Onion Movie, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/28/08 17:10:43
How? How, how, how? How did something as intelligent and funny as the Onion get turned into something as stupid and lame as “The Onion Movie”?Here’s how: Way, way back in 2003, the staff of the satire newspaper/website the Onion joined up with Fox Searchlight to make a movie. Onion editor Robert D. Siegel and staffer Todd Hanson would pen the script; TV commercial vets Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire would make their feature directing debut. Footage was filmed and test screened, delays piled up, and it wasn’t long before Siegel and the directors just up and walked away from the project. When filming finally continued three years later, the Onion had disowned the thing, and no director could be found to put his name on the thing. With the movie finally completed, it would take another two years for it to finally get released, thanks to a combination of legal limbo and studio apathy. “James Kleiner” would be fictional name listed as director, a sort of modern-day Alan Smithee. Finally, in June 2008, Fox finally used its contractual option to dump the thing as a direct-to-video release. The limited online advertising would play up the reputation of the Onion and play down any actual movie content.
(To fully understand just how long this movie has been gathering dust and regret, take note that Rodney Dangerfield has a cameo.)
So there you go. It turned out to be a big ball of crap, everyone left it half-finished, someone pasted together the bits left over, and Fox released it just to get it off their backs. And yet that doesn’t explain any of it. Disown it though they may, Siegel and Hanson still wrote the damn thing, or most of it, anyway, and how is it that the same people who can give us such brilliant fake headlines can also churn out such abysmally unfunny comedy skits?
Perhaps it’s in the translation. “The Onion Movie” plays out in the same style as “The Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Amazon Women on the Moon” - comic sketches pasted together haphazardly, with a few through-lines and recurring characters. Here, it’s an Onion TV newscast that’s constantly interrupted by commercials, skits, and so on. Sometimes we follow anchorman Norm Archer (Len Cariou) behind the scenes as a sorta, kinda plot grows out of the network’s takeover by a movie studio who wants Archer to report on a movie opening this weekend. But usually it’s just random bits of silliness.
And it turns out that what works well as a story-in-brief gag on the Onion’s front page can’t sustain an entire five minute comedy skit. These are funny premises that fizzle if you attempt to overwork them beyond a couple of seconds. Consider an action flick that stars Steven Seagal (yes, the actual Steven Seagal is in this movie) as the hero “Cockpuncher” whose lone talent is explained by his name. Clever as a headline, perhaps, and in just a few words, you’d get all the subtext about the dumbing down of Hollywood product. Now consider that concept as seen here, with a phony trailer that stretches that one joke out to five minutes, and then the script keeps bringing the character back again and again to play a major part in the “plot” of the Onion News takeover. It just can’t hold up that long.
Other skits fail from a combination of one-jokeness and lousy writing that undermines the humor. In one sketch, yuppies gather to play a “How to Host a Murder” game, only it’s “How to Host a Rape.” The notion is strong - a mockery of the murder party as entertainment; why do we delight in fictionalizing one horrific crime but not others? - but watching how Siegel and Hanson unravel it is a master’s class in why some comedy fails. Instead of making everyone gung ho about the game, we get one character who thinks it’s cruel; she exists merely to state the obvious, and to have the others explain (and re-explain, and re-re-explain) the premise of the punchline. This is the movie stopping itself to tell us what the joke is supposed to mean, how it works as satire, and why it should be considered funny. Which kills the joke right there.
The newscasts also fail simply because they’re being read aloud. Throughout the film, we cut to our anchorman, reading reports both original and familiar to Onion readers. When we read the Onion, the words just sit there, and we take their blank inaction with the same tone as a regular newspaper, which then enhances the joke - the Onion isn’t just silly stories, but a mockery of journalistic clichés. When Cariou reads them aloud, however, he provides pauses and extra inflection to highlight the punchlines, which is bad line reading, sure, but it’s also bad joke telling. It’s as if the Onion website included a little video clip with each article of the editors nudging us, whispering, “Hey, you get it? Funny, right? Ha ha?”
There’s a lot of that kind of nudging in “The Onion Movie,” always right where we don’t need any. In one scene, a serious discussion on racism and stereotypes ends with an over-the-top racist, stereotype rebuttal - an unexpected move, kinda funny, but then the movie stops to repeat the joke, as if to tell the audience “yes, this was meant as a joke, and here is where we explain the joke, so please laugh now.” Another premise, about white kids who act like gangsta rappers, has a few “ha-ha” ideas before devolving into repetition and over-explanation. A (now-outdated) parody of Britney Spears’ increasingly sexed-up videos suffers from the same sort of overkill.And those are the good ideas. The rest of the film is riddled with bad-idea skits that had nowhere to go but down, old jokes about stuffy film critics and terrorists and smoking bans and you get the point. With countless bad jokes and unwatchable scenes, it’s easy to see why nobody wanted to finish “The Onion Movie.” But why did anybody want to start it?
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|