Tag Archives: Comedy

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Two aspiring guitarists seem destined to failure at school and separation, until the intervention of the mysterious Rufus and his time-travelling phone box. Will their race against time see them present their all-important history report and thereby secure the future happiness of the entire planet?

Some films, without even knowing it at the time, capture and shape a moment brilliantly. For the benefit of those who weren’t there or weren’t listening, for a number of years in the late 80s and beyond films such as Bill and Ted’s… and Wayne’s World shaped the vocabulary of English-speaking youngsters with phrases such as ‘Excellent!’ and ‘Party on!’ Not having seen the original Saturday Night Live sketches, I am unable to say whether Bill and Ted or Wayne and Garth first brought these ubiquitous slacker phrases to the world’s attention, but I would like to think the honour lies with this film’s pairing.

The similarities between Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure go beyond vocabulary, as both feature the protagonists as aspiring musicians, creating videos and an awful racket in their parents’ basement/garage. However, unlike the later film, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves (as Bill and Ted respectively) at least look the same age as the characters they portray; and unlike the later film’s concentration on Myers’ mugging to the camera, Bill and Ted actually have a story to tell.

More concerned with forming a rock band than studying, Ted is threatened with being sent to a military academy in Alaska unless he achieves an extremely unlikely A+ in his and Bill’s history presentation. Unbeknownst to them, the happiness of 27th Century San Dimas, California relies on the success of Wild Stallyns (sic), so a cool dude called Rufus (the late George Carlin) is dispatched to make sure the assignment is a knockout. The boys bag a host of historical figures to give their impressions of present-day San Dimas, impeded by the unreliability of their phone booth, the threat of execution in medieval England, and the meddling of Ted’s uptight father.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has much more to offer than the dumb amiability of its title characters, though this is a good part of its charm (Reeves in particular is uncommonly cheerful). The script makes good use of the double incongruity the plot device offers, getting comedy out of the pair plucking figures such as Socrates, Napoleon, Beethoven and Freud out of history, as well as the historical figures’ reactions to modern day California. The mall scene and Napoleon at the water park are standouts, but there is always something going on in the film that, at a trim 83 or so minutes, never does anything simply to beef up the running time.

It also has fun with its sci-fi elements, the choice of phone box/booth being, presumably, a nod to Dr Who’s TARDIS; and while you can drive yourself mad with the paradox that Rufus would not visit them unless they ultimately succeeded which wouldn’t happen unless Rufus visited them (if you follow me), the film knows and revels in this with the Eddie Van Halen conundrum and the business with Ted’s Dad’s keys. Speaking of Van Halen, the noodly riffs accompanying Bill and Ted’s air guitar movements are also cute.

If I have to gripe, the cursory introduction of the princesses as love interest is so brief as to be almost totally redundant, and Beethoven’s keyboard masterpiece in the shopping mall contains no keyboard whatsoever, as far as I can tell. But the film is full of so much charm, playfulness and invention that you hardly notice flaws, and are left totally inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s exhortation to ‘Be excellent to each other’ during Bill and Ted’s exciting (and educational!) history concert. In an age where comedy is pitched at the level of getting laid, naked or drunk for laughs, to watch a film that entertains by doing none of these things is indeed – how best to put it – most excellent. Bodacious, even.

A Mighty Wind

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Following the death of folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom, his family work to bring together the acts he made famous for a tribute concert in New York’s Town Hall. Trouble is, there are only two weeks to organise the concert and not all the acts are in the best of mental states to perform at the live, televised concert.

A Mighty Wind is Guest’s third documentary-style film, following on from Waiting For Guffman and Best in Show. All three films were created in the same fashion: Guest wrote the story together with co-star Eugene Levy, but all the dialogue is improvised by the actors. Although the overall effect here is not quite as successful as the grand-daddy of mockumentaries, This is Spinal Tap, this is arguably Guest’s best entry in the genre.

One reason for the success of the film is the familiarity of the cast with each other’s temperaments. The ensemble cast is headed up by Bob Balaban as nervous organiser Jonathan Steinbloom, but it is in the bands that the chemistry really shows: The Folksmen – Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean – have the sort of rapport you would expect from their incarnation as Spinal Tap, but they do not play their characters as Tap grown old so much as what the rock band’s fathers would have been like. It is good to see them riffing off each other, in all senses of the word.

