Monday, April 11, 2011

National Lampoon's Dirty Movie (now available on home video)

Every so often one sees a poignant press-release news story to the effect that, hey, remember the National Lampoon, once America's cutting-edge humor workshop? It's back! Fresh new editors, hip attitude, redesigned website, returning to NatLamp's glory days, etc. etc. And pretty much...not much ensues. Maybe another VAN WILDER sequel.

See, you kids, for a few years there - chiefly, during the Nixon Administration - the National Lampoon really did shine as a beacon of saber-sharp political and social satire. It did so as a magazine, books, a radio show, a series of recordings, and even a stage production (Lemmings), serving as a launch pad for the Saturday Night Live school of humor (that's back when association with SNL meant a compliment). Scrounge around in the basement of Mac's Backs in Coventry or someplace for a copy of the magazine's best-of/ published compilations, like Would You Buy a Used War From This Man or The Paperback Conspiracy. Still brilliant, if yellowing with age.
When the Lampoon ventured into film, it scored with one of the biggest comedy hits ever, ANIMAL HOUSE, and some okay followups such as NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION. But that was about what, 20 years ago? The Lampoon since has been a pale shadow of its former spoof, mainly offering trite retro-slob campus comedies about beer, sex and drugs, watched if at all by dumb young males who wouldn't grokk a single Spiro Agnew joke without a Wikipedia assist.

The new NATIONAL LAMPOON'S DIRTY MOVIE gets a little bit of respect – a really little bit - for seeming to spring from a desire to sincerely, truly get some of that old NatLamp spirit back, starting with an opening reference to the classic "Buy This Magazine Or We'll Shoot This Dog" gag. Sadly, since it’s about cell phones in the audience, it’s a tipoff that somebody actually thought this thing would play in theaters. Even sadder is the reference to the documentary THE ARISTOCRATS, a hint that not only did DIRTY MOVIE never reach auditoriums, but that it languished about five or six years before being allowed to creep into public view, via the DVD Walk of Shame.

Citing THE ARISTOCRATS as a role model in DIRTY MOVIE's so-called plot is a would-be comedy director Christopher Meloni, pitching the chief (Robert Klein) at a nameless but Lampoon-like entertainment company (one of their wall posters is a promo for a fictitious satire “Not Another Holocaust Movie”) that to get their game back they should do a feature that goes THE ARISTOCRATS better by being nothing but gross, dirty jokes, strung together sans storyline, one after another (Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In does get a nudge here and there). Some characters recur, like a pedophile priest or the ever-disgusted mom (Cyndi Lauper) of a foulmouthed tyke, but mostly what we see is dramatizations of various body-function, farm-animal and racism gags, interleaved with behind-the-scenes hijinks as the filmmakers-within-the-film audition topless chicks, argue whether this movie is ever going to work after all and, ultimately, (SPOILER ALERT) going on trial before a judge played by boxer Larry Holmes for their project being declared a hate crime.

If it sounds unworkable and uncinematic, it pretty much is. DIRTY MOVIE wears out its soiled premise thoroughly at the 20-minute mark - which is not to take away anything from the generally scabrous quality of the jokes; most of them are indeed sick/stupid/politically incorrect just as intended. A few clunkers, a few howlers. But at feature length it's just a lost cause - especially if one has seen THE ONION MOVIE, from a few years ago, in which The Onion, seeming successors to the NatLamp college-humor crowd, really did pull off an okay translation of the source material. Or go back to other blackout-sketch comedy features of the 1970s, like THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, TUNNEL VISION or THE GROOVE TUBE. Compared to those, NATIONAL LAMPOON'S DIRTY MOVIE is sad stuff. And consider that in the DVD marketplace o’crap it will probably get confused easily with EXTREME MOVIE, a junky compilation of teen-sex sketches from a few years ago.

I’ll say this, to be generous; DIRTY MOVIE does indeed capture some the spirit of a National Lampoon magazine issue, but unfortunately it’s one of the sucky issues from the early 1980s, when the jokes were virtually indistinguishable from the adverts. Fans should buy a full-page ad in the trades: "Attention NatLamp: Become Relevant and Funny Again Or We'll Shoot This Dog." 1 star out of 4.

Bonus: Here's the Amazon page for a recent nonfiction book about the Lampoon's golden era and the virtually forgotten Chagrin Falls humorist who played a key role in it.

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