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They Who Laugh Worst: 'Epic Movie' vs. classic film parodies

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Epic_lI went along when friends insisted we watch Scary Movie 4 on DVD. I acquiesced again when Date Movie seemed like the least offensive thing to sample on cable one night. But after staring slack-jawed at Epic Movie, last weekend’s No. 1 piece of bait for overpriced snack food at the multiplex, I finally had a comedy-fan meltdown. I felt violated. Wronged. Shaken to my movie-parody-loving core. Because the tenets of great movie parody are nowhere to be found in this latest effort from writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, a team touted in the Epic Movie trailer as “two of the six writers of Scary Movie.” They’re already at work on Scary Movie 5. Please, somebody, stop the madness. As long as audiences keep ponying up the bucks, the comic craptacularity won’t stop.

I had to self-medicate after Epic Movie with a YouTube tiptoe through some really great parodies, like Jack Black’s assaults on The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man from the MTV Movie Awards. I got another soothing bump from Billy Crystal’s peerless Oscar-intro movie-trailer riffs. It felt like filet mignon after an overdose of McDonald’s.

What makes a movie parody funny? Start with actually having somesatirical ideas, based on a close reading of the original. Like, forinstance, Jack Black deriding elf leader Elrond’s LOTR headgear as “alittle 1983.” All you get in Epic Movie is restagings and references.Jennifer Coolidge (pictured, with Kevin Hart) may squeeze a laugh or two by mugging her way throughthe role of “White Bitch,” sending up the white witch played by TildaSwinton in The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe. But there’s nothing in theperformance that specifically parodies the material or the actressshe’s burlesquing. (And that’s probably not Coolidge’s fault. Swinton’sjust not that juicy a target, the way, say, William Shatner’sstop-and-go line readings as Captain Kirk have been for everyone fromJohn Belushi to Jim Carrey to Fred Savage.)

Most of the re-enactors in Epic grapple with the same problem. Sure,the faces look something like the actors who’ve played Harry Potter,Willy Wonka, and Borat. But the actors we see are just mimicking, notparodying. Any kid at a family party could do that. Where’s the actualmaterial? Oh, the pain of having to watch Coolidge and Fred Willard,inspired sketch comedians, trying to make something out of nothing.

The morning after, I still have a bad-satire hangover. Maybe I’dfeel better if I revisited some legendary TV parodists: Carol Burnett playing Scarlett O’Hara in apair of curtains in the immortal spoof “Went with the Wind.” Or SidCaesar and Imogene Coca, drowned by a wave in a goof on the famoussex-on-the-beach-scene in From Here to Eternity. (Don’t know thoseparodies? Suck it up and educate yourself, and you’ll be glad you gotyour “Lazy Sunday”-loving butt in gear.) I’d be equally happy to nursemyself with a pile of old Mad magazine parodies drawn by Mort Drucker, the funniest pop-culture caricaturist inhistory.

Okay, I’ve helped all America wash the taste of Epic Movie out ofits collective mouth. Now it’s your turn. What’s a disgusted parodylover to do for succor? What are your own all-time-fave movie sendups,lampoons, and takedowns? Is it the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker ouvre youtreasure most? The best skits from shows like SNL, In Living Color andMad TV? Let the continued comedy healing commence.

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