THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE (2000) – Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a minor miracle outta my hat!

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It seemed impossible, but The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is the first feature-length movie that has translated the wacky spirit of Jay Ward’s great TV cartoons to the big screen. Other such movies usually dwelled on dumb physical comedy or throwaway gags that should have been thrown away. But this movie breezes along, barely stopping to acknowledge some of the terrible puns that are posted on buildings and streets as though they were old Burma Shave ads.

I’ve also not seen a movie that could get away with spending a full 90 minutes of jokes referring to itself as a movie (even Wayne’s World didn’t get this carried away). The entire movie is based on the premise of Rocky and Bullwinkle escaping out of their TV show and into the “real world” after spending 35 years in reruns. (I swear I can hear Jay Ward chortling somewhere.) They enter the real world because Fearless Leader (Robert DeNiro!) and his flunkies Boris and Natasha (Jason Alexander and Rene Russo) are using a cable-TV network to hypnotize America into thinking that they should vote for F.L. as our next president. (Heck, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t vote for him these days, even without hypnosis.)

Yes, the whole movie is just about this literal, and it doesn’t entirely succeed. As a helper for Moose and Squirrel, the movie employs a doe-eyed FBI agent (Piper Perabo) who is improbably named Agent Sympathy. This entire character, much like her name, is one of those jokes that doesn’t quite come off. And when the plot requires Bullwinkle to get a bogus degree from his old university (don’t ask), it’s hard to figure out why the university’s students are protesting the award when nearly everyone else in the movie is gaga over meeting their favorite cartoon character.

On the other hand, the movie makes you laugh at some of the obvious jokes and even harder at the less obvious ones. I laughed when Robert DeNiro did a flaky dance to his country’s national anthem. I laughed when Sympathy told her boyfriend he could hold her hand during a movie and he debated the merits of doing so while holding lots of refreshments. Most surprisingly, Jonathan Winters — not one of my favorite zany comics — appears in three different roles, and I laughed at all of them.

The voice work is wonderful. June Foray returns as Rocky — a little the worse for wear after 35 years, but she’s still got it. Bullwinkle’s original voice having long passed on, Keith Scott does the work here (doing double duty as the flustered narrator) and does it admirably.

The cartoon-cum-live-action characters are nice enough (though DeNiro does a scenery-chewing job on a par with Jack Nicholson’s in Batman). But the stand-out is Rene Russo. She gets Natasha’s voice down perfectly, and she’s proof that you can take sex appeal and dress it up in a purple wardrobe and cartoony writing, and it will still be sexy.

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REEFER MADNESS: THE MOVIE MUSICAL (2005) – Everybody must get stoned

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The following is my entry in It’s Just a Joke: The Movie Parody Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Sept. 1-3, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide variety of movie spoofs, either as genre parodies or plot devices!

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Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is a heady, sweaty mix of The Rocky Horror Picture ShowLittle Shop of Horrors, and Monty Python that should be eagerly devoured by fans of outrageous black comedy and be energetically avoided by everyone else.

As you might or might not know, Reefer Madness began life as a 1936 propaganda movie, telling an eerie tale about the evils of marijuana that was entirely based on nonfactual theories — chief among them that marijuana would lead its users to immorality, insanity, and jazz piano. This musical version is an obvious take-off on the original, with a cast that has a ball with the concept, including Kristen Bell, “SNL” vet Ana Gasteyer, and Alan Cumming playing a smug narrator with perfect pitch.

Be forewarned that this is comedy at its blackest. The gore gets laid on a little thick, there’s a blasphemous musical number (shades of Monty Python’s “Christmas in Heaven”) that won’t do liberals any favors, and the finale tries for social commentary after one-and-three-fourth-hours of campy fun. But in the end, this version gives a hilarious nose-thumbing to those who are all too willing to let jingoists do their thinking for them. It’s an absolute hoot.

Preston Sturges’ UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948) – A great symphony of a comedy

 

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Though he directed a few more movies over the years, Unfaithfully Yours (1948) was the last great hurrah from one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy writer-directors, Preston Sturges. But Lawdy, what a way to go out.

The movie stars Rex Harrison in what might be seen as a kindler, gentler cousin of his egomaniacal diction professor in My Fair Lady (1964). Here, Harrison is Sir Alfred de Carter, a world-renowned symphony conductor who is still astoundingly infatuated with the woman he refers to as his “bride,” Daphne (charming Linda Darnell). The movie never declares how long or short of a time the Carters have been married, but judging from their passion level, one would guess they’re still in the honeymooning stage.