The (New) Main Street Singers, most notably John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey, are all good fun, but the stars of the show are unquestionably Mitch and Mickey. Their reunion provides the film with a strong emotional centre and some of the film’s best scenes; Levy’s spaced-out performance as Mitch is balanced superbly by Catherine O’Hara as world-weary Mickey, reliving an almost forgotten dream. In turn, she is balanced by Jim Piddock as dull husband and catheter salesman Leonard.

Mitch and Mickey’s story also provides an anchor to the film; although A Mighty Wind is consistently funny, the actors’ enthusiasm tips some of the gentle humour into silliness, whilst other jokes float by unnoticed. The best lines are delivered by Fred “Wha’ happened?” Willard (excellent as the New Main St Singers’ manager) and Ed Begley Jr as the Public Broadcast Network producer whose Yiddish is as good as his Swedish. Not all the performances work – Jennifer Coolidge makes do with a funny voice for laughs – and, as usual with Guest, the ‘What happened afterwards’ ending is hit-and-miss. Even here, though, I liked Shearer’s transformation from a bald, bearded bass player into a far more glamorous one.

Musically, Mitch and Mickey are given the most memorable tunes; but all the music, most evident in the concert itself, sounds like authentic folk, albeit with a comic leaning, and adds to the warmth of the film. To say that A Mighty Wind is a ‘nice’ film sounds patronising, but this is exactly what it is: an affectionate comedy with uplifting songs and, a bit of headboard-banging aside, nothing to alarm the children. No violence, no malice, just a love for gags and music. It may not change your life, but it will certainly brighten up a wet weekend – and have you humming for weeks.

My Best Friend’s Wedding

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Longtime friends Jules and Mike have an arrangement to marry if they’re still single by the time they turn 28; and when the plan’s ruined by Mike’s engagement to wealthy young Kimmy, Jules realises that she should be the one he’s taking up the aisle. Her initial plans failing to put Mike off, Jules ups the ante by interfering in his career plans – with disastrous results.

To look at Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts), you’d imagine she was pretty content with her life. As a New York food critic she strikes fear into chefs, and her editor George (Rupert Everett) is a wonderfully waspish companion. She also has a long-standing agreement with old flame Mike (Dermot Mulroney) that they’ll marry each other if they haven’t found soulmates by the time they’re 28, which doesn’t trouble Jules until Mike calls to say he’s marrying student Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) in four days’ time.

Suddenly realising she’s in love with Mike herself, Jules rushes to Chicago – where Kimmy’s family just happen to own the White Sox – intent on breaking the lovebirds apart. However, the plan backfires when she becomes both Kimmy’s maid of honour and Mike’s best (wo)man, and neither the fiancée’s awful singing, nor her innocent intervention – at Jules’ bidding – in Mike’s work life, nor Jules’ unlikely claim to be wildly in love with George, distract the groom-to-be.

In desperation, and ignoring George’s advice to simply tell Mike how she feels, Jules sends a headhunting email to his employer in the guise of Kimmy’s father. It has the desired effect, to the extent that Mike calls off the wedding; though little of what happens next gives Jules much cause for celebration, optimism, or pride.

It’s easy to deconstruct My Best Friend’s Wedding, an entirely unromantically assembled rom-com which rides on the trains of contemporary weddingy films such as Four…and a Funeral, using the star power of Roberts and the subversive influence of Australian director P.J. Hogan (director, of course, of Muriel’s…) to draw the punters in. But whereas Hugh Grant’s Charles was a sweet bumbler, and Muriel – for all her deceptions – was a complicated, funny and ultimately optimistic character in Collette’s capable hands, Jules is, for want of a better word, a psycho, lying constantly to get her way and refusing to tell the truth until it’s (nearly) too late.

Jules says of herself, ‘I’ve done nothing but underhanded, despicable, not even terribly imaginative things since I got here’, and she gives the viewer absolutely no cause to disagree; so why are we meant to feel anything but disgust for her?

The answer, apparently, is because she’s played by Julia Roberts, which would be fine if the actress were stretched by a witty or blackly comic script; but neither writer Ronald Bass nor Hogan get her to do much bar smile her dazzling smile and look vaguely troubled whilst talking to Paul Giamatti’s inexplicably wise valet. Even Jules’ daily life is annoying, her high-flying, low-stress job allowing her to disappear for days on end without the slightest consequence. There are also at least four instances of Jules or one of her cohorts falling over, a slapstick device which viewers of TV’s Miranda will recognise as a useful alternative to jokes that arise organically out of the plot.

