Let it be said that criticizing originality in Hollywood is as natural as second-guessing referees at sporting events. There is some vague entity out there, a faceless ‘they’ in the film industry, that has ‘run out of ideas,’ reduced to just releasing sequels and re-makes. Every year, The American Public sits in movie theaters, during the coming attractions, rolling their collective eye at trailers for another comic book movie (including head-scratching re-dos like Hulk or Spider-Man) or an apparently-still-open-ended saga like Pirates of the Caribbean or Men In Black. What is largely misunderstood, however, is that these unsolicited, big-budget movies are a threat to the art of film itself. In reality, the kind of movie (hint: not Inception) that typically earns a sequel is mindless fare, anyway, so making four or six Fast and Furious flicks is ultimately harmless. What I cannot support, as a general rule, is the misguided notion that a great hit comedy deserves a sequel.
Comedy, in film, is a medium of freshness. The movies that resonate with the largest audiences, the ones that become ‘must-see’ phenomena, succeed because they entail variations we, as hungry consumers, have not seen before. In this sense, comedy is a cousin to music; jokes become outdated as fast as bands do.
[Comedy, on television, conversely, relies on familiarity–anticipating what dunce shoe-shiner Andy will say in Parks and Recreation or how Charlie will react to a situation in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia creates the biggest laughs. Kramer enters a room and the studio audience cheers because week after week, he fulfills our expectations (in the program Seinfeld…do you know it?). Television has this inherent advantage over movies. Not enough time lapses between episodes for these indelible characters to become stale. When there is too much of a hiatus, the audience loses interest. Napoleon Dynamite, the recent animated version on Fox, was dead-in-the-water from Day 1 because the show was released seven years after the movie was popular. Shows like Family Guy and Arrested Development are examples of what an extended absence can do–they both peaked via word-of-mouth after they were cancelled, only to return (presumably for Arrested) to network television with diminishing returns. There is a reason (let’s be honest, there are several) why Dave Chappelle still doesn’t call Comedy Central back.]
It would seem obvious, then, that sequels-of-comedies are destined to fail. When you have a such a large gap between the original and the follow-up, there is far too much opportunity for the former’s charm to be diluted by repeated viewings, copycat parodies, and over-saturation. While I believe the Austin Powers trilogy to be the exception rather than the rule here, how many audience members found the Austin Powers character still 100% amusing in The Spy Who Shagged Me or Goldmember? What that series did well in the 2nd and 3rd installments was add more characters like Mini-Me, Fat Bastard, Goldmember, to disseminate the big laughs to fresher vessels. It did not take many Halloweens for you to get sick of the “Oh, behaaave” and “Very shaggadelic, baybay” re-enactments. Austin Powers, the protagonist, was suddenly (and shrewdly on Mike Myers’ part) the straight man instead of the wacky cartoon he seemed in the original. If only Ace Ventura had employed the same strategy in When Nature Calls.
This past week, it was announced that Ron Burgundy and the rest of his news team will assssssemmmmmbbbbllllllle for a sequel to Anchorman in the next year or two. This caused an internet frenzy, and rightfully so, as this 2004 film is universally regarded as a classic, the infinitely quotable staple. It made Will Ferrell the Comedy King in Hollywood (again, rightfully so), and set the stage for Steve Carell and Paul Rudd to soon be headlining at least one or two comedies a year in their own right. Frankly, it’s just a shock looking back that Seth Rogen wasn’t in it.
[Aside: As far as their decision to make a sequel, I am all in. The first reason is that I trust the team behind it too much. Ferrell and director Adam McKay have gone on to make Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, so they clearly still have their fastball (unlike, say, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, who are to start filming a Dumb and Dumber sequel this year). The second reason is less obvious: Anchorman was not a huge smashing success in theaters, just a gem that grew on people and developed a cult following over the past eight (!) years; it followed a different aging process than most, skipping past the backlash-catchphrase phase and now settled into its golden, unassailable state of immortality. We understand now that Anchormans do not come along very often. The creators have no doubt fielded eight years of questions regarding a sequel, and only now, after that pressure cooled, they decide to acquiesce and give it a go, which feels like an ‘ah, fuck it’ decision if there ever was one. I will be there opening weekend, shit-eating-grin on my face, hoping for a movie 70% as good as the original because a poor man’s Anchorman is still going to be better than your standard Dinner For Schmucks fare. The sequel will feel like a victory lap of sorts, a band that has gotten back together for a reunion tour, where they have surely all lost a step, but you’ll be content to sing along to the classics.]
Let’s forget about Anchorman because it sits atop an unapproachable pedestal.
Lost in the shuffle of the Anchorman news, and the reason for my sudden interest in this subject, was the announcement last week that The Hangover gang will release a third movie in 2013. A decision that, personally, I find insulting. The original was a brilliant premise and an introduction to Zach Galifinakis for the masses. It grossed almost 500 million dollars worldwide and won a Golden Globe for ‘Best Musical or Comedy.’ It had a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 78%. Given the profit they stood to make, they released a sequel last year that was an absolute affront to comedy filmmaking–every scene, every premise, every gross-out moment, felt like a verbatim copy of the first one, so much so that it could not have been a mere accident, the impersonation was the filmmaker’s intention. This was a huge miscalculation on their part–audiences are smarter than that. The Rotten Tomatoes rating for Hangover II was 35%. Naturally, it made even more money than the original, even though I doubt very many people saw it twice. As you might have guessed, though, this discussion has nothing to do with money. It has to do with artistic integrity. It has to do with the fact that going to Thailand and switching a monkey-for-a-baby is lazy writing.
