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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Spaceballs (review)

Spaceballs: The Review

It’s sad, really, seeing once-great comic genius in decline. Think Woody Allen and Celebrity (and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion). Think the Marx Brothers and The Big Store. Think Mel Brooks and Life Stinks. Then rewind a little to Brooks’ Spaceballs, and see how all the signs were there: the strained humor, the lame Star Trek references, the downright painful puns. Sure, there are a few gems, a few classic moments, even a few flashes of the former Brooks brilliance that gave us Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles to be found here… but mostly, alas, not.
Maybe Brooks’s 1987 spoof of Star Wars came too long after the mania that inspired it to be truly effective, because I remember sitting in the theater as a teenager, laughing intermittently but mostly thinking, What is this shit? Star Wars is so over… at least as an immediate mania that was in your face constantly. (Or maybe that was just the myopia of being a teenager.)

Still, there are parts of Spaceballs I remembered fondly from viewings years ago — that looooong opening pan down Lord Dark Helmut’s ship, Pizza the Hut, the infamous “stunt doubles” bit, the Yogurt doll that says “May the Schwartz be wit’ you!” when you pull its string — but with, I think, the single exception of John Hurt’s Alien-referencing cameo, even the good parts of Spaceballs feel really forced and self-conscious now.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Brooks was never a fan of Star Wars — he just latched onto a pop-culture phenomenon that seemed ripe for picking, and he picked at it with all the enthusiasm of a man picking at an itchy scab. A parody needs to appreciate its source inspiration, and more importantly to understand it, and there’s no obsessive love of Star Wars evident in Spaceballs the way there is in, say, Dante’s rant about Luke Skywalker as a war criminal in Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Only someone who has considered the politics of George Lucas’s universe for far longer than is healthy could even conceive of such an argument. The best Brooks can do here is the line uttered by Dark Helmut: “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.” Which is funny on its surface, but annoying when you start thinking about it: Evil is the dumb one, for not killing Good in the first reel when it had the chance.

But that’s the fannish thing to do: think too much about the object of fannish devotion. Brooks is just going through the motions. Kudos to him for gathering a cast that seems more game than he does — Bill Pullman’s (Zero Effect) cockeyed, squinty face perfectly embodies the who- gives- a- shitness of space bum Lone Starr; John Candy (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) is clearly having a ball as Barf, half-man, half-dog sidekick; and Rick Moranis (Ghostbusters) is a hoot as the miniature Darth Vader avatar Lord Helmut. It’s not Moranis’s fault that Brooks didn’t give much more to do than gasp through his oversized headgear.

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MPAA: rated PG

viewed at home on a small screen

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