Friday, November 20, 2009

Top Secret!

One of the great mysteries of our time is "Why does David Zucker suck so much now?" I mean, the guy recently made a movie making fun of Michael Moore. That's like shooting a morbidly obese, unshaven fish with questionable taste in hats* in a particularly small barrel. He also produced the Onion Movie. And a bunch of other crap.

See, this is a mystery, because when he started making movies, David Zucker didn't suck. In fact, with Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, he made fantastic, clever parodies that probably broke rules and more importantly were quite funny. One of those movies is Top Secret!

The strength of Top Secret! is that it's a loving parody of old timey spy films - which explains some gratuitous Nazis, no matter how little they make sense in East Germany - with a real story to build gags around. Val Kilmer is a wacky rock and roll star in the vein of Elvis named Nick Rivers - and creator of the highly dangerous sport skeet surfing - who is going to be performing a concert in East Germany as part of some elaborate plot he's unaware of. He runs into one Hillary Flammond, as played by Lucy Gutteridge, who is a sexy member of the resistance, trying to save her father. Together, they have to save the world, one inexplicable dance routine at a time.

The humor of the film is often based on a quite simple formula, take a regular spy/Elvis/surfing/etc. convention and do something unexpected with it. It's an easy formula, but it often works. The gags aren't universally funny - there's a real stinker based around the Blue Lagoon that plays a bit larger role than is probably advisable - but they're often clever enough and well implemented. When they're not, they're easily ignored and the story can move on.

Since bad genre parodies have become a cottage industry for people who haven't got a clue, this is one of those lessons in why they're a good idea. It's a good spy film borrowing heavily from old spy movies, with a story that's often tense and characters you actually can give a crap about. Even better, the characters aren't in on the joke, and mostly just roll with whatever they're given. It makes the absurd humor stand out in contrast, because nobody realizes it.

Val Kilmer is, surprisingly, something of a stand out. The reason isn't because of his superior acting ability, or his ability to lip sync** - something which would serve him well as Jim Morrison - but his natural charisma. He's believable as a heart throb because he's just so likable and attractive, and he plays it up well. He works as a cocky sense of sanity in a world of ridiculousness.

More than anything though, it's 90 minutes of filmmakers just trying to entertain you. Yeah, sometimes it doesn't work, but that's fine, because you can tell that no matter what's on screen, they're going to brush that off and try to be funny again in the next few minutes. They try everything, from butt sex jokes to more cerebral humour to good old fashioned slapstick. That's why it's good, they put in a lot of effort to be funny.

So why is it that David Zucker isn't as funny now? Perhaps the three directors pushed each other to be funnier. Maybe he's not putting in that effort which is clearly necessary to be hilarious. Whatever it is, he should find his magic again, and kick the people making awful parodies right in the ass.

*I say this as a universal healthcare enthusiast.

**Reportedly he sang all his own songs. They're just really obviously studio recordings and not done on set.


  1. Dude I know it's illegal to agree with the AFI, but they had it right when they said Airplane! was a genuinely funny movie (particularly being a direct parody of another movie that it out-famed on every level), and I'll go to my grave defending Kentucky Fried Movie as one of the best examples of "low budget" comedy ever. I have yet to see "Top Secret!" but I really want to (you're not the first person I know to recommend it). Also yeah, I have a much higher tolerance for "bad" parody schtick than most (I have sat through and enjoyed "Silence Of The Hams", for instance, but only because I know the story behind it), but even I could not sit through "An American Carol". It's still sitting here on my hard-drive and I will probably never finish it, I mean, on top of the worn out gags that work only slightly better than the (noun) Movies, the whole thing reeks of an earnest support of the Conservative ideal, thus making the only reasonably funny gag about the movie is that it's seriously trying to preach a pro-war stance using Toby Keith.

  2. I think the most important thing about parodies is that the people doing it really have to love what they're parodying. This may explain why I like the Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright movies so much, along with Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker at the height of their powers. It's probably because in order to get jokes out of something, you've really got to understand the subject to know what to change to make it funnier. I'm guessing An American Carol fails most of all because it doesn't like its subject, though I had trouble sitting through the trailer, let alone the entire film.