This is installment two in “The Friedberg-Seltzer Massacre: How Two Men Single-handedly Destroyed the Parody Genre.”
In the first installment of this ill-conceived series, which shamelessly adds on to the immense online discourse that has made writer-directors Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg Hollywood’s favorite punching bags, we took a look at the 2000 film Scary Movie. The film was a massive financial success, and the amount that Seltzer and Friedberg contributed to that success is debatable. Some have questioned whether they had any creative hand in that film, at all.
No matter the case, the duo certainly used the writing credits they received on the film to launch themselves into the comedy film game. Date Movie, the pair’s first directorial effort, proudly displayed a slightly disparaging poster tagline: “From Two of the Six Writers of Scary Movie.” The home video release would go one step further in comically diminishing the writers’ prior credit by placing “2 of the 6” as a parenthetical caret above the tagline.
At the same time as this tagline downplayed the writers’ contribution to Scary Movie, it also reinforced that the film had become a calling card for them. It proved, through appearances if nothing else, that the two were bankable talents.
Despite the new bonafide on their resume, Date Movie did not come out until 2006. In the interim, Friedberg and Seltzer worked on projects which never came to fruition. When New Regency picked up their Date Movie script, they decided to direct it themselves instead of waiting around to see if it would get made by someone else. The result, as we know, was not good (except for the massive ROI at the box office).
The film tells the time old tale of love at first sight romance, jilted ex-lovers, and embarrassing in-laws. Julia Jones (Alyson Hannigan) just can’t find love, until she undergoes a radical makeover and stumbles upon the seemingly perfect guy (Adam Campbell). The film parodies titles as diverse as Hitch, Meet the Parents, Say Anything, King Kong, Pretty Woman, and Pimp My Ride, among others. And it is borderline unwatchable. If you have never seen it, know that everything you’ve heard about it is probably true.
I should make it clear before getting too deep into this career retrospective. I am not here to try and gate-keep comedy. I don’t think comedy should be censored or prohibited. Offensive comedy has its place in culture, whether I like that comedy or not. However, when you make comedy that is blatantly offensive and the intended joke is to point at that offense as if to say, “wow, can you believe we went this far,” then you open yourself up to scrutiny. Because Friedberg and Seltzer almost never do interviews, and thus have rarely commented on these jokes, then I am left with only my reaction to those jokes at face value.
In the case of Date Movie, nearly every joke which offends is wholly unfunny to me, and all I get from them is the discomfort in knowing that this PG-13 movie was potentially teaching the wrong lessons to teenagers. And this reads to me as doing more harm than good.
Less importantly, it also teaches the wrong lessons about writing comedy. Scenes just end before a punchline happens, and they don’t have anything resembling a button or resolution. Like a bad SNL sketch, it’s as if they had an idea they liked and when they couldn’t quite figure out how to organically integrate that idea into the film, they just shrugged and moved on to the next scene without resolving the bit.
Date Movie is, unsurprisingly, horrendous. I think there were three instances where my eyebrows perked up and I thought, oh, okay, they started getting at something resembling a joke here. Every other moment of it is either unremarkable or remarkable for all the wrong reasons.
Even the jokes that are tolerable go on forever, until they go from barely humorous to insufferable. The best joke in the film, in my opinion, is when Adam Campbell’s voiceover starts playing at his ex’s wedding and everyone looks around confused, searching for the disembodied voice. This devolves into a different joke about, I don’t even know, product placement and Mapquest. Halfway through the joke, the script completely loses focuses and tries for a different punchline.
Another rare moment when I admitted to myself that something mildly clever was working for me was during the Pimp My Ride parody. During the segment, the mechanics are not souping up a car, but a human woman. The premise of the bit is inherently misogynistic, to be clear, but by this point in the film I’d been so beaten over the head with misogynist premises that I was desperately searching for anything that could take my mind off of sexism and fatphobia (more on this in a moment).
In the scene, the mechanics drill a mini-television into the woman’s torso. It is a joke predicated on my prior knowledge of the absurdly repetitious and impractical nature of Pimp My Ride customizations. Not a grand slam joke, by any means, given that the humor is solely derived from taking a pop culture referent and exaggerating it (i.e., most of the jokes Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg write). For some reason, though, it caused me to snicker.