The saddest part of this artist/consumer relationship is how little say we appear to have in what films get shoved down our throat. The Adam Sandler film Grown-Ups is an abysmal movie. It is hard to imagine there was a script at any point in its shooting, just a game plan to corral a few washed-up comedic personalities and trade one-liners at a lake house. And if you happen to scan Sandler’s IMDB page, you will find that, yup, Grown-Ups 2 is in ‘pre-production’ for next year (The Computer Newspaper assumes ‘pre-production’ means re-animating David Spade’s mustache, letting Rob Schneider out of his padded room, and researching new foot diseases for Chris Rock’s grandmother character to contract).
Critically, the original Grown-Ups garnered just a 10% score on Rotten Tomatoes and yet they are going to give the public exactly what they were not clamoring for: ninety more horrendous minutes. Can I expect to see a poster for The Love Guru 2 (14% RT score) as well? Granted, we are about to re-elect a president with an approval rating in the low 40s, but that means cinema seems to be an even less effective democracy than our government.
How much better would I feel about Meet The Parents as a concept if I hadn’t also met the Fockers, little and big alike? Did Harold and Kumar actually go to Guantanamo Bay? Jesus, there have been three, count ‘em, three visits to Big Momma’s House?
Whether it be Legally Blonde, Barbershop, Friday, Miss Congeniality, Clerks, or The Whole Nine Yards, the last decade has been chock-full of reprises that evaporate from our consciousness as quickly as they came. The only ones that do tend to surprise and entertain are rarely ever straight-up comedies, but more of an action-based narrative like Rush Hour 2. Since this sequel boom of the mid-2000s, the instances of comedy sequels (or at least those geared for adults, we cannot count anything written for children) have dropped. Call it the Scary Movie Effect. The market flooded.
Either Hollywood wised up, or upon closer review, it developed more subtle ways to capitalize on the success of an original.
(1) The ‘spin-off’ sequel. This became en vogue a few years ago and led to Evan Almighty and Get Him To The Greek, the upcoming This Is 40, which follows Paul Rudd’s character from Knocked Up, and there is even speculation that a future Tropic Thunder is in the works centered around Tom Cruise’s scene-stealing studio head character.
(2) Tweak a pre-established formula by bringing back the same actors but as different characters. Borat becomes Bruno. Talladega Nights becomes Step Brothers. Pineapple Express becomes Your Highness. If you liked blank, you’re going to love blank.
(3) Go straight to DVD because the principals are not returning. No Ryan Reynolds in Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj (2006), little-to-no Tina Fey involvement for Mean Girls 2 (premiered on ABC Family last year), a barrage of American Pie derivatives.
While we are on the subject of pie-penetrating, American Reunion opened in theaters this week, a film that is destined to blow but ultimately make a profit. And yes, I do think I have license to assume it sucks because (a) the trailer includes references to Chumbawamba and Ricky Martin, and (b) the cast includes one actor that has stayed relevant post-Pie in Seann William Scott. Otherwise, I do not think the world misses Jason Biggs, Tara Reid, Chris Klein, Mena Suvari, Shannon Elizabeth, or whomever the fuck plays Finch. This is the fourth of the American Pie films to be released in theaters, the eighth total (the remaining four went straight to DVD, all eight included cameos by Eugene Levy by the way). This franchise is the quintessential example of one’s success being its own worst enemy. Instead of just living off the land and having American Pie exist as the lone, endearing installment, the creators (or maybe the studio) felt compelled to make seven sequels, which just reeks of desperation and forces us to then re-examine if the original was that good in the first place. It at least makes sense, financially speaking, for the key members of American Pie or Super Troopers or Napoleon Dynamite, as examples, to push for subsequent installments because the rest of their collective filmography is nothing but flops. If nobody wants to hire you, you might as well wear the wig that made you famous.
The upper echelon of comedians seems to at least take the high road more often than they could these days. Will Ferrell turned down $29 million to be in a sequel to Elf, not to mention resisting the idea of an Old School 2 along with co-star Vince Vaughn, someone who has balked at making another Wedding Crashers any time soon. There has been talk of a third Ghostbusters for a decade now, but it would have to exclude Bill Murray, who refuses to give in.
These are encouraging tidbits to learn, but the news of Anchorman returning, along with Dumb and Dumber, proves that no source material is truly safe. Ben Stiller has written the script for a second Zoolander and marked 2014 as a possible release date. Though proud comedic minds may have the best of intentions early on in their careers, like Kristen Wiig denying any immediate plans for another Bridesmaids or the makers of Superbad remaining true to just the one installment, that money will always be available for them to take. Maybe Michael Cera or Melissa McCarthy will just ‘need’ the work in 2018 and those promises will be broken. Sequels are highly, highly lucrative and make a profit regardless of quality, which is why any plea for sanity (e.g. this essay) falls on deaf ears, or at least ears that no longer want to hear anything ever again because Sex and the City 2 was just too traumatizing to listen to.
Disheartening as it may be, money supersedes legacy in every medium, not just film. I wish that Weezer stopped making albums ten years ago. I wish there was no footage of Michael Jordan in a Wizards jersey. These past-their-prime moments do, whether we admit it or not, matter. When we measure an artist or an athlete’s lasting value, we need to consider them holistically, looking at the full body-of-work and determining what their standards seem to be. Though it was deflating for some when running back Barry Sanders retired at age 30, he did so while still healthy and playing at a Hall-of-Fame level. He left millions of dollars on the table and did not care to continue playing until he broke each rushing record that he was on pace to shatter. Then, you have a guy like Brett Favre, whose legacy suffered as many nicks as his body did in the final Jets/Vikings chapters. When I think about Favre literally being tossed and shoved out of the league these past few years, I am moved to reflect on how happy I am that there is no such thing as an Office Space 2.