It’s not only Jules who doesn’t satisfy. Mulroney’s a big dumb lump of conflicted emotions, exhibiting little that would logically send either Jules or Kimmy gaga; and Diaz is very pretty but an archetypal spoilt rich girl. Rachel Griffiths and Carrie Preston enjoy larking around as Kimmy’s friends, but they don’t feel like real people, and like the rest of the cast don’t inhabit anything resembling a real world.

Okay, so it’s a film, and in the fantasy of film a bar can be won over by Kimmy’s abysmal karaoke and a whole table, nay restaurant, can be word-perfect performing I Say a Little Prayer*; but My Best Friend’s Wedding skims so relentlessly on the surface of its set-up (aren’t rich people’s nuptials fabulous?) that asking us to do anything so involving as empathise with selfish old Jules feels like a rotten cheek.

Thank the Lord, then, for Rupert Everett. The Englishman takes what could have been a wretched part, the queeny best friend, and brilliantly makes George the movie’s leading man. Whether through acting genius or sheer luck, Everett finds exactly the right camp tone between fantasist fluff and Jules’ selfish strops, playing his part with wit and gay abandon when asked to play her fiancé. The energy dips whenever he’s not on screen – which is quite a lot – but Everett has so much fun with George (at Julia’s expense – watch his busy hands in the taxi!) that he single-handedly makes the movie worth sticking with. Little wonder that when all the mundane wedding business is over and done with, it’s George who proves to be Jules’ knight in shining armour.

Everett isn’t all there is to recommend about My Best Friend’s Wedding, but he’s just about the only thing about it that’s memorable apart from Jules, played with skill by Julia Roberts but memorable for all the wrong reasons. If you’re absolutely desperate for a romantic comedy and this is the only thing to hand, this goes through the motions in mechanical fashion: but in all honesty, why settle for such blandness, such mediocrity, if you can enjoy When Harry Met Sally or Annie Hall instead?

NOTES: You’re well served if you like Bacharach and David songs, but Dionne over Aretha? You’ve got to be kidding.

The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: Construction worker and caveman Fred Flintstone feels something is missing in his otherwise perfect prehistoric life. It’s not a friend, as he has faithful dope Barney as a constant companion; it’s not advice, as Fred has a sniffy alien called the Great Gazoo to help him; but it may be the love of a good woman. Can Gazoo, on a mission to observe human mating habits, steer both Fred and Barney into the arms of beautiful women who will put up with the boys’ primitive ways?

While it gets occasional runs on the BBC, the cartoon series of The Flintstones never really made much of an impact here (to anyone born after 1970, anyway), Britain unaccustomed to the Honeymooners sitcom on which it was based. Nonetheless, the prehistoric families living quasi-1950s lives with the mod-cons replaced by domestic dinosaurs et al had enough worldwide recognition to make Brian Levant’s 1994 film The Flintstones a financial if not a critical success, with John Goodman and Rick Moranis taking on roles of Fred and Barney respectively, Elizabeth Perkins and Rosie O’Donnell playing their wives and featuring a cameo from Elizabeth Taylor as Fred’s snobbish mother-in-law, Pearl Slaghoople. Given the positive box office, it was little surprise that a second film emerged, again directed by Levant. And whilst it seems bizarre that Viva Rock Vegas is a prequel, taking place before either the Flintstones or Rubbles get together and featuring an entirely different cast to the first film, I suspect the reluctance of some or all of the original cast to return forced the studio’s hand.

Viva Rock Vegas begins with the Universal logo replaced by a ‘Univershell’ one (the first of hundreds of ghastly puns) before introducing us to the Great Gazoo (Alan Cumming), the hapless alien chucked off his spaceship to observe courtship and mating rituals. Gazoo was, from what I can gather, a character introduced late to the cartoon Flintstones who did nothing to stop its slide into cancellation, so why it was thought he would liven up the film is anyone’s guess; but I digress. Gazoo runs into a lovelorn Fred (Mark Addy) and Barney (Stephen Baldwin), and insults and nudges them into asking women out.