Two other moments I found mildly funny — two twiggy olive branches I’ll extend to Friedberg-Seltzer. The first is the small moment where Alyson Hannigan’s Julia and Adam Campbell’s Grant both get so overly thrilled when they learn that they have won an all-expenses paid dinner at a restaurant (a restaurant!). Unfortunately, most everything that occurs during said dinner date is horrid, and it begins the confusing running gag in which Campbell’s character makes loud, inane noises which stand in where written jokes should be. It’s just loud, inane noises for no reason.
The final amusing moment — a joke I didn’t laugh at, but which I solemnly acknowledged that what I had just witnessed hovered in the general vicinity of wit — took place during Grant’s first dinner with Julia’s parents. Grant accidentally pops a bottle of champagne, and the cork flies into the urn on the mantle containing Julia’s grandmother. Instead of ashes spilling everywhere, though, a full, desiccated corpse clatters to the floor. Unfortunately, how Friedberg and Seltzer choose to heighten this visual gag is so ungodly unfunny that the mild cleverness of the initial bit evaporates into the wind like a stale fart.
Everything else in the film is not good, and most often it challenges one’s definition of “joke.” Because how many of these visual references and bits of dialogue can be called jokes? It hurt my brain to try and comprehend.
From the very first moment, the film is rough. And it isn’t just that the first image we see is the worst Napoleon Dynamite impression (sorry, Josh Meyers) which has no connection to anything else in the film. Yes, the movie begins with a non sequitur pop culture reference to Napoleon Dynamite (a movie which released two years prior to Date Movie and whose cultural moment had long since past). What’s worse is the long opening credits sequence. I like Alyson Hannigan, and I’m glad she is really going for it here. But this sequence (and the first 20 minutes of the film) is aggressively anti-fat and misogynist.
There is one “joke” to this opening sequence, and it is the ugly belief that no one could possibly be attracted to women with larger bodies. And minutes later, when the naive, boyish Grant is gobsmacked by her, falling in love at first sight to Hannigan in prosthetic body makeup, this is considered a punchline. The premise of the film, if it is not yet clear, is that Hannigan’s character is considered gross and unlovable for reasons that only have to do with her appearance and body.
Obviously, I am not the first to take this 16-year-old film to task for its fatphobia and misogyny (going to take a look at the film’s credits real fast; it’s totally unrelated to the point I’m making, don’t worry … yep, yep, there are definitely two characters in this named “Slut Twin”). But it is a genuinely unavoidable topic, given that roughly 20% of this 88-minute movie (72 before credits) is dedicated to this one, aggressively unfunny premise.
And it isn’t as if the comedy becomes more palatable after Hannigan loses the prosthetics. No, the jokes remain in poor taste and generally hack. Unprompted Michael Jackson pedophile jokes. A Pretty Woman parody in which the comic premise is that it is a man in the Julia Roberts role (which the script explicitly calls “weird,” then the bit ends before a punchline can even happen). A domestic abuse joke that goes on for a full uninterrupted minute. I could go on.
The talent in this movie is pretty off the charts. Alyson Hannigan, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, Eddie Griffin, Judah Friedlander. It is strange to see them flail to make this material work, and none of them can pull it off. Again, Hannigan is trying her hardest to make comedy out of this turbulent script, but she consistently falls flat.
Listening to the directors’ commentary track on the “unrated” DVD, it is clear that Friedberg and Seltzer agree that their cast is an embarrassment of riches. At times, they seem genuinely surprised they were able to get names like Fred Willard at all. As much as they poke fun during the commentary, waffling between praising and disparaging the actors, it comes across that they had a good time working with the cast and maybe even have a sense of pride over getting the opportunity to work with them.
It could be noted here that in the actor commentary featuring Hannigan, Campbell, Sophie Monk, Tony Cox, and Valerie Ortiz, no one says anything particularly complimentary of the writer-directors. Instances in which one or both of them are mentioned by name can be counted on one hand. This doesn’t necessarily speak to Friedberg and Seltzer or their on-set reputation. But it is notable for participants in a commentary track to almost never mention the filmmakers by name, let alone discuss how those directors were on set.
