Dave Weigel and I were among the not-so-happy not-so-few who got to attend a Minneapolis screening of David Zucker's An American Carol last night. For the other half of our Siskel and Ebert routine, Dave (who had a bad feeling about the picture ahead of time) will be giving a thumbs-down review later. While I wasn't completely taken with An American Carol, I thought some of it was fairly good, so here's my case for it.
As with Annie, all the hits are front-loaded. Even in a screening with the most receptive possible audience, the room grew ominously quiet during the second half, partly because in its later moments the film turns didactic, gloomy and, for what bills itself as a goofball comedy, surprisingly hard to follow. Whether that works for you will depend on your tolerance for weird Brechtian tonal shifts. I found the unevenness pretty interesting, though I too got a sinking, oh-no-now-the-plot-is-starting feeling when the ghostly-visitor business started well into the second reel: not least because I think the government should have outlawed Christmas Carol knockoffs decades ago. The only part that sent me into a blind range was the notorious ACLU-zombie sequence, in which you can apparently kill the ghouls by shooting them center of mass, not by destroying the head or removing the brain. When you violate living dead laws that flagrantly, you're obviously not even trying.
The gleeful, playing-to-the-choir travesties of leftists yielded many fine moments, though Zucker really were determined never to let the joke speak for itself without a lot of explanation of why the joke has a deeper point. There was a great bit where the guy who played Hercules gets an award for making courageous films denouncing McCarthyism, the Holocaust, and so on, but characteristically it gets buried when Herc goes on about how he would never make a movie about a current threat like Islamic terrorism. I realize Zucker has made a fortune underestimating the intelligence of the audience, but it seems like he used to have more fun while doing it.
What is interesting about the Scrooge plot is that it hinges on belief in salvation and the possibility of redeeming the wicked. So after much churning of machinery, the Michael Moore character played (very well) by Kevin Farley (our era's Jim Belushi) gets to turn around and become a true American patriot. And that may be what makes the picture interesting. My understanding is that Zucker himself is a lefty turned post-9/11 hawk, so Farley's desperate mugging throughout much of the picture can be read as an autobiographical touch from the filmmaker. The whole movie has the herniated, clapping-off-the-beat quality of somebody trying to fit in with a new crowd he's still not totally comfortable with—in this case, the kind of Americans who actually have family members in the service. David Zucker may not be a person anybody ever wanted to see a personal film from, but in the event it makes the material more interesting than it might have been. The joke about how Farley hates country music gives another dimension to the final, rousing for-the-troops fest led by Trace Adkins. I'd guess there still aren't many Adkins fans in Zucker's zip code.
Finally, while the laffs eventually peter out, there are some pretty great ones early on. Since those have been widely described, I'll just add a funny airport-security bit purporting to be a documentary against "Christian terrorists" by a Rosie O'Donnell type. Oh, and there's also a running gag about how nobody likes documentaries, to which I'm particularly sympathetic.