Meanwhile, Wilma Slaghoople (Kristen Johnston) leaves behind her bourgeois life and imminent betrothal to casino owner Chip Rockefeller (Thomas Gibson) to work in a burger bar with Betty O’Shale (Jane Krakowski), much to the disapproval of mother Pearl (Joan Collins), although her father Harvey Korman (the original Great Gazoo, fact fans) is too batty to care. As you might suppose, the quartet find themselves on a double date where Betty and Barney discover they have equally irritating laughs, leaving Fred to teach Wilma the joys of bowling (complete with twangy sound effects). Love blossoms but the interference of Pearl, the underhand tactics of Chip – in debt and desperate need of Slaghoople money – and the intervention of a famous singer called Mick Jagged (Cumming again) ensure that the road to happiness is a rocky one (sorry).

Although the first Flintstones was decidedly average, it could at least boast some stars in outrageous garb delivering naff lines, and the novelty of seeing primitive equipment brought to life. Viva Rock Vegas has none of these advantages. The script is just as poor as the first film, but the actors required to speak them seem to have been chosen on the basis that they were the first ones to pick up the phone that day.

Addy sort of looks alright but his impersonation of Fred is horrible (cf. The Time Machine), whilst Baldwin looks the part but has all the comic presence of smallpox – ditto with the square-jawed Thomas Gibson. Jane Krakowski is cute as Betty, but Johnston doesn’t seem comfortable with being the main focus of the film; as she is the main focus of the film, this is a problem.

There are also problems with the prop jokes: a dinosaur roller coaster at the carnival is fair enough, but why is there a woman with a camcorder? Even though it’s made out of rock, there’s no suggestion of how it works and misses the point of the premise entirely. The same goes for the casino, where a bird-operated remote control (fair enough…) switches off CCTV screens (Eh?!?).

And Dino, the pet Fred wins for Wilma at the carnival, is an annoying part-puppet-part-CGI creation designed to generate laughs from children, none of whom will have a clue what the Flintstones are about. Oh, and the Great Gazoo effects are poorly-executed too: Cumming, a talented comic actor, can’t make him any fun, even though he has a laugh with his very broad Mick Jagger impersonation.

‘Jagged’ and Ann-Margret both provide lively renditions of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ reworked to fit the film and these are entertaining, as are a few jokes that escape from the script almost by accident (the guy who constantly threatens to kill all the dinosaurs, for example); but the moments that shine mainly do so because of the acute dullness of every aspect of the rest of the film, a procession of weak performances holding feeble props, powering even feebler puns. I can only hope that talk of a live-action Jetsons movie, originally mooted in 2007 but last slated to appear in 2012, either never turns up, or has some far better ideas than Viva Rock Vegas when it does.

Carry on Follow that Camel

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Shamed by accusations of cheating at cricket, Bertram ‘Bo’ West and his faithful butler Simpson head off to Africa to join the French Foreign legion. Although life is initially harsh, they soon get one over on their vainglorious leader, Sergeant Nocker, though the freedom this gives Bo gets them all into trouble. Worse, Bo’s beloved Jane follows him out to the desert to tell him that the whole thing is a ghastly mistake and gets herself lined up as wife no. 13 to a sabre-rattling Sheik.

I’m willing to bet Lombard Street to a China orange that if you took a survey of the general public nowadays four-fifths wouldn’t have a clue who Beau Geste or the French Foreign Legion were, and of the fifth that could tell you something more than half would mention Follow That Camel, the Carry On team’s take on P.C. Wren’s British hero (like Don’t Lose Your Head, the ‘Carry On’ bit was only added later after studio wrangling).

Bertram Oliphant ‘Bo’ West (Jim Dale) is our hero, who does the decent thing and heads off for the Legion when his ‘friend’ Humphrey, enamoured with Bo’s beau Jane (Angela Douglas), accuses Bo of tripping him up at the crease. With his faithful servant Simpson (Peter Butterworth) for company, West joins up and is introduced to the Fort’s hierarchy: effete Captain Lepice (Charles Hawtrey) and monocled German Commandant Maximilian Burger (Kenneth Williams). Bo, used to a nice breakfast and being dressed by others, struggles to adapt to the harshness of Legion life and incurs the wrath of waspish Colour Sergeant Nocker (Phil Silvers); until, that is, he discovers that Nocker is earning his stripes by telling tall tales of bravery when in fact he is cosily ensconced in the bar run by Zig-Zig (Joan Sims).