(The far more down-to-earth married couple, Alfred’s in-laws August and Barbara, are portrayed wonderfully by Rudy Vallee and Barbara Lawrence. Barbara gets all the great barbs off against her husband, who is only too happy to show his ignorance of them.)

One day, August accosts Alfred with the unfortunate news that he paid a detective to tail Daphne while Alfred was out of town. Alfred is so convinced of his wife’s fidelity that his reaction starts at outrage and goes haywire from there. Little by little, though, Alfred is given reason to think that Daphne might have needed some spying-on after all. At his concert that evening, Alfred conducts three pieces by Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, and with each piece, Alfred imagines the stylish revenge he will extract upon Daphne for her presumed cheating.

From this sober-sounding scenario, Sturges — as he always did — goes all over the place, from sparkling dialogue to skittering slapstick to rich drenches of sentiment. And the melange has never worked better than it does here. Just for kicks, take three of the movie’s set-pieces (the first of which — SPOILER! — is shown below): Alfred’s achingly funny dressing-down of August for siccing a detective on Daphne, the first fantasy where Alfred hatches an elaborate murder scheme, and Alfred’s drunken attempt to carry out the scheme. Three scenes of completely different tones, and they all plausibly fit into the same movie. Now try to imagine any modern-day comedy-maker whose work would display the wit of any of those scenes.

The Criterion Collection DVD of the movie does it full justice. It includes a seemingly irrelevant but nonetheless enjoyable critique of Sturges’ work from Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones. And an interview with Sturges’ widow Sandy, as well as copies of voluminous memoes to Sturges from uncredited producer Darryl Zanuck, demonstrate why the movie was initially a colossal box-office failure. Zanuck hounded Sturges to the point that the gifted creator of (to name but two) The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek began doubting himself as a writer, resulting in the final humiliation of Zanuck cutting the film on his own. Then a timely scandal involving Rex Harrison forever killed the box-office chances of a black comedy starring Harrison as an ostensible woman-murderer.

Happily, Unfaithfully Yours, like Chaplin’s similarly dark Monsieur Verdoux, survived its prudish times and has become renowned as a great movie. Alfred’s take on Delius might be delirious (as professed by one of his fans, played by the great Sturges alumnus Edgar Kennedy)…but Sturges himself remains stupendous.

HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I (1981) – Mel Brooks as the 20-million-year-old man

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

This movie did middling box-office (as did all Mel Brooks movies from this point on), but for my money, it’s one of Brooks’ funniest. Having cemented his comedic reputation early on with the 2000-Year-Old Man, it seems inevitable that Brooks would eventually take on the spectrum (or sphincter, as he might put it) of world history. And in the age of the Farrelly Brothers, Brooks ideas about bad taste seem almost quaint.

It begins with a lot of black-out gags (the first such gag amounting to, Ape Man = Onan) and takes off from there. The first sustained sequence, The Roman Empire, probably goes on a bit too long, and it “introduced” a buxom actress named Mary-Margaret Humes who, justifiably, went right back to obscurity shortly after the film’s release. But there are also many enjoyable moments: Gregory Hines’s mellow film debut, Madeline Kahn’s ecstatic song tribute to her well-endowed male slaves, and most of all, the Last Supper sequence at the end — completely messed up time-wise (it puts Jesus and Leonardo da Vinci in the same shot), but all the more hilarious because of it. (John Hurt plays Jesus, and as in Brooks’ Spaceballs [1987], his straight-faced seriousness just makes the insanity around him that much funnier.)

The next sequence (embedded below) is one of Brooks’s best: The Spanish Inquisition as a Marx Brothers-style musical number, with Mel Brooks as a socko Torquemada, beating out a rhythm on his victims’ shackled knees. This sequence alone justifies Brooks’ existence as a comedy director.

The sequence depicting The French Revolution has two main objectives in mind: show off as much of (1) British comedienne Pamela Stephenson’s bust and (2) Brooks’s wee-wee humor as humanly possible. Nevertheless, it has its moments, with Cloris Leachman as Madame Defarge, and Brooks as a randy king.

The final short sequence, a trailer for Brooks’s non-existent History Part II, is worth the bother just for one of those moments that makes me laugh for no discernible reason: a scene from “Hitler on Ice,” showing Brooks’s favorite nasty German as an Ice Capader. This ersatz trailer is enough to make me wish Brooks had really made a sequel. I doubt it would have turned out any worse than Spaceballs.

INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) – Cruel, maybe; intolerable, hardly

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Ever since I fell in love with Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedy Raising Arizona (1987), I’ve been waiting for them to do another all-out farce. And God bless ’em, it took them only 16 years. Intolerable Cruelty is the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a legendary divorce lawyer called upon to help a rich man (Edward Herrmann) divorce his golddigging wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). I hasten not to divulge any of the movie’s surprises. Suffice to say, a prolonged and very verbose battle of the sexes ensues.

