Deconstructing Babel: Epic Movie and the Illusion of Continuity

I come to bury Epic Movie, not to praise it.
The Critics say it was atrocious,
And a Critic is an honorable man.
I speak not to disprove what Critics spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.

Jim Emerson introduced this weekend’s Contrarian Blog-a-thon with Manohla Dargis’ Valentine’s Day statement that, for critics:

the second-best thing to perfection is often the near-miss, the disreputable and even the despised. Next to discovering a new director, planting a flag in an uncharted national cinema or sitting next to Zooey Deschanel at an event, few things please a critic more than polishing a tarnished career or taking on a dubious cause, particularly if everyone else really hated it.

For my Contrarian contribution I might have offered my positive review of Tideland, which ended up in my top ten of the year amid widespread critical condemnation—24 percent on that sometimes deceptive summary of consensus, the Tomatometer—or, on the other hand, my pan of the near-unanimously praised Pan’s Labyrinth (96 percent).

Dargis’ observation was made in reference to Brisseau’s Exterminating Angels, yet the Tomatometer reveals no more despised film in 2007, if not ever, than Epic Movie. With nothing but a lone if suspect review from Entertainment Weekly in its defense, I can’t think of a more dubious cause than suggesting something meaningful could be extracted from the film.

In defense of my credibility, I’m not instinctively contrarian. For every Tideland that I love or Pan’s Labyrinth that I loathe, there is a Little Children (my #6) or Children of Men (#1) about which I agree with nine out of ten critics. And I saw both Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men months ahead of their US release, long before most reviews much less critical consensus emerged. In any case one of my personal stipulations is never to read a review before seeing a film, which I usually extend to writing about it as well.

For the record, I loathed the unfunniness of Date Movie (I still reckon it’s the worst movie of this century), but I found Epic Movie to be an astonishing confluence of utterly disparate elements into a surprisingly coherent story that satirizes the current fashion of “interconnected storyline” movies. Unfortunately any value in the film went unnoticed, perhaps because most reviews sound like they could have been written before the movie was actually seen. By effectively Mad-Libbing their reviews of Date Movie, critics never gave themselves the chance to notice what even Epic Movie might have to say.

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The AP’s Jake Coyle states: “The film never becomes anything of its own, however; it merely jumps from spoof to spoof, often with tenuous transitions.” While this is a completely accurate description of Date Movie’s series of functionally independent vignette’s stitched together into a Frankenstein of skits, Epic Movie only begins with four completely discordant spoofs but soon manages an impressive integration of sources into a cross-bred story.

The movie announces the absurdity of its modus operandi (indeed of the whole “Blank Movie” subgenre) at the outset when the title is composed by its nine letters being drawn from a conventional epic prologue via DaVinci Code-style floating typography. The first scene then is appropriately a spoof of the Dan Brown adaptation, with an Anna Faris lookalike (Jayma Mays’ impersonation of Farris throughout is an example of the series’ self-parody) using her Tom Hanksian decoding skills to make the most illogical of conclusions.

Accordingly, in the movie’s first demonstration of its non-sequitor methodology, the scene transitions to a spoof of Nacho Libre (tellingly not an epic movie), followed by a spoof of Snakes on a Plane, then one of X-Men. The lack of continuity between these scenes is stark but the transitions are visually seamless, each marked by a clever device (museum painting to Spanish mission, sun through church window to sun through plane window, etc.) satirically illustrating the falacies of logic as well as plot that motivate The DaVinci Code and similar movies but are worn without pretense in the Movie movies.

The purpose of these scenes is to introduce the four lead characters, Peter, Susan, Edward, and Lucy (in reverse order) and the transition from the last of these scenes is the most ingenious and disingenuous of all, morphing school hall lockers into a chocolate factory building. The transition is very slow, inviting us to laugh at its artificiality, like the contrived nature of the scene itself in which the four characters first meet each other.

The movie’s Scary Movie ancestry would naturally lead one to compare their predicament to the characters in a Final Destination movie who must discover how their lives are interconnected, but the more “topical” and appropriate comparison is to that favorite genre of respectable audiences represented by Magnolia, Traffic, Crash, Little Children, and Babel (Oscar-sanctioned all). Epic Movie, finally, explodes the increasingly ludicrous premises of the converging storyline genre, as Dennis Cozzalio reminds us that Babel‘s “connective tissue, the causality that links the four stories is so tenuous that ‘contrived’ hardly seems an adequate description.” During the height of the 2007 Oscar season, criticism of Epic Movie‘s tenuous connections and dissonant transitions approaches a near perfect irony.

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San Fransico Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle offers the insight:

Satire points up and emphasizes truths that have gone unnoticed, punctures pretension and tweaks the self-important. Audiences laugh at the unexpected revelation of truth. ‘Epic Movie’ does none of that.

I can think of no more pretentious and self-important film than Babel, and Epic Movie is a devastating critique of the illusion of continuity attempted by Inarritu and Arriaga. Friedburg and Seltzer’s satire doesn’t puncture and tweak so much as eviscerate and explode the contrivance-based formula of films like last year’s “Best Picture” Crash.

