National Lampoon Goes to the Movies
*/**** Image C- Sound C+
starring Robby Benson, Richard Widmark, Diane Lane, Candy Clark
screenplay by Tod Carroll, Shary Flenniken, Pat Mephitis, Gerald Sussman and Ellis Weiner
directed by Bob Giraldi and Henry Jaglom
by Alex Jackson There is a Japanese restaurant in Beverly Hills called Ginza Sushi-Ko where some dishes are only in season for two days. The owner imports 90-95 percent of his fish from Japan and so his menu is contingent upon the current geographic conditions of the country. If the fishermen can't go out because of a typhoon, he'll close down his restaurant and cancel reservations. National Lampoon's Movie Madness is a film like that: it's as hyper-topical as a late-show monologue--every reference is isolated in 1981 and unable to expand itself onto a greater context. By the time the picture was actually released a mere two years later (direct-to-video in most territories), many of its jokes had already become dated. Just think of what an additional twenty-two years has done. Reviewing this thing isn't film criticism, it's archaeology.
National Lampoon's Movie Madness is composed of three shorts, each of which allegedly sends up a different movie genre. In "Growing Yourself", Jason (Peter Riegert) is a corporate lawyer who quits his job and divorces his wife in order to "grow." He's not particularly unhappy; he just figures that "growing" is what people are supposed to do. The filmmakers would appear to be satirizing the popular "personal growth" pictures of the late-Seventies and early-Eighties like Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People. Their thesis is that "personal growth" is but another extension of yuppie self-absorption.
While film buffs will often point to their Best Picture wins over Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull, respectively, as evidence that the Oscars are not indicators of quality, Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People actually remain fairly solid movies today. Strangely enough, they haven't dated nearly as much as the attack against them has. National Lampoon's perspective is born out of a distinctly 1981 paranoia of the Sixties. The film has a sort of regressive '50s mentality--it idealizes the American family and sees Jason's actions as being unjustifiably destructive. This is really a very poor critique of the "personal growth" genre. While Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People are "pro-divorce" films in that they maintain a degree of optimism about the decision of their central couples to end their marriages, neither equates the dissolution of the American family with freedom, and they don't at all sugarcoat the pain of the process. I don't mean to suggest that the "personal growth" films are beyond criticism, but the more obvious and fruitful attack against them--that they are "white-guy whiny"--is something National Lampoon's Movie Madness doesn't even explore. Whatever it is that's powering the filmmakers' venom, it's not the genre itself. And I shouldn't neglect to mention the obvious point that one would only think to parody the "personal growth" picture in 1981, when one could more easily conceive of them as belonging to a genre.
The second episode, "Success Wanters", follows the rise of Dominique Corsaire (Ann Dusenberry), an exotic dancer who was gangraped with sticks of butter by a group of butter executives. In order to exact her revenge, she seduces and destroys the heads of the butter and margarine industries and acquires their businesses. As with "Growing Yourself", the genre satirized in "Success Wanters" is one that could only be recognized by an audience surrounded by everything 1981. It seems to be a parody of epic prime-time soap operas à la "Dallas" or "Dynasty", where the rich and powerful backstab, deceive, trap, kill, and fuck one another while indulging in opulence that would put Caligula to shame.
Instead of oil tycoons we get butter tycoons, and every man who sleeps with Dominique wants to give her a necklace so heavy that it breaks through her dresser when she puts it down. (Hardy-har.) That's about as deep as they take the parody. The central problem with this segment is that it can't satirize this material nearly as well as the material satirizes itself. It's the early-'80s equivalent of parodying reality-TV. What's the point? On a more superficial level, "Success Wanters" is just depressing to watch. Ann Dusenberry bares her breasts in every seduction scene, and while this is nice for a short time, helping to make the film borderline bearable, the repetition of seeing her naked eventually turns National Lampoon's Movie Madness into simple exploitation, which then implicates us for watching it. Having her gangraped (albeit with sticks of butter) in the beginning of the piece can't help but give the subsequent sexual behavior a certain feeling of desperation. There isn't any satirical intent behind the sex, but there isn't really any weight to it, either. Her degradation doesn't serve much purpose other than to amuse and titillate us.
