Meet the Spartans (20th Century Fox), the latest spoof from Scary Movie/Date Movie/Epic Movie auteurs Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, begins with King Leonidas from 300 getting crapped on by a dancing penguin who exclaims, “I’m about to make you my bitch!” It ends with—spoiler alert!—a Stallone impersonator gyrating in the outfit Britney Spears wore to the MTV awards. In between, there are thousands of bad gay jokes (Leonidas’ battle plan: “I’m going to take them in the rear”), thousands of even-worse gay jokes (“It looks like backstage at an Elton John concert”), and “fake” in-movie commercials for Gatorade and Dentyne Ice. The action regularly stops so the characters can be evaluated by the judges from American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, and Dancing With the Stars. Those who stick around for the closing credits are treated to the sight of George W. Bush getting kicked in the nuts. Judging by the respective approval ratings of Bush (31 percent) and the Friedberg-Seltzer comedy team (between 2 percent and 3 percent, according to Rotten Tomatoes), audiences would have preferred to see Bush, or perhaps even Stalin, kick Friedberg and Seltzer in the balls.
Various news sources have declared that Meet the Spartans has a running time of 84 minutes. Some online reviews peg the actual running time at 68 minutes. I went to a 5:30 p.m. screening. After previews, the movie began some time between 5:44 and 5:47. The closing credits started at 6:47. After a cast-performed rendition of “I Will Survive” (note: this was a reprise of an earlier performance) staged on the American Idol set (note: not the real American Idol set), the credits ran over a black screen. Perhaps two minutes later, the credits gave way to scenes that weren’t strong enough to make the first 60 minutes, including Spider-Man removing Donald Trump’s toupee. After about five minutes of these deleted scenes, the credits started again. They moved at about 10 lines per minute. And, considering the movie is about an hour long and probably took about six hours to make, they included a surprising amount of names; I’m guessing 8,000. By the time the credits had been slow-rolling for several minutes, the other 15 people in the theater had gone home. As the credits continued, I put on my headphones and listened to some music. At 7:09, more than 20 minutes after the credits began, I was rewarded by the aforementioned five-second, fake-Stallone-as-Britney bit. The lights went up and I left, shaken and depressed.
Isn’t it massive consumer fraud to charge $10.50 for a barely hour-long movie? Perhaps, but it would’ve been unforgivable to make Meet the Spartans any longer than an hour. This was the worst movie I’ve ever seen, so bad that I hesitate to label it a “movie” and thus reflect shame upon the entire medium of film. Friedberg and Seltzer do not practice the same craft as P.T. Anderson, David Cronenberg, Michael Bay, Kevin Costner, the Zucker Brothers, the Wayans Brothers, Uwe Boll, any dad who takes shaky home movies on a camping trip, or a bear who turns on a video camera by accident while trying to eat it. They are not filmmakers. They are evildoers, charlatans, symbols of Western civilization’s decline under the weight of too many pop culture references.
As Bryan Curtis has pointed out in Slate, the spoofs of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker—the team behind Airplane! and The Naked Gun—are characterized by their facility with the tone and detail work of genre films and their genius combination of straight-faced B-movie actors with lowbrow punch lines and sight gags. Friedberg and Seltzer, rather than tweak the clichés of the movies they parody, take a NOW: That’s What I Call Movies! approach, using farts and leather underwear to not-critique a collection of pre-chewed moments from recent blockbusters. In Meet the Spartans, the mere act of referring to Transformers, Happy Feet, Spider-Man 3, Ghost Rider, Rocky Balboa, Stomp the Yard, Shrek, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Federline, or Deal or No Deal is presumed to be hilarious. (If you’ll indulge me for a second, I will pause to crack up Friedberg and Seltzer: “Paris Hilton.”) An example of this soft-hitting mashup style: After Leonidas punts American Idol’s Sanjaya into the “pit of death,” a Simon Cowell impersonator declares the kick “utterly dreadful,” whereupon he too goes spelunking in the death pit. Take that, Simon Cowell!
Friedberg and Seltzer have also failed to absorb the Zuckers’ understanding of the power of the straight man. While Sean Maguire declines to wink or mug through his portrayal of the mighty Leonidas, the filmmakers betray their lead actor by having him shout “Paris Hilton!” or “Dane Cook!” every time one of the film’s copious celeb impersonators makes an appearance. Not content to merely insult its audience by charging full fare for a pastiche of sub-Mad TV-level sketches, Meet the Spartans dares to presume that it’s smarter than the people watching. In anticipation of writing a piece on the decline of the spoof genre—a project that has been aborted, because forcing me to watch the entire Friedberg-Seltzer canon would require Slate to spend millions in hazard pay—I rented one of the duo’s previous titles, Date Movie. I made it only halfway through, but I did notice that the DVD included an option to watch the film with a laugh track. I’m not kidding, and I don’t think Friedberg and Seltzer are, either—they think we’re too stupid to know where the stupid jokes are.
Here’s the great irony of the Friedberg-Seltzer phenomenon: These two churn out crap, then brazenly parade the crapitude in trailers and commercials, essentially daring America to stay away. Instead, we reward them by making Meet the Spartans the top-earning movie in the country, the second straight Friedberg-Seltzer film to earn that honor. The movie’s $18.5 million take has a lot to do with its release date; even in the dumping ground of late January, something has to be No. 1 at the box office. The film’s success, though, is not a sign that popular opinion diverges from that of the critics. On its opening weekend, Meet the Spartans played to the audiences most predisposed to like it: frat boys, middle schoolers, the actors’ parents. Considering that crowd, the movie’s C- CinemaScore—a rating compiled by querying the exiting audience—is appalling.
I don’t blame Fox for releasing the likes of Meet the Spartans—these movies are so cheap to produce that they’re guaranteed moneymakers. But why do audiences keep encouraging the studio by coming back for more? My theory is that Friedberg and Seltzer have managed to stay just anonymous enough that people in the mood for a good spoof aren’t aware that they’re about to subject themselves to the hacks behind Date Movie and Epic Movie. As soon as the duo becomes better-known and better-reviled, they will have only one recourse: self-parody. Hitting the screen in 2009: Not Another Friedberg-Seltzer Movie.