Armed with this information, Bo and Simpson’s lives suddenly become a lot easier; but during a night on the town both Nocker and West fall prey to the charms of exotic dancer Corktip (Anita Harris), secretly working in the employ of the Legion’s sworn enemy Sheik Abdul Abulbul (Bernard Bresslaw). Meanwhile, Jane has travelled to find Bo and is amazed to encounter Burger, her old fencing teacher from finishing school; he, however, is only a temporary diversion as her search for her wronged man leads her into the arms of the Sheikh. With the lady gone and West and Simpson held captive too, Nocker must raise the alarm and get a full-scale rescue underway. But how to convince Burger of the urgency of the situation when a disgruntled Zig-Zig has spilt the beans about the American’s medal-winning deceit?

Casting and writing are always the two crucial factors that make a Carry On film sink or swim, and in Follow That Camel casting is absolutely key. One instantly notices the lack of Sid James (through illness) and Barbara Windsor, naturally, but more important than this is the inclusion of Phil Silvers, presumably to help sell the film in the US. Perhaps because of the cosmopolitan nature of the Foreign Legion, Silvers’ brand of sarcasm fits surprisingly well into what you might imagine to be a quintessentially British picture, and he’s an imposing and entertaining presence even if clearly a little unfocused and a few years past the top of his game (he apparently read some of his lines from cue cards).

Williams is, as usual, excellent as the Commandant and he shares some good jokes with Hawtrey, even though the latter is – like Sims – underused. Bresslaw enjoys baring his teeth as the baddie and Dale is fine as the hero, Butterworth not too annoying as his retainer; and whilst Anita Harris makes for a rather scrawny femme fatale and Angela Douglas a bland damsel in distress, we can be thankful that this film predates the incorporation of her namesake Jack into the Carry On company.

The script, meanwhile, is a real curate’s egg. Talbot Rothwell always seems comfortable when writing about military life so it’s little surprise that the best bits of Follow That Camel deal with discipline and the fact that the troops’ ‘superiors’ are really nothing of the sort. There’s also the usual quota of nudging innuendo and general tomfoolery – Humphrey, ashamed of himself, both shoots and hangs himself (and lives to tell the tale!) – but on occasion the film’s cheerful sexism (the harem of busty lovelies is present and correct) strays too far.

No doubt the dimming of lights and casual refrain of ‘Travelling alone, miss?’ from a succession of men towards Jane was a hoot in the 60s, but now those scenes feel vaguely sinister; there are also some gags that must have raised eyebrows at the censor’s office, such as the name of the distant outpost Fort Zuassantneuf (a pun on the original Zinderneuf) and the shadows cast from the Sheik’s tent. Furthermore, although the film keeps its end up for a good hour, once the Legion troops into the desert it flags considerably, with only a sandcastle competition and a decent mirage joke to enjoy; the finale at Zuassantneuf shows a modicum of invention, but it’s little more than a dry run for the more polished climax to Khyber that followed the next year.

[Carry On] Follow That Camel isn’t the greatest of the gang’s parodies by a long stretch, but it looks the part (a major feat considering it was filmed on a Sussex beach) and there’s enough in it to make it feel relatively fresh, quite apart from Silvers’ unique turn. It contains nothing particularly classic in terms of comedy, but neither does it contain anything so bad that you’d escape to the Legion to forget.

Spaceballs

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Threatened with an undesirable marriage, Princess Vespa flees her home planet of Druidia only to run into Spaceballs One and Dark Helmet’s dastardly plot to kidnap her and hold her ransom, in order to steal Druidia’s fresh air supply for the planet of Spaceballs. To her aid – for the right price – comes Lone Starr and his sidekick Barf, but to defeat Helmet’s weaponry Starr will require tuition in the use of an ancient and mystical power.

Sly tributes to Star Wars are now staples of comedy shows such as The Simpsons, Family Guy and (though it hasn’t reached Britain – yet) Robot Chicken, but it took some time for the ball to get rolling; possibly because of the prohibitive costs of making half-decent science fiction, possibly because the vast majority of Star Wars devotees were still in short trousers, and possibly because the story was already silly enough for writers to find creating a sillier one difficult. Step forward, then, Mel Brooks, fearless poker of fun, and do your worst.

The planet Spaceballs has run out of air, forcing President Skroob (Brooks, as if you couldn’t guess) to send his martial forces under the less-sinister-than-he-might-be Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) and Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) to use strong-arm tactics against Druidia, whose atmosphere is protected by an atmospheric shield. Helmet plans to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) and torture her (by reversing her immaculate nose job) to reveal the combination of the shield, but before he can land on the planet Vespa blasts off it, jilting the soporific Prince Valium at the altar and taking faithful but snippy robot Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers) for company.

