The Friedberg-Seltzer Massacre: Meet The Spartans and Disaster Movie (2008)

This is the fourth installment in “The Friedberg-Seltzer Massacre: How Two Men Single-handedly Destroyed the Parody Genre.”

Following the profitable Epic Movie in 2007, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer saw two of their films released in 2008. If one was skeptical about the over-saturation of spoof films at the box office in the second half of the 2000s, that sentence should alleviate any further suspicion.

These parodies were being churned out like a factory assembly line product. Mere months after Meet the Spartans opened, it was announced that the pair were in pre-production on what would become Disaster Movie (the project started life as an ill-advised Superbad send-up). Disaster Movie filmed in late spring and was released before the year was out.

One could theorize that studios were eager to rapidly produce and ship to theaters these parody films while someone (anyone) was willing to pay money for it. Reporting on the production announcement for Disaster Movie, Peter Sciretta at /Film framed the story around his total impatience for the genre’s continued existence in Hollywood. He ended the piece by asking, “Discuss: Should Hollywood retire the Spoof genre?” I think he already knew the answer when he wrote the piece.

Meet the Spartans was produced in the same manner as Freidberg and Seltzer’s previous output. The film was financed by Regency Pictures and distributed by 20th Century Fox. Also similar to their previous films, it was almost universally panned, and it made a healthy profit at the January box office (a notoriously quiet B.O. month).

Disaster Movie, which was distributed by Lionsgate and did not have the involvement of Regency, released at the very end of Summer 2008. It was, arguably, the least successful film of Friedberg and Seltzer’s career. Grossing only $36 million worldwide on a reported $20 million budget (plus whatever quick marketing campaign Lionsgate could muster between filming in June and release in August), the film was a flop. It also remains one of the pair’s worst reviewed films.

Audiences, similarly, showed their disdain for this spoof film trend by awarding Disaster Movie an F Cinemascore. Cinemascore is not a perfect metric for gauging audience reaction, but an F is still telling in that it shows evidence that opening night audiences (those most eager to see the film, presumably) felt that their expectations for the film were far from met.

Friedberg-Seltzer would return to box office success with their next film, but Disaster Movie nevertheless became a symbol for everything that was wrong with the spoof cycle. It was looked at as the nadir of parody, the last straw after many disliked films before it. Roger Moore at the Orlando Sentinel called the film’s release date “the day of the apocalypse.” Josh Rosenblatt at the Austin Chronicle called Friedberg and Seltzer “a scourge [on the cinematic landscape].” In Peter Bradshaw’s review at The Guardian, he likened the whole cycle of parodies to a generic brand product, a “humorless knockoff.”

The consensus was that these films were becoming an eyesore on the entirety of Hollywood, and that Disaster Movie was particularly emblematic of this due to the speed and apparent laziness of its production. Much of the blame was being levied directly at Friedberg and Seltzer, who by this point had become a punching bag for critics and film fans. It didn’t help that the two were ostensibly anonymous entities, rarely taking interviews or appearing in the public eye. They didn’t defend their products while critics completely dismantled them and called for the end of the entire genre.

In one sense, this silence makes the two look all the more complicit in the destruction of the genre that had bore some of their favorite comedies. By saying nothing and continuing to produce films that came off as lazy and slapdash, it produced a persona for these two men (which may or may not be accurate).

It is easy to view the two as cynical Hollywood types cashing in on a fad early and often, and who maybe were not skilled enough to jump onto the next fad when the parody candle burnt out. Or that they were college film bros who saw Goodfellas and thought they too could make it in Hollywood. Or that they were sons of nepotism (Friedberg’s father directed their first produced script) who couldn’t see quality comedy through the giant silver spoons in their mouths. Without much public knowledge about who these two are, it becomes far too easy to project the vitriol one has for their movies onto the perception of them as people.

In all likelihood, they are just two guys who caught a lucky break and didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle of Hollywood. Maybe they decided it made more sense to make the movies they knew would get produced than continue writing scripts which ended up on the shelf (that is why they decided to direct Date Movie, after all). One could read cynicism into that, sure, but it is also a simple reality of the business. It is self-preservation.

With all this said, I will not be defending their 2008 cinematic output. Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie are two of the worst films I have ever witnessed. Meet the Spartans is the worst movie I ever paid money to see in a theater (I was the target demo of 13, and I was still bored out of my mind by the film).

As with the other Friedberg-Seltzer parodies, there is some mercy granted to the audience in that Meet the Spartans runs only 65 minutes before the runtime-padding song and dance number and credits. On the other hand, those 65 minutes only come with one decent joke, and that joke is at the very beginning. There’s a baby with abs, an obvious but not terrible riff on the hyper-masculinity of Zack Snyder’s 300. Of course, this same sequence contains a vomiting Shrek ogre-baby and a Brangelina adoption joke, so the movie settles in pretty quickly to Friedberg and Seltzer’s usual awful shtick.

