“The whole idea of spoof, to me, is just so done and gone,” said David Zucker to The Onion AV Club. “I'm very proud of all three of the Naked Guns, but I think we've declared victory.”
That was ten years ago. In 2001, terrorists attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—or have you forgotten? In 2004, a newly-minted Republican David Zucker donated to the Bush re-election campaign and made a commercial for the Club for Growth that portrayed a line-up of schmucks being as indecisive as John Kerry. “If you never commit to what you believe in,” said Zucker’s narrator, “who will commit to you?”
Zucker stayed committed, producing more political ads in 2006 and directing An American Carol, a feature-length—what’s the word?—spoof of the modern left, of terrorism, of Hollywood, of slavery, and of the never-promising genre of Charles Dickens pastiches. This is an idea even the Muppets had trouble with, and they didn’t have Zucker’s political obligations.
We open on an idyllic Fourth of July picnic, where embalmed-looking, paycheck-needing Leslie Nielsen gathers up some kids to tell them a tale occasionally broken up by erotic, slow-motion daydreams. It’s the story of Michael Malone (Kevin Farley, brother of Chris), a Michael Moore lookalike who is following up his success with films like Die, You American Pigs with a campaign to ban Independence Day.
”I love America,” Malone says in one of the many, many scenes where he’s eating and looking confused. “That’s why it’s got to be destroyed.”
Malone is approached by hard-luck Taliban terrorists who, buffeted by American military success, are having trouble recruiting fresh bodies. Led by Robert Davi, who reads his lines as if he’s smothering them with a hospital pillow, they corner Malone at an award show. ”We heard you were a big fat liar!” giggles Mohammed (Geoffrey Arend), before giving Malone tentative funding for a drama that will finally, finally win him the respect of the Hollywood elite.
All of this happens before any of the Dickensian ghosts show up to shake some sense into Malone. We’ve forgotten what’s being parodied by the time the ghost of John F. Kennedy jumps out of Malone’s TV set to remind him that his high-toned rhetoric disguised an anti-commie ass-kicker. The ghost of George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer) guides Malone through most of his journey, showing him a world where American soldiers never freed the slaves or beat the Nazis, where ACLU lawyers groan and swarm like zombies. He summons the ghost of George Washington (Jon Voight), in a scene of transcendent weirdness, where Malone is shown the ashes of 9/11 victims to shame him out of making documentaries. Malone’s lessons end under the arm of “the freakin’ angel of death,” (country singer Trace Adkins), who shows him a future where morgue doctors play with his remains and Muslim conquerors build him a statue in occupied Hollywood.
Spoiler alert: Malone learns the error of his ways. By the end of the film he’s patched up relations with his Navy man brother, celebrated the Fourth of July, and started production on a patriotic biopic of JFK. He exposes the terrorists’ plot from the stage of a Trace Adkins concert, where the man sings an ode to America that goes, in part, “army, navy, air force and marines/the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen.”
And that’s how David Zucker returns to the spoof genre. (He has directed, but not written, two of the Scary Movie films.) The goals here are as partisan, zealous, and transparent as Warren Beatty’s when he made Reds, or John Travolta’s when he made Battlefield Earth. Zucker has promoted the film across conservative media, at the Republican convention (where screening attendees like Rick Santorum got liberal paper dolls for their kids), and on Fox News. “Laugh like your country depends on it!” bellows the movie’s ad copy. This is not a joke. If a Scary Movie bombs, some people lose money. If An American Carol bombs, Zucker’s quest to make Hollywood safe for conservatives is dealt a Dunkirk.
How successful can he be, though? Like Redacted (2007) and other Iraq films attacked by conservatives as propagandic money pits, the targets of AAC have shrunk since the screenwriters first aimed at them. Just because Michael Moore took four years to put out a documentary on his “slacker uprising” tour doesn’t mean people still take him seriously on electoral politics. Indeed, Moore released the movie for free online. He went through a brief moment as a symbol for everything conservatives hated about the left, roughly from the release of Bowling for Columbine to Bush’s re-election. Spoof targets work best when the subjects are brand new or ripped out of clichés. Farley’s Malone never overcomes the “oh yeah, that guy” factor.
Zucker doesn’t try too hard to understand the left beyond Moore/Malone. Late in the film, we learn that Malone was only ever unpatriotic because, as a portly teen, he had a crush on a girl who hated America, too. When she ran off with a soldier, he doubled down as a political activist. Malone’s motivation is the only one that Zucker explains: The rest of the liberals and left-wingers in the movie are psychopaths who willfully make things up, chant slogans mindlessly, and beat up people who upset them. This is the first Hannity and Colmes comedy, birthed in an echo chamber, with references that only make sense to people who are already die-hard conservatives.
Is it funny? It depends. Zucker funs around with Hitler by recycling a gag from his worst political ad, in which a James Baker III lookalike did the bidding of a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lookalike. There is a truly disturbing scene involving Leslie Nielsen and human dismemberment that might have gotten a chuckle at Ed Gein’s house. There are a few jokes that connect, though, and that puts An American Carol miles ahead of Fox’s short-lived “The Half Hour News Hour.”
It doesn’t put it in league with the great liberal comedy. There’s a reason for that, as TV critics point out every time a conservative comedy or skit fails. Political comedy mocks authority. Conservative comedy in the Age of Bush venerates authority. The “heavies” that corrupt Malone and (temporarily) ruin the lives of his conservative extended family are powerless, silly activists. Malone simply gets slapped around a bit and decides the establishment was right. If you transported Zucker back to 1978 and pitched him Animal House, he’d direct Niedermeyer: Man of Iron.
Hopefully this is a curable problem, a result of eight fat years of Republican rule, the bulk of which were spent apologizing for the Bush administration and agonizing over land wars in Asia. Conservative comedy thrived in the Clinton era; perhaps it can bloom again in the Brumiere of Barack Obama.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason. This article originally appeared at Culture11.