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MMYIF: Spaceballs

 My Misspent Youth In Films...

Spaceballs
Directed by: Mel Brookes
Starring: Mel Brooks, John Candy, Rick Moranis
Released: June 24, 1987

A star-pilot for hire and his trusty sidekick must come to the rescue of a princess and save Planet Druidia from the clutches of the evil Spaceballs.

What I Thought Then

We didn't own this, but we had friends who did, and whenever we visited, it was a must-watch. One of my favorite comedies.

What I Think Now

... Look... I mean... Just... Parody is hard, right? When people talk about satirical films, they always mention Airplane! for the way it skewers the airport-disaster movie genre. But what people don't realize is that Airplane! isn't really a parody of airport-disaster movies so much as it's a remake of one particularly schlocky airport-disaster movie with jokes added. (For more on that, I would point you towards this youtube video.) That gives it a remarkable sense of focus, which allows it to feel universal, even though it's quite specific. And that's what effective parody does. And kudos to Abrams and Zucker for figuring out that formula and never successfully repeating it again.

Spaceballs wants badly to be the same thing for adventure science fiction, but it doesn't have anywhere near the same kind of focus that Airplane! does. There's a lot of Star Wars in there, and some plot elements borrowed from the same kind of matinee serials that Star Wars also borrowed heavily from. And there are a few nods to Alien and Star Trek and Planet of the Apes. But mostly Star Wars. But then, there's also some Wizard of Oz references in the middle, and some general meta humor about filmmaking, with Dark Helmet accidentally killing a film crew member and getting knocked over by the camera. And there are some jokes about movie marketing. Oh, and there's a lot of humor poking fun at Jews, which is okay I guess because Mel Brooks is Jewish and he just sort of does that. All of this is to say... what is this adventure sci-fi parody actually supposed to be?

The answer, of course, is that this movie is one big, long, extended (ahem), dick joke. It's just dick jokes. You have a dick joke, and if you look underneath it, there's another dick joke. It's dick jokes all the way down. The "schwartz" is supposed to be a parody of the "force", but really it's just a dick joke, from the fact that their discount-brand light sabers originate from their crotches to the epic line opening the finale fight "I see your schwartz is as big as mine is... let's see how you handle it." The bad guys are punished by having something terrible happen to their testicles. Even Dark Helmet's tie looks like a cock-n-balls. This film is the nexus of 12-year-old-boy humor, and it's damned uncomfortable watch at the age of 40, I don't mind telling you.

Okay, I guess it's not entirely dick jokes. There are also a lot of really dumb jokes thrown in there for good measure. And I love dumb jokes. When asked where he was born, Lone-Star responds "Somewhere in the Ford Galaxy", and that joke right there is my kind of dumb. When Dot Matrix describes Prince Valium as "a pill", that's my kind of dumb. "What's the matter, Colonel Sanders? CHICKEN?" is my kind of dumb. When the chest-burster from Alien pops out of John Hurt's chest (Oh, hey, John Hurt is in this! In a cameo, but it still counts!) only to sing Hello, Ma Baby! while can-canning down the countertop at a diner, that is absolutely, positively, 100% MY KIND OF DUMB! I'm here for it! But it never amounts to anything. You have all of these jokes and pop culture references and a loose plot that strings them together, but that's not parody. That's a Friedberg and Seltzer movie. Do you want more Friedberg and Seltzer movies? Because this is how you get them! There's not really a story there or a character arc for the hero, and that makes the whole thing ring very hollow. Comedy isn't just about the jokes, and I say this as someone who writes comedy professionally*. A good joke covereth a multitude of sins, but you still need compelling characters who go on a journey for the audience to root for.

I'm being very negative, but I should pause to point out the things in this movie that do work--apart from the dumb jokes, that is. For one, this movie is populated with comedic legends. John Candy and Joan Rivers are major supporting players. Rick Moranis is hilarious. Dom DeLouise, Stephen Toblowski, and Michael Winslow all have brief but notable appearances. Unlike the aforementioned Friedberg and Seltzer fare, while this movie is full of dumb and/or phallic jokes, at least a lot of those jokes are funny. And unrelenting. And the ones that aren't funny don't penalize the audience for not laughing at them. That's really Mel Brooks's superpower. His films are extremely dense with jokes, so there's always something to laugh at, but you largely don't notice them if you don't get them. Like the "Ford Galaxy" joke I mentioned above. If you don't happen to be familiar with that car, the presence of a joke referencing it is not going to pull you out of the story, and before you have to time to wonder that that was all about, we're on the next joke. That's a pretty effective way to write comedy, if you ask me. Bill Pullman is affable enough as Lone-Star--side note: how bad is Bill Pullman's agent that he got fourth billing on a movie that he plays the hero of? The effects have not aged terribly well, but that actually kind of works in the film's favor. And Brooks is also great at ending a scene on a big gag, often relying on Moranis's physical comedy, which is an excellent use of Rick Moranis.

Recommendation?

I have no freaking clue. I have so much nostalgic affection for it, but I did not enjoy it all that much on the most recent rewatch, despite it having some laugh-out-loud hilarious gags. So... maybe?

Tune in next week for a film that's half man, half machine, all 80s action flick...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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