This is the sixth and final installment in “The Friedberg-Seltzer Massacre: How Two Men Single Handedly Destroyed the Parody Genre.”
In pursuing this project, I did not set out to unilaterally pan the Friedberg and Seltzer oeuvre (as much as the hack, clickbait adjacent title might suggest). Sure, I find almost all of their work indefensible. But I endeavored to get closer to the heart of who these two writers are and what they wanted to get out of their filmmaking. Unfortunately, this is difficult knowledge to gain, considering they are on the record as being almost entirely off the record. The duo almost never give interviews, and, aside from a great Matt Patches piece at Grantland, I could not find a source where they were seriously interviewed.
All the same, I wanted to move beyond the easy insults that have been hurled their way. I wanted to move beyond the perception of them as opportunistic film bros raised on National Lampoon and Martin Scorsese (according to Patches, the two bonded early on over their love of Goodfellas). Whether or not their movies were cynical cash grabs playing on what was trendy, there must have been some impetus for them to pursue comedy and write the jokes they did.
Their apparent aversion to their own fans (which might be ironic or post-ironic) and inability to hear criticism (they have said they don’t read any of it) most likely hurt their ability to write comedy that resonates with people. Seemingly, they didn’t progress or improve their craft because they chose not to (until, as we will get to momentarily, they broke out of the parody lane). They didn’t want a part of any of the criticism, hateful or constructive.
As Seltzer himself put it, they “don’t pay that much attention” to the complaints; they “just kind of do [their] work.” Working in that kind of bubble makes for an environment where the same unlikable comedy gets reproduced film after film. Until the bottom falls out, I suppose.
This is not to discredit their hustle. Friedberg and Seltzer may have burned the parody genre to the ground, entering the door to Hollywood success and then locking it behind them, but they followed the money so that they could get something, anything, made. The Grantland piece sees the writing partners recall an array of projects which failed to make it to the production phase—a Jackie Chan action movie, a Liberace movie (years before Steven Soderbergh succeeded in making a Liberace movie), a riff on A Christmas Carol starring Rainn Wilson fresh off of The Office.
None of these were a go with the studios, so Friedberg and Seltzer chose to direct their next script, Date Movie, instead. And they continued going back to the parody well, and kept returning until that well ran bone dry. Perhaps this repetition had as much to do with self-preservation as it had to do with following the money.
More importantly, at the end of the day, I can see a reality where the critiques of cynicism and laziness are simply inaccurate portrayals of two guys who just wanted to make Hollywood movies. After 20th Century Fox stopped giving them money to produce the same brand of universally panned parodies, Friedberg and Seltzer didn’t pack it in and call it a day. They continued making independent, partially self-financed films, seemingly because they like making movies more than they like making money. Vampires Suck was their last financial hit, yet they made three more films.
And the last two films of their career, Best Night Ever and Superfast!, are arguably the most telling looks into who Friedberg and Seltzer are as creators.
Best Night Ever is telling, because it is the only film in their body of work which is not a straightforward spoof. That said, it is not without its direct influences. It is a found footage party movie (a la Project X), a raunchy female-driven comedy (a la Bridesmaids), and a wild Las Vegas pre-wedding night of debauchery (a la The Hangover).
Ultimately, the premise has the right idea — on this raucous night of bachelorette fun, what else could possibly go wrong? However, this is the exact same premise as The Hangover. It begs the question as to whether or not Friedberg and Seltzer have an original creative bone in their bodies. It also makes one think that Best Night Ever could easily have been re-formatted to be another Friedberg-Seltzer spoof movie.
I won’t sugar-coat it, I had no fun watching Best Night Ever. As I’ve argued previously, when you strip away the bells and whistles of blunt-force pop culture references and bawdy sex appeal aimed at pubescent heterosexual boys, it becomes evident that not much is happening in a Friedberg-Seltzer movie. Best Night Ever doesn’t have these bells and whistles, and it shows. The story plods along, stretching at every turn in order to reach a feature length runtime.
For example, there is a scene where the women have to evade the cops, so they hide in a dumpster. The obvious joke is that there is somebody, most likely an unhoused person, already in the dumpster. This stranger reveals themselves, and the women freak out. Instead of being this 30-second gag, though, the scene trudges through five minutes of the characters singing 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Going On?” to calm one character down from a panic attack. They sing two verses and two choruses of the song, then the aforementioned punchline occurs. It is an attempt at being both an emotionally resonant character moment and a broad joke; it succeeds at neither and only eats up time.