Meet the Spartans is almost entirely made up of tired pop culture references (there are so many reality show judge panels that pop up in this), exaggeration of 300‘s overt homo-eroticism, and cheaply produced “action” sequences. The 300 parody itself is probably the most effective aspect of the film, but only because it is housed around the most vacuous and superfluous pop culture references. This film continues the 2000s parody cycle trend of merely pointing at a recognizable cultural entity and assuming that alone is enough for a laugh. Cracks at Britney Spears, Sanjaya from American Idol, the marketing campaign for NBC’s Heroes, Gatorade commercials. It all reads so hokey and tired. It is mindless allusion without punchline.

Disaster Movie doubles down on this referential style, to the point where it stretches the limit of what constitutes a feature film. Its insistence on pausing the plot for minutes at a time to revel in poorly drawn character or celebrity impersonation is utterly baffling. It would read as borderline avant garde commentary on the nature of mainstream Hollywood cinema…if it wasn’t so aggressively horrid.

The film barely succeeds at a thin plot, likely because it began as a parody of raunchy coming-of-age comedies a la Superbad. Only later was it retro-fitted to parody disaster movies. The result is a first act that feels like a bad rom-com, a second act that is a series of shoe-horned movie references, and a third act that also is a series of shoe-horned references. Suffice it to say, this barely fits the parameters of narrative cinema. At best, you could call it sketch comedy. But even that would require some level of structure within the discrete bits, something which is clearly lacking here.

I could spend time here breaking down the instances of explicit misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. But the film is not worthy of critical examination. Just know it is all there, and it is more egregious than in other Friedberg-Seltzer movies. We could also spend time interrogating the absurdly cheap production value of both of these movies, but, again, it would be wasted energy on all of our parts. Just know that the aesthetic is flat, the sets are largely vacant spaces, and the costuming which emulates popular IP contain the quality of Halloween costumes you could pick up at Party City.

As with all of these movies, I aim to extend some form of olive branch and ask whether anything is worth salvaging from the Friedberg-Seltzer catalog. In the case of Disaster Movie, this is very difficult, as Disaster Movie feels like an insult. The closest I can come to offering a concession is in commending Nicole Parker, who is a charming presence in one of her multiple roles. If only she was able to say lines which didn’t come from the script, perhaps then I could go so far as to say the performance is good (her ad-libbing in the end credits is better than any line she says during the film).

If Friedberg and Seltzer hadn’t already written and directed two unfunny films, it would be plausible to chalk the 2008 double feature of Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie up to the strenuous workload of operating quickly in a studio environment. The turnaround time on both of these movies must have been incredibly short.

As far as appearances go, it looked like Fox and Lionsgate were both working as fast as possible to cash in on the popularity of the spoof. Within that tight schedule, Friedberg and Seltzer wrote and directed three movies in two years. That’s an absurd prospect. The scripting process for these films was likely very rapid, leaving little room for going beyond whatever pop cultural objects were of most marketable value at the time (including movies that Friedberg and Seltzer had not even seen, because they had not yet been released).

This isn’t to excuse the poor quality of either film, but it helps put the parody cycle into perspective. Almost from the onset, the 2000s spoof movie was a sinking ship. Studios were ready to make the most of it while it was still afloat, cranking out many movies (some successful, others not) in a short span of time. By the end of the decade, the genre was well on its way to total collapse.

I recognize that this series of articles has the semi-clickbait subtitle of “How Two Men Single-handedly Destroyed the Parody Genre,” yet my argumentation has skewed more and more towards that “single-handedly” part not being so true. I truly don’t believe that Friedberg and Seltzer single-handedly ruined the genre, but the perception of their careers paints them as that culprit. Most people who know these movies would likely call out Friedberg and Seltzer first when it comes to appointing blame.

Friedberg and Seltzer are perhaps the most egregious offenders in the spoof’s demise, but they operated within a system that was fully prepared to watch the genre go down in unceremonious flames. It took years before studios realized that they weren’t going to continue getting away with wide releasing these movies in theaters, that the cash cow was drying up. And the pivot to straight-to-VOD releases only accelerated the burying of the genre, to the point where I’m sure if I asked 100 people, the majority would not know that a spoof of the Fast & Furious franchise called Superfast! is a real movie.

In the next installment, we begin our discussion of these lesser known films in the second half of Friedberg and Seltzer’s career with a look at Vampires Suck and The Starving Games.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

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