When the Wayans brothers released the Airplane!-inspired horror spoof Scary Movie in 2000, one of their wittiest touches was the movie's tagline: "No mercy. No shame. No sequel." Well, money, as they say, changes everything. The franchise is now on its fourth installment, and if that tagline were to be dusted off and updated today, it would also read, "No Wayans."
When you have a cash cow like this series, you pay somebody else to milk it, and it seems only fair that the job was offered to David Zucker, one of the directors of Airplane! In the first place, the guy's career had nose-dived. Prior to signing on, his most recent screen achievement was the Ashton Kutcher-Tara Reid crime against humanity My Boss's Daughter. This wasn't just the worst film of 2003, it was one of the most appalling pictures ever made.
In the second place, David Zucker did, after all, help invent the genre spoof as we know it. Along with partners Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, he earned a place in movie history with a run that included lowbrow highlights such as Top Secret and the Naked Gun series.
After more than a quarter-century of dumb puns, pop-culture parodies and penis jokes, does Zucker still have what it takes to create fast-paced, brain-damaged satire? Well, yes and no. Scary Movie 4 is a decidedly hit-or-miss affair. There are moments as tasteless and inspired as anything the filmmaker has ever given us. And then there are the movie's other 70 or so minutes. And the film is only 83 minutes long.
Originally the mission of the Scary Movie franchise was to lampoon the Scream franchise. When the well ran dry there, its creators began taking aim at popular horror releases in general. At this point the plot, such as it is, appropriates comic fodder from a broad and predominantly random sampling of targets -- everything from recent frightfests and films that have nothing to do with horror to politics and razz-worthy celebrities.
Craig (Cinderella Man) Bierko does a riff on the character Tom Cruise played in War of the Worlds and, eventually, on the hyperactive actor himself. Anna (all four Scary Movies) Faris plays his neighbor and love interest. As Bierko occupies the center of an extended W.O.T.W. parody, Faris inhabits a parallel spoof of The Grudge. She takes a job caring for a comatose woman in a haunted house located next to Bierko's. Story lines intersect when the ghost of the dead boy who shares the home with Faris and her employer inform her that the secret to foiling the alien invasion can be found behind the walls of a mysterious community straight out of The Village.
Needless to say, the movie's plot is hardly the point. The point is nonstop, rapid-fire shtick. A handful of jokes, as I say, are inspired. My favorites include an early scene in which a towering structure rises out of the ground, to the horror of panicked onlookers. It's a classic Zucker sight gag, a familiar-looking device with the word Tripod inscribed across it in a familiar font. Initially it selects a musical menu item and people begin to get down. It then self-corrects, switches to the option "Destroy Humanity" and all vaporizing hell breaks loose. Steve Jobs aside, everyone is likely to be amused.
Another is a priceless bit featuring Zucker alum Leslie Nielsen as the President of the United States. As he sits in front of a classroom listening to a children's book being read, an aide rushes in to inform him that the nation is under attack. Despite the dire news, he keeps his seat and continues to attend to the story. How do writers come up with stuff this nutty, anyway? Only in Hollywood, huh?
Flatulence fans will not be disappointed. On the other hand, the picture's cretinous, slapstick-to-clever gag ratio is likely to be unacceptably high for even the staunchest Stooges fan. Are we really expected to laugh when Chris Elliot repeatedly runs into walls and bangs his head on things? A Brokeback parody seems out of place and already dated. Ditto with an extended take on Million Dollar Baby. Zucker could no doubt put together a perfectly entertaining spoof of boxing movies, but even he can't make the joke work in the middle of a horror-film satire.
Timeless cinema this is not. Not that a picture like this can't attain that level of indispensability. Zucker did it with both Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Neither he nor his writers are at the top of their games here, however. The best that spoof connoisseurs can hope for from Scary Movie 4 is the minimum number of on-the-money moments required to justify a Scary Movie 5. And not a single flatulence gag more.