The entire movie is comprised of scenes like this. There is a dancing montage that lasts minutes with no furthering of story, followed by an even longer montage in which the group of women play a bachelorette party scavenger hunt. The entire endeavor takes up nearly 10 minutes, contains almost no dialogue, and does not further the narrative at all. It is merely there to fill time. The whole movie feels like an excuse to fill time.
I think that, with Best Night Ever, I hoped too strongly that it would represent something meaningful in Friedberg and Seltzer’s career. It does represent something meaningful, but not in a good way. It provides evidence that the duo consistently struggle to script anything, whether it be grounded story or nonsensical humor.
This was their one stab at non-parody. It was, on paper, the most original film in their oeuvre, the only film not reliant on other intellectual property. Yet, the film is so thoroughly indebted to films like The Hangover, Bridesmaids, Spring Breakers, and Project X that it might as well be a spoof.
Maybe I artificially boosted my expectations for this movie. Maybe I wanted this series of articles to end with me championing some little film which provides evidence that Friedberg and Seltzer are more than what their viral reputation suggests. Instead, I am left with a film that, while not wholly creatively bankrupt, is lacking in remarkably original thought, and the raunchy comedy that it sells itself as containing is largely ineffective. It is a film that does not debunk my suspicions about Friedberg-Seltzer but instead confirms them. The pair truly have never made a half-decent film in their entire career. They loudly paraded through the parody genre until it was trampled in tatters behind them.
Wait. Not so fast. This tale has an epilogue. A silver lining.
Superfast! is the original creative vision that I was hoping for in Best Night Ever. Yes, it pulls a loose amalgamation of plot elements from four of the Fast & Furious films. But it strings enough original ideas together to come across like an actual film in its own right. This cannot be said of any other Friedberg-Seltzer film, except for maybe Date Movie.
To be clear, Superfast! is not a great comedy. Most any comedy you can think of will be a better viewing experience than Superfast!. And the film does show shades of Friedberg and Seltzer’s worst instincts. For one, it returns full circle to where the directors began: with overt anti-fat comedy. What do they say about teaching old dogs new tricks?
But this retrospective has been all about extending olive branches. In most cases, these branches look more like twigs, but I’m trying my best here. Disaster Movie is unequivocally the single worst film I’ve ever seen (and it sits in truly horrendous company). It is not easy to compliment these two guys’ work.
However, relativity can be an awesome force. Watch enough (non-)comedy detritus vacuumed into a slurry of inane referential finger-pointing devoid of any meaning, and a polished turd starts to resemble a prized horse. Relative to all other Friedberg-Seltzer vehicles, Superfast! is a good time. And I mean that; I had a good time watching.
When I first caught myself snickering at an idiotic bit, I felt wrong. I knew that, on a cosmic level, this was not the correct response. Yet I continued. When the film ended, I did not feel like my entire life force had been painfully drained from my nostrils for preservation in Friedberg and Seltzer’s collection of canopic jars, as I had felt after each of their other films.
Superfast! begins as a straight-forward riff on 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, then it slowly builds on plot points and characters from other films in the franchise. LAPD officer Lucas White (Alex Ashbaugh, who is doing an over-the-top California surfer accent that is far closer to Point Break Keanu Reeves than it is to Paul Walker) goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of elite drag racing criminals led by Vin Serento (Dale Pavinski). In a running bit that was more confusing than amusing, most of the characters in the film share the name of the actor whose character they are parodying, so when a hyper-aggro, oiled-up detective shows up, his name is clearly Detective Rock Johnson (Dio Johnson).
Johnson (the actor and the character) is the clear high point of the film. This is the only time in Friedberg and Seltzer’s entire filmography where a direct parody of a person, fictional or not, goes over without eliciting a groan. Rock Johnson is a heavily exaggerated version of both Dwayne Johnson’s character from the franchise and Dwayne Johnson’s persona as a celebrity. The hyperbolic intensity on display makes for effective moments of comedy.
Not all of the characters in this work, as good as the actors are at performing the light antics of the script. One could take the film to task for its hollow stereotype characters. These characters are themselves parodies of stereotyping in casting — characters here are named “Rapper Cameo,” “Model Turned Actress,” and “Cool Asian Guy” — but Fast & Furious is probably the worst franchise to call out when it comes to this brand of blatant representational casting. Did Ludacris make a killing off of “Act a Fool” after 2 Fast 2 Furious came out? Probably; the song went platinum. But his character in the franchise is so far removed from his identity as a rapper, and the joke that his existence in the franchise is nothing more than an ancillary tie-in just doesn’t work. The same could be said for the others.