Though it is never mentioned explicitly (in a surprising instance of restraint) the ethnic diversity of the main characters — white, black, Indian, British — makes for an unspoken joke when they discover they are siblings, but it also satirizes the “one of each race” attitude of multiple storyline movies, whether set in Los Angeles or various international locations. Even while mocking Hollywood tokenism, however, in terms of the movie’s own mechanics the four protagonists’ emergence from their cacophony of origin parodies is a wry image of concordia discors.

Yet no degree of plot harmony can derail the filmmakers’ all-consuming obsession with characters suddenly rapping, breakdancing, or just dancing, usually to hip-hop. A late battlefield interlude is so . . . “random” is an insufficient word . . . that it achieves a moment of Lynchian fever dream inexplicability. Such occurrences are so persistent that it seems to be yet another element of continuity-subversion, a corrective deployed whenever the movie starts to make too much sense.

Indeed, spontaneous gyration aside, once the story gets going the various movies it draws from seem increasingly appropriate. The climax of convergence occurs when an outnumbered character (thousands against one) finds the magical remote control from Click and pauses his enemies mid-attack. Substituting for the resurrection of Aslano, it is the perfect Deus Ex Machina, enabling the good guys to defeat their foes a la Steve Carrell’s hyperactive squirrel at the end of Over the Hedge.

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Of course Epic Movie is not a great film. It inherits flaws from Date Movie, namely overlong pauses between dialogue. While such awkward pauses were part of the parody and comedy in Team America, in Date Movie they were simply badly timed pauses to accommodate embarrassingly absent laughter. Epic Movie has similarly slow editing but it is not as obvious as Date Movie.

A momentary spoof of Paris Hilton seems jarringly passé in light of its last-second topicality: references to Lord of the Rings, the epicmost of epic franchises, are conspicuously absent. Indeed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the only pre-Narnia movie parodied (a three-word quotation from American Pie notwithstanding).

Needless to say, the movie has flaws enough that critics don’t need to invent false examples of its ineptitude. Yet Ken Fox ends his TV Guide review by quipping that “the boom mic appears so often it really should get a SAG card and its own on-screen credit.” If Mr. Fox saw the mic more than once then he should blame it on the projectionist, but if he saw the mic the only time I did and is just exaggerating, then he doesn’t understand what breaking the fourth wall is. The boom mic noticeably dips into view a moment after Kal Penn (of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) looks at the camera and says “I think I’ve been there before” when the White Bitch points out the “White Castle” where she lives. It is not particularly clever or even funny–one fears Penn was hired just to make the joke work–but Ken Fox & Co. are so prepared for reel-to-reel failure that it is all they see even when the film succeeds at the most obvious of conventions.

For the most part Epic Movie metamorphoses the “Family Guy” referencitis of Date Movie‘s manatee gags into a (nearly) South Park-esque example of plot cohesion from initial apparent chaos. At first, Tumnus’ explanation that his dad mated with a goat is a cheap sex gag, but when Aslo is later revealed to be a hybrid lion-man (Vegas’ Siegfried was his father) the crossbreeding theme emerges as a metaphor for the movie itself. Admittedly the plot isn’t as ingenious as any episode of South Park, but Epic Movie is regardless a notable advancement for the Friedburg-Seltzer duo and doesn’t deserve even less appreciation than its rotten predecessor.

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10 thoughts on “Deconstructing Babel: Epic Movie and the Illusion of Continuity

  1. jeri says:

    Wow, thanks for the thorough analysis!

    Side question: “stitched together into a Frankenstein of skits” – I often hear people refer to Frankenstein’s monster as “Frankenstein”. Is it assumed that the monster is named after his creator? It’s something that has bugged me for years, but maybe I’m just picky.

  2. Nobody says:

    Technically you’re right of course. I don’t think the monster’s name is actually “Frankenstein” and ought to be refered to as Frankenstein’s monster, but in popular culture I think the F. name has become shorthand for, well, the Boris Karloff character.

    Whether that should be acceptable or not, I suppose, is another question.

    P.S. How do you like the new IMDb? While I admit that the ugly Times New Roman font was getting old, I’m still nostalgic for the classic look.

  3. Nate says:

    Fab review! Probably a much deeper analysis than the film deserves, but that’s why I dig your writing so much. How many more of these tiresome genre-raping films do you think Fox has left in them?

  4. jeri says:

    New IMDB? I think I must have set up different settings. It’s been showing in Arial for me for a loooong time. The biggest thing that has thrown me recently is when they moved the search box from the upper-left side to be centered at the top of the page under their tabs.

  5. jeri says:

    Oh. Apparently I hadn’t delved into imdb far enough to notice the difference. I don’t like change, but I’m sure it will grow on me. :)

  6. […] like the Riddler who deliberately leave clues play to Batman’s strengths, but Batman’s attempt to impose order on an intentionally random series of crimes would necessarily fail if not drive him […]

  7. […] on display; either that, or talent purposefully withheld). User name “Nobody” wrote an interesting piece earlier this year at Any Eventuality, framing Epic Movie less as a comedy of random retardation but […]

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  10. […] Villains like the Riddler who deliberately leave clues play to Batman’s strengths, but Batman’s attempt to impose order on an intentionally random series of crimes would necessarily fail if not drive him […]

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