Vespa’s father asks Winnebago-driving Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) to get Vespa back, a job the space trucker and his half-human, half-dog pal Barf (John Candy) would usually run a light year from; except it comes with the handy recompense of a million Spacebucks, the exact amount Starr owes to intergalactic hoodlum Pizza the Hutt. Starr and Barf rescue the princess but get themselves stranded on a desert planet where they are rescued and introduced to the mystical Yogurt (Brooks again), a short, golden Yiddisher fellow who knows the ways of ‘The Schwartz.’

Starr finds he can use the Schwartz to move objects with his mind, a power which serves him well when Vespa is tricked into captivity; a daring rescue mission follows with our hero – drawn despite himself to the Princess – driving his camper van into Spaceballs One, the massive ship transformed into ‘Mega Maid’ to suck out Druidia’s air.

If you have seen a Mel Brooks comedy before, much of Spaceballs will be familiar, an assault on all the comedy senses featuring subtle asides one second and a massive pie – or in this case, Barf’s wagging tail – in the face the next, with plenty of Jewish jokes (Vespa is, after all, a ‘Druish princess’) and funny movie gags (guards capture the good guys’ stunt doubles). Spaceballs, though, has two other writers, presumably responsible for many of the jokes influenced by the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker troupe.

In principle this is no bad thing, and indeed some of the visual gags like the extraordinarily-protracted establishing shot of Spaceballs One or the Mr Coffee/Mr Radar machines are great – but there is a noticeable friction between this brand of wilfully dumb humour (e.g. Princess Vespa’s giant hairdryer) and some of the more knowing digs (for example, the running gag about the film’s merchandising). Meanwhile, the gags that are unmistakeably part of Brooks’ shtick vary in quality: I like most of what he does as Yogurt and dislike most of what he does as Skroob.

The presence of leggy blondes adds nothing to the movie, and whether or not you laugh at Dark Helmet and Lone Starr’s ‘Schwartz’ measuring is perhaps a matter of whether you’re under fifteen years of age; but I defy anyone not to laugh whenever Moranis is on screen, sulking under his Helmet as the diminutive Dark Lord with a Napoleon complex. Pullman and Zuniga play their square-jawed roles amiably enough, and while Candy is not given much to do as Barf, his warm and friendly screen presence remains intact under the fur and make-up.

While much of the script is telegraphed – it’ll surprise no-one that Colonel Sandurz is accused of being “chicken” – it occasionally manages to be inspired, most notably in the use of ‘Ludicrous Speed’ and the tartan trail it leaves in space, the scenario Moranis plays out with Spaceballs action figures, and best of all the characters watching a video of Spaceballs during the film to discover Vespa and Lone Starr’s whereabouts. Plus there’s the added bonus of John Hurt’s Alien spoof in the film’s coda, a laugh-out-loud highlight at a time when most comedies have given up the ghost.

Spaceballs also manages to tell a decent story, which although obviously derived from Star Wars doesn’t stick to it slavishly: it happily ditches Obi-Wan, Luke and R2-D2 as there is nothing to be gained by including them and the film is all the better for it, with Lone Starr, Barf and the Princess providing a compact and nicely-acted little group. I’ve left out Dot Matrix but I have nothing against Joan Rivers’ patter – others may be less tolerant.

For those brought up on Blazing Saddles, The Producers or Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs will probably feel like a comedown for Brooks, and it is certainly broader than those classics. However, though it’s definitely hit-and-miss the film is immediately accessible to a new generation of comedy fans and has plenty to keep audiences laughing, Moranis’s performance alone worth a dozen dud gags. And in an age where film parody has plumbed excruciating depths, finding one with this much invention – however diluted – is something to celebrate.

Stepford Wives, The (2004)

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: When power-suited TV executive Joanna Eberhart is fired from her job and suffers a breakdown, husband Walter takes her to the eerily-perfect town of Stepford, Connecticut to recover. In Stepford the wives and partners are happy, docile and obedient to their spouses’ every whim; naturally suspicious, Joanna, with the help of new friends Bobbie and Roger, sets out to discover why.

I cannot claim to have seen it recently, but the original Stepford Wives ranks in my mind alongside other seventies sci-fi fare such as Soylent Green, Coma and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake where everything is not as it seems, leading to a tense, paranoid atmosphere resolved by a shocking (and usually shockingly pessimistic) twist. Though the film may not be remembered as a classic, the idea of the ‘Stepford Wife’ has passed into common parlance for someone who is suspiciously faithful and obedient. Accordingly, when Dreamworks (in conjunction with Paramount) decided to have another go at Ira Levin’s story, a straight thriller was presumably out of the question since the tale of men creating robot wives was so well-known.