Superfast! accomplishes one significant feat that should be commended: it does not once randomly reference another pop culture IP with a non sequitur cutaway that grinds the entire film to a halt. This style of comedy plagues each and every of Friedberg-Seltzer’s films, and it is for my money the laziest form of comedy writing around. In Superfast!, the most we get is a reference to Despicable Me toys at a fast food restaurant, and this reference is housed within a bit that makes logical sense within the context of the scene and characters contained therein.
This moment also speaks to another aspect of the film I enjoyed, which was the chemistry between the merciless villain Juan Carlos De La Soul (Omar Chaparro) and his henchman Cesar (Joseph Julian Soria). The two actors play off of each other well and concoct humorous moments out of semi-improvised scenes that largely take place inside of a car.
Superfast! is the closest thing to a comedy film Friedberg and Seltzer ever made. This is not to say I am calling for a critical re-evaluation of the two writer-directors’ works. If you’ve been reading this retrospective from the beginning, you know that I by and large agree with the popular opinion on their films. Friedberg and Seltzer have not made a film since Superfast!, a seven-year hiatus that may transform into a retirement.
But I won’t go as far as others have and say that they definitively should retire from public life and never be allowed to make a movie again. Not because I want to see them return and make a many-years-too-late parody of the massive superhero blockbuster cycle, or whatever it is they might think to make. It is because I think creators ought to be allowed to create, even if nobody beyond the age of 12 enjoys those creations.
The reality is that a return would inevitably mean a new tidal wave of (potentially warranted) criticism for whatever they wind up producing. Even more likely, the criticism and vitriol would probably come before anyone even saw the film. Friedberg and Seltzer’s reputations will always precede them. It might be the case that this reputation has wounded the writing duo, disillusioning them from the Hollywood system that they yearned for and which provided them many successes. They have claimed that the negativity does not get to them, that they shut it out entirely. But the volume of this negative rhetoric surely did not fall on deaf ears. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which they are entirely unaware of their filmography’s reputation.
Between these six articles, I have written nearly 10,000 words about Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. It was almost certainly a bad idea, and if you are still reading, then I commend you (especially considering the significant gap between this final piece and the others). And as much as I feel that I have wasted precious time watching these films (multiple viewings, in some cases), this experience has given me some perspective.
For one, Friedberg and Seltzer may deserve a share of criticism and blame for the downturn of broad comedy in Hollywood, but they are not sole perpetrators. Further, they certainly don’t deserve the hateful (and non-critical) negativity that has piled up over the years. They wrote a few heinous films, and the industry course corrected to push them out. That’s all there is to it. It’s all business.
Which leads me to my second point. Hollywood is not exactly conducive for comedy. Comedy, as subjective as it is, is tough to sell to a wide audience. As I’ve discussed previously, there are multiple factors that play into the decline of the broad comedy in Hollywood during the current century. The box office hits that can be classified as “broad comedy” are few and far between, even more so now that the theatrical space has become even more reliant on tentpole blockbusters (where the comedy is about as bland and widely palatable as one could imagine).
Subversive or novel comedy is almost never going to be found in your local multiplex. Frankly, that might not be a bad thing. As much as I would be happy to see a resurgence of the broad comedy, there is something about the comedy underground that wouldn’t translate for a four-quadrant market. The creative risks comedians are allowed to take in smaller venues and platforms allow for the alchemy of creative ingenuity, spontaneity, and transgression that makes for (what I think is) great comedy.
But there it is again. Comedy, as with all things entertainment media, is subjective. Friedberg and Seltzer were filmmaking for the studio-approved lowest common denominator. For Fox, if teenage boys paid to see it, that’s all that mattered. There was no instance in the process of making these films where anything subversive or out of the ordinary could be considered. These films were products of a system, and Friedberg-Seltzer were work-for-hire nodes in that machinery.
I suppose I’ll end with this. Something optimistic, if not cliche. Support the comedians you like, because whether they are stand-ups who sell out arenas or TikTok personalities struggling to find a following, they are all working within the confines of an industrial system. For many, its a hard system to survive within. And if you’re fan of the type of thing Friedberg and Seltzer are doing, I hear you can get a DVD of Date Movie for cheap these days. Don’t ask how I know.
As always, thanks for reading!