that it remains nearly as invisible in release as it was on the shelf.