Wednesday, October 08, 2008

An American Carol

An American Carol is not a perfect movie. It rockets between slapstick, farce and pathos, at times so quickly that the pieces step on one another. There's a framing device that serves to provide a paycheck for Leslie Nielsen and not much else. Some of the satire is ham-handed, some of the jokes fall flat, and the story is not, perhaps, as coherent as it might be.

That said, it is also a very funny movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As one might guess from the title, this is yet another riff off of Charles Dickens' classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. This one is not set at Christmas, however, but the fourth of July.

Kevin Farley (younger brother of former SNL comedian Chris) stars as Michael Malone, an overweight, unshaven maker of successful documentary films highlighting flaws in America. (Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental, or only for the purpose of parody and satire.) As the movie begins, Malone is filming a paean to the Cuban healthcare system, winning the Leni Riefenstahl Award for Documentary Filmmaking at the Award ceremony for his film "Die You American Pigs!" and working to ban military recruiters from college campuses. And he's getting ready to lead a demonstration to abolish the fourth of July as a national holiday. But he's certainly not anti-American. "I love America," he says. "That's why I have to destroy it."

If you're familiar with the template (and really, who isn't?) then you know what comes next. Malone's hero, President John F. Kennedy, steps out of his television to warn him that he's missed some important things, and there are going to be three spirits visiting him to help him learn them.

And help him they do. The primary guide for Malone's journey is General George S. Patton, played by Kelsey Grammer, who walks Malone through history, alternate history and alternate reality. Along the way, we're treated to a not-strictly-accurate depiction of Chamberlain's meeting with Hitler, Gary Coleman polishing Malone's car in a modern-day America in which Lincoln had refused to go to war, and an appearance on Bill O'Reilly with Rosie O'Connell, who has produced another documentary. (I don't want to give much away, but I think it's safe to say that An American Carol's is the first screenplay to ever feature the term "Episcopal suppository bomber.")

It's clear that director David Zucker, of Airplane! and Top Secret fame, has a point to make, and it isn't subtle. It's the same point that I've made before - if you're riding around with a "War is Not The Answer" bumper sticker, it's very possible that you didn't understand the question. There are people who will be offended by this movie. (Although I suspect that most of the people that would really be offended aren't actually going to see it - they were outraged enough by the concept and trailers, and can drop 1-star reviews at without actually paying to sit through it.)

It is not as funny as Airplane! was, although there are inspired moments that clearly came from the same imagination. (Malone's farewell to his navy nephew was classic Airplane! type farce.) The terrorist side-story with Aziz, Ahmed and Mohammed provides some laughs but probably could have been improved upon. The language is a little rough in a couple of spots, but not awful on the whole.

I don't get to the movie theater often, and generally only when I'm taking my kids to something for the whole family. But I wanted to support Zucker in his attempt to make something telling our side of the story, the "America is a force for good in the world, we were attacked, it wasn't our fault, they're the bad guys" side that Hollywood never does. They're too busy "speaking truth to power" by producing brave works attacking an ex-Senator from Wisconsin who's been dead for 51 years. (Another point which Zucker amusingly made in this film.) So I was favorably disposed when I walked into the theater. I wanted to like it.

And I did. Far more than I'd expected to. It isn't the sort of thing that my wife would generally want to see, and she laughed most of the way through, too. It was very funny, in a Homer Simpson "it's funny 'cause it's true" kind of way. And it was even touching in spots. On the whole, I enjoyed it enormously, and greatly appreciate Zucker for making it (and Grammer, Jon Voigt, James Woods, Dennis Hopper and Robert Davi, among others, for being willing to come "out of the closet," as it were, and join him.) It won't win any Oscars (and shouldn't), and it won't get any great reviews, but it was a lot of fun, and I'm glad to have seen it.

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