That alone almost makes the movie worth watching. After being mentally assaulted by recent movies with totally moronic main characters, what a pleasure to hear intelligent dialogue between intelligent people — even if both of them are the biggest schemers you could ask for. Clooney, in particular, has long, leisurely takes where he delivers pages of dialogue, and he relishes every opportunity.

Granted, not all of the jokes are Mensa-level. (Some of the earthiest laughs come from the always reliable Cedric the Entertainer as a private eye way too willing to dig up dirt for his clients.) But a critic once made the un-academic distinction between stupid comedy done stupid, and silly comedy done intelligently. The first kind we all know about, because that’s most of the bodily-function comedies that come out these days. Far more difficult to pull off is comedy based on normal people’s reactions to outrageous circumstances. Intolerable Cruelty provides a wealth of that.

As an example, I cite the movie’s climactic scene, in which someone labors to prevent a murder and someone gets killed anyway. A subject as inherently unfunny as murder is the acid test; if not pulled off properly, nothing falls flatter. I can say only that the scene’s punchline had me laughing until I cried.

And the timing of this movie’s performers is never off. Clooney, Zeta-Jones, Cedric, and Billy Bob Thornton (as a self-loving actor)…they have bells on their toes. I wish more comedies were as tolerable as Intolerable Cruelty.

THE PRODUCERS (2005) – I’m a prisoner of love…for Mel Brooks

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There are countless groups who are certain to be offended by Mel Brooks’ musical version of The Producers. There are those who didn’t like Brooks’ initial 1968 film, those who thought his Broadway version was a bad idea, and those who will think the new, twice-removed film version is even worse.

A pox on all of them.

I’ve been a Brooks fan since Blazing Saddles. But though Brooks is famous for wallowing in excess and bad taste, his more recent movies were downright benign, as if Brooks had turned into the eccentric uncle who tells risque stories at the dinner table. The musical Producers returns Brooks to full-throttle bad taste, and it is all the more hilarious for it.

You probably know the basic story by now: Loser Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and his meek accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) scheme to produce the worst show ever, so that it will close in one night and they can keep the investors’ money. They choose to produce “Springtime for Hitler,” written by an unrepentant Nazi (Will Ferrell). And to treat themselves, they hire Ulla (Uma Thurman), a beautiful but ESOL-impaired Swedish secretary.

If you liked Brooks’ 1968 version, you can regard this one as The Producers on steroids, and that’s mostly a compliment. People who seemed like one-joke numbers in the original — Ulla, the Nazi — get to blossom here. Who knew that Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell could sing and dance so well? (As for me, this is the first Ferrell movie performance I’ve actually enjoyed.)

And that’s another of the movie’s surprises: Satiric or not, it’s presented as an honest-to-gosh musical, as if Guys and Dolls had collided with the scatological Brooks. Some of the numbers are straightforward, others are slightly wacko (the tap-dancing ladies with walkers are one for the ages), but they’re all done with old-style panache. For that, kudos to Susan Stroman, who directed the Broadway version as well as this one.

People will complain that it’s all too over-the-top. Of course, any of Brooks’ best work is. They’ll complain that Lane and Broderick are not Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (of the original version). No, they’re not — they’re Lane and Broderick, and they do just fine as such.

Best of all is Brooks’ relentless effort to score laughs, big and small. It’s been a long while since a moviemaker worked so hard for his comedy, and an even longer while since I’ve laughed until I cried. It was worth the wait.

 

LIFE STINKS (1991) – …and so does this movie

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Life Stinks is another chapter in the ongoing question, Whatever happened to Mel Brooks’ sense of comedy? It starts out nicely enough, with Mel as Trump-like mogul Goddard Bolt (“You can call me God”), who accepts a bet that he can’t live on the streets for 30 days. But the moment the movie hits the streets, it turns into a pathos-laden mess, with occasional “funny” bits interjected (Mel sees a black kid break-dancing for money and tries to do a vaudeville buck-and-wing, yuk, yuk).

Leslie Ann Warren is nothing short of wasted. The worst part is this movie’s musical number, in which Brooks and Warren do a silent dance to Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Brooks’s musical parodies are usually the highlights of his movies; here he plays the whole thing straight, like a dancing excerpt from an aging guest star on “The Carol Burnett Show” (on which Rudy DeLuca, this film’s co-writer, began his career).

Go rent Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which covered the same ground 70 years before and did it a lot better.