Sequel Corpsing: Comedy Zombies
IMAGE: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Paramount Pictures)
You’ll have to excuse me. I just need to scream for a little while.
I just fell down a rabbit hole of filmic trauma.
See, these past few weeks I was writing an article about Anchorman 2 – a film that, despite arguably not being as funny as the first (which would be near impossible), I think is in many ways far more impressive, particularly for the way in which it exploits its own comedic legacy to a thematic end. Sure the first film might have that element of surprise that can never really be replicated, but the second – almost unlike any other sequel I can think of – builds upon that history to elicit both grand nonsense and pointed social commentary.
If you’re at all interested in seeing how quickly I can swing from playfully recollecting ‘I love lamp’ to scrambling up on a soapbox to shout at the sky about the infantilised redundancy of the real world 24 hour news media, then you can read the article here.
But that’s for another time, because right now I want to talk about pain. And horror. And the gnashing of teeth. Because hopefully amongst my fog of blatant self-promotion you caught that admission that is the cause of all my recent agony – the sentence that has caused me so much distress:
‘Almost unlike any other sequel I can think of…’
That’s right. Because in order to talk about Anchorman 2 and the way it deals with the fact that it is a sequel, I actually had to let myself think of a couple of examples of other comedy sequels to give the discussion some context.
Here I am, typing, typing, arguing that comedy sequels are usually hard to do… Gee. I guess I’d better cite a film just to establish that there is some truth to that claim. What could I use? Ah, yes. Of course. The Hangover.
…But I guess I need another one, just so it doesn’t seem like I’m picking on a specific franchise. Okay, how about Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blue? Waste of a film; suitably stupid name. Perfect.
Done and done.
And then the screaming started.
Because suddenly a trapdoor in my mind kicked open, and I was inundated with memories. Tragic, harrowing, flooding memories. I was astronaut David Bowman staring into the cryptic abyss, maddened by the chaotic, unfathomable sprawl.
Yes. That’s how traumatised I was; I couldn’t even think up a better analogy to use than 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Suddenly there was Mannequin: On The Move, the Big Momma’s sequels, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Weekend at Bernies 2 (although to be fair, the originals of each of these films were abominable already). There was Be Cool and Shrek The Third and Look Who’s Talking Now and Men in Black 2 and Ghostbusters 2 and Evan Almighty and Teen Wolf Too (poor Jason Bateman) and Father of the Bride 2 (poor Steve Martin) and Blues Brothers 2000 (poor John Goodman) and Son of Mask (you think about what you’ve done, Jamie Kennedy!) and Caddyshack 2 and Dumb and Dumberer.
And in case those don’t quite fit your definition of emotionally traumatic assaults on good taste: did you know that there was even a sequel to The Jerk? A sequel without Steve Martin.
No – I’ll say that again. I want that to sink in.
Without. Steve. Martin.
Sure, it was a TV movie, and history has largely forgotten about it; but a crime is still a crime. And if I have to know that, then you do too.
So I apologise if it feels, at this point, like I’ve just been punching you in the heart with each of these film titles. If it helps, just think how hard this was for me to recollect them all. To see them come flooding in to my psyche all at once. I was starting into the abyss. Into a hellscape of franchise fatigue and overstayed welcomes. A bunch of half-animated corpses, shuffling through the motions, each dragging its wasted potential and rote redundancy along in its wake.
In the case of sorry re-treads like Blues Brothers 2000 or Dumb and Dumberer I just keep thinking of that Simpsons joke where Homer, dressed as Krusty the Clown, misunderstands a bit of playful pantomime and tackles a man dressed as a burger-thief to the ground. As you hear the wet thud of Homer pounding the burglar’s face repeatedly, the camera pans across the faces of a gaggle of horrified onlooking children to find one boy sobbing:
‘Stop… Sto-o-o-o-op… He’s already dead.’
…And yes, I’m aware of the sad irony of using The Simpsons to criticise the beating of a franchise into a sorry, unrecognisable pulp. Dear gods – has it really been 25 years? Over half of its lifespan it’s been unwatchable?
I mean, I understand the impulse. I get the motivation. Audiences loved the first film, and they instinctively want to revisit that world – even if the joke they loved has already been told. I can even see why the creators of the original work, either wanting a victory lap or with some leftover ideas that they still want to try out, might want to risk taking a second plunge. And there are – as I say in the Anchorman article – the occasional exceptions. The ones that work. Anchorman 2 is definitely one of them. The second Austin Powers also manages to stick the landing (although the third is rather more shaky and indulgent). From everything that I am hearing (and I want to make clear, I am not speaking with any authority, as I have not yet seen it myself) 22 Jump Street is apparently a delightful surprise – which seems fitting, since that first film was far, far funnier than it had any right to be.
But too often you get Grown Ups 2 (sigh …or for that matter, Grown Ups 1) which at this point in Adam Sandler’s career may has well have been advertised with a poster of a stick, a dead horse, and a whole lot of tacky product placement splattered with gore.
I just think it’s a shame that we don’t see more examples like Hot Shots Part Deux or the Muppet films, which have a central premise, a cast of returning characters, and the same creative team, but that are willing to spin out in wild new directions – to try whole new genres and styles.
After all, one of the most interesting examples of a film sequel that I can recall is actually only a pseudo-sequel: the follow up to A Fish Called Wanda called Fierce Creatures.
IMAGE: Fierce Creatures (Universal Pictures)
Now, I’m by no means holding up Fierce Creatures as a great sequel. In fact, it defies that definition both as a technical ‘sequel’ and by virtue of not being universally considered ‘great’. But it’s good. It’s funny. It’s made by talented people, and most importantly in a cinema landscape lousy with derivative regressions: it feels fresh.
Perhaps the happy product of John Cleese and Michael Palin’s sketch mentality days in Monty Python, although staring the principle cast of A Fish Called Wanda, and with largely the same creative team working on the production, Fierce Creatures is a film set in an entirely new time, location, and narrative. The script and conceit is different; the actors play different roles. Whereas the first film was a heist caper with a lot of social satire about English class consciousness and American cultural stereotypes – a collision of stuffy Brits and uncouth but passionate Americans (with some accidental Terrier assassinations thrown in) – the second is a wild farce about a zoo becoming despairingly over-commercialised and compromised – the crush of amoral corporatisation upon a gaggle of fervent, but disorganised caretakers.
And yet, despite their superficial dissimilarities there are some notable thematic ties between the two. The Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis disproportionate romance returns. Kevin Kline gets to play a another (albeit less charismatic) swaggering dullard. Palin returns with an alternate take on a socially dysfunctional figure with accidentally murderous powers. It is still fundamentally concerned with non-conformity and constraint; with greed and deception. It plays out a continuation of the familiar tropes and tones of the first film, just delivered in a new, and by virtue of their revitalised format, unique way.
It also contains a scene where Kevin Kline assaults a panda.
So there’s that too.
Again, Fierce Creatures will never be heralded as one of the all time comedy classics (nor does it strive to be). In comparison to its forbearer Wanda it’s more a broad, playful jaunt. But it finds something novel to say while still retaining the idea of a sequel, not stripping the original of its lustre by shoving its way back into a world that had already reached its natural comedic resolve.
It does what comedy is meant to do. It takes risks. It’s willing to look at things from a new, unexpected angle. To surprise.
Because it’s a whole lot harder to surprise your audience if there’s a numerical symbol beside your film’s title already telling them exactly what to expect.
IMAGE: Fierce Creatures (Universal Pictures)