The directors’ commentary witnesses the men hiding pride in their work under layers of sarcasm and deadpan irony. I can’t say that the DVD commentary is particularly illuminating, and it doesn’t get to the heart of who Friedberg and Seltzer are as people or creators. But it does showcase their comic sensibilities, for better or worse.
The entire directors’ commentary sees them performing laziness and a dissatisfaction over the finished film. They will often call jokes stupid, or they will lazily make the same crack about cast members again and again (every time someone is on-screen wearing makeup or prosthetics that alter their appearance, the directors say that that is actually how the actor looks). They sound bored hearing their own voices, but it all comes off like a put-on.
It seems as though they went into the recording booth with the idea to parody the concept of a commentary track. They will call something “interesting,” and then follow up with something along the lines of, “well, not really interesting, but…” Or they will insult the movie’s fans, calling them “stupid” or “high [on meth].” As soon as the end credits roll, one of them says, “Do we still have to keep talking?” It gets to the point where it is difficult to discern if it is a meta bit or a genuine lack of interest in recording the commentary (at one point, they call themselves “whores” for agreeing to do the commentary in the first place).
And, occasionally, something offensive will slip in. Most of it is less egregious than what is in the film itself, but pulling certain sound bites out of context — e.g., “What’s wrong with misogyny and burning bridges?” — make the two sound like callous jerks. One bit near the end, where they reveal that actress Sophie Monk is a vegetarian, is particularly squirmy (for a scene parodying Carl’s Jr. ads, Monk was asked to bite into a hamburger and chew it; the end credits show her spitting out the hamburger in disgust at the end of a take). Moreover, one of the two writers make a crack that she might be bulimic.
There is a video compiling the low-lights of this commentary track. Out of context, these clips make it sound like the two writers don’t like their cast, crew, audience, or movie. They do directly state that they don’t appreciate their peers or audience members, and they frequently say their movie is stupid. But listening to the entire commentary paints a different picture. The deadpan sarcasm they perform does occasionally crack. They often compliment their cast members, and they will admit when they find their jokes funny (even if they also admit the jokes are stupid).
I see these two as being far more genuine than their (honestly, not successful) bit on the commentary lets on. They seem to enjoy the movie that they made. They appear to like that the movie is stupid, and not because they think the movie is a cash grab and are happy it made a lot of money. They discuss how it was fun working with the cast and crew on set.
I still don’t like the humor that they bring to the commentary, and some of their anecdotes are unseemly (e.g., asking a vegetarian to eat a hamburger, bringing an actor on set without discussing with them beforehand that they are going to do an unscripted kissing scene). But I don’t get the sense that the two writer-directors are merely in it for the money. At least, they weren’t during the production of their directorial debut.
Also, the pair are honest with themselves about the movie they are making. They seem well aware of the negative reception this film received during its theatrical release, and they freely admit that the humor is not for everyone. They are neither deluded into thinking they have made a parody on the level of a Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker or Brooks film nor cynical in thinking that they have only made this movie for a quick check.
In the end, I must ask: Is there a silver lining to Date Movie? Is there some positive I can draw from this, a concession I can make to Friedberg and Seltzer? Well, compared to what immediately follows in their career, Date Movie has the semblance of a plot and a cast that is putting in an effort. The same cannot always be said of the directors’ next three films. And the duo are still working within a recognizable formula that has not yet gone off the rails. This is a clear-cut parody of the romance genre (until it starts riffing on other properties which have nothing to do with that genre). The film may open with a terrible, dated pop culture reference, but Date Movie does not go overboard with its references to the extent that future movies do.
And, ultimately, I think Friedberg and Seltzer made the movie they wanted to make. From what I can tell, they thought most of the jokes were funny, and they hoped that those jokes would resonate with some people. I can critique this film for its myriad problems, but I cannot fault the directors for setting out to make a film of their own. If they really only cared about the money, they could have continued selling scripts which never made it to production. Instead, they decided to direct their own script and try their hand at Hollywood. They just so happened to make a terrible movie that nevertheless made oodles of cash, because it was effectively marketed to the correct demographic.
Which is why people like me write hit pieces about how they ruined the big screen broad comedy.
In the next installment, we step deeper into the mire of Friedberg and Seltzer’s parody heyday with a look at 2007’s Epic Movie.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)