I don't think the problem is one of taste but rather one of tone. The filmmakers don't seem to know what to do with their material. I perhaps felt this most profoundly during a scene where Dominique's Greek tycoon husband catches her with his son and throws a tantrum, as he wanted to deflower the boy himself. It feels less shocking than sad. Fox's "Family Guy" is often teeming with incest and pedophilia humour, and the reason it works there but doesn't here might be that while "Family Guy" uses vulgarity in a completely thoughtless and amoral way, National Lampoon's Movie Madness uses it as a plot point, thus giving it a sort of reality that's particularly abrasive.
Finally, there is "Municipalians", in which a touchy feely liberal cop (Robby Benson) has to track down a serial killer (Christopher Lloyd) whose signature is to leave a photocopy of his driver's license with every victim. Faint praise for sure, "Municiples" is the funniest and best episode of National Lampoon's Movie Madness. It's not so much a spoof of a specific movie genre as it is a third-rate Police Academy prototype. I suppose that's progress, in a way, since you're then able to relate to it in a moderately normal fashion. But "Municipalians" exhibits many of the same problems of both "Growing Yourself" and "Success Wanters". It again doesn't evince a grasp on the tone; the serial killer strangles women because, we are told, his vacation request was denied. (There's also a degree of eroticism to his murders that the film never quite addresses and that lingers there unresolved.) And like "Growing Yourself", the episode is making an overt political point--a real stupid one, at that.
The liberal cop's touchy-feeliness is really the episode's object of satire. Like the Adam Sandler character in Anger Management or the Jim Carrey character in Me, Myself & Irene, the more he suppresses his anger and tries to put on a smile, the more the world abuses him. Quite the opposite of those films, however, "Municipalians" is not interested in having its loser character discover his sense of self-esteem. Once he explodes in rage, they punish him for doing so. There is a genuine callousness at work here that I think stems from what I dislike the most about these sorts of films, which is that their philosophy can be summarized as "everything is another shade of shit." They're amoral, idiotic, and irreverent, simply because exhibiting any form of morality, intelligence, or reverence will render them vulnerable to scrutiny. As the rest of the film isn't exactly big on family values, it therefore seems that "Growing Yourself" only idealizes the traditional family structure as a means to indict its Jason character's supposed quest for spiritual actualization.
By its very design, National Lampoon's Movie Madness never evolves into camp. The modern audience is unable to condescend to its "Eighties-ness" and is instead alienated by it. The enormous cast contains appearances from Fred Willard, Diane Lane, Candy Clark, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Widmark, Elisha Cook, Julie Kavner, Rhea Perlman, an unrecognizable Dick Miller, and, somewhat surprisingly, Joe Spinell (the maniac in Maniac) and Harry Reems (the doctor in Deep Throat). Henny Youngman cameos as the serial killer's lawyer, delivering the very same one-liners he would later use in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. None of these stars degrade themselves, but they don't bring anything to the film, either. One then realizes that to the extent that National Lampoon's Movie Madness works as pop, it's pop designed to be consumed in one weekend and incinerated immediately thereafter, lest the smell of it contaminate the other movies in the theatre.
Lucky for us, I suppose, MGM has finally released National Lampoon's Movie Madness on DVD. It's a bargain-bin kind of deal: fullscreen on one side of the disc and 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen on the other, with no extras aside from an ambitiously goofy trailer that calls the film by its original title (National Lampoon Goes to the Movies) and features footage from a deleted episode. Image quality is consistently poor--the entire film is swathed in a layer of darkness that I imagine could have been easily filtered out. The quality of the Dolby 2.0 mono track, on the other hand, is inconsistently poor. Funnily enough, everything recorded in post-production, such as music and voice-over, sounds fine, but the dialogue sounds faded and old. When all's said and done, for National Lampoon completists and cultural historians only. Originally published: August 1, 2005.
97 minutes; PG; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced), 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-10; Region One; MGM