Looney Tunes: Back in Action (review)

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Fupped Duck, Doc

I’m watching Brendan Fraser on The Daily Show right now — this is what I get for procrastinating my way, as always, into writing my review late into the night, mere hours before the film opens