What we have instead is a macabre comedy in which Nicole Kidman plays Joanna, sacked after she is shot at by a contestant who was humiliated by his wife on one of Joanna’s reality TV shows. Loving husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) takes her and the children away from the rat race to the picture-postcard town of Stepford, where the houses are automated and all she has to do is relax and play the pretty wifey.

However, whereas most of the other wives (and male partners, this is the 21st Century) are perfectly happy to make love, do the shopping, or discuss inane books under the scrutiny of Glenn Close’s matriarch Claire Wellington, Joanna aligns herself with troublemakers Roger (Roger Bart) and Bobbie (Bette Midler). The three are suspicious of goings-on in Stepford, particularly in the lodge-like Men’s Association building run by Claire’s husband Mike (Christopher Walken), but when the town’s secret is revealed – the women are robots, or at least have robotic implants – only Joanna can do anything about it because Roger and Bobbie have themselves been transformed into model spouses.

On the face of it, it makes sense to come at the Stepford Wives from this angle, and the intention behind the film is clear: now that women are thought of as every bit as capable in the boardroom as men, it is fine to make fun of the chauvinistic attitudes that wanted to keep them in the role of domestic goddess, replacing the sinister tone of the original with jokes. However, Paul Rudnick’s script is a miserable failure at providing laughs – a surprise given that he wrote the excellent Addams Family Values and the respected In and Out.

The essential problem is that the women being robots doesn’t shock anyone, least of all the cast. When one of the husbands places a card into his wife’s mouth and she spews forth money as if she were an ATM, Walter accepts the situation as if it were perfectly normal; surely he should be a little freaked out by it? The attitude appears to be that as long as the CGI guys get a workout whilst bringing the gag to life, everything’s okay (the same goes for a joke where Joanna unknowingly gets hold of another wife’s controller and enlarges her breasts before making her run backwards up the stairs).

Not only do we not get the satisfaction of the secret being slowly revealed, but in Oz’s film the nature of the secret is confused. For the first half of the film the wives appear to be completely robotic (one spins out of control at a dance and sparks fly from her), yet when it’s Joanna’s turn to face the ‘Female Improvement System’, the procedure seems to involve little more than a couple of microchips inserted into the brain – there is a hollow body cast but its purpose is not properly explained. And consider the ATM joke: assuming she doesn’t produce counterfeit money, the wife would have to be filled up with notes at regular intervals! The film fails to follow any proper logic, least of all its own, so comes across as hopelessly confused. The bulk of the humour comes from Roger (little surprise from a gay writer), but even this twist on the original feels misplaced when the innate campness of the wives is underplayed. And the less said about the opening parodies on reality TV the better: let’s just say it’s pointless to make fun of something that is already beyond inane.

Nicole Kidman, as Joanna, is miscast, her breathy, intense delivery totally unsuited to making her both sympathetic and comic (although she would have been too young at the time, someone like Anne Hathaway would have been ideal); Glenn Close has the best part in the film and does well with it, whilst Bette Midler and her klutz of a husband (Jon Lovitz) are merely grateful for the paycheques. Broderick is amiable and appropriately bland: the men of Stepford are not sinister objectifiers of women, but whiny geeks who want to sit around smoking cigars, watching sports and playing Robot Wars (geddit?). If there is any satirical message behind these men who can only properly interact with women if they are part machine, it’s hidden deep behind another confused message, that these boys with toys are fundamentally insecure about the fact that their wives are more successful than they are.

There is little about The Stepford Wives that doesn’t fall flat on its face, since it misses the point of the original entirely in pursuit of gadget-inspired gags (even one of the film’s better jokes about the AOL guy making the wives slow doesn’t work these days), losing far more in suspense and intrigue than it gains in comedy, losing the chilling pessimism of the 1975 film’s conclusion for a sappy piece of comedy-drama, tying itself up in knots about exactly what the wives are meant to be, and bringing unsympathetic and unmotivated performances from most of the cast. It’s worth a watch, perhaps, for Glenn Close and the very pretty realisation of the town of Stepford, but otherwise when the title next appears in the listings magazines, keep your fingers crossed that it’s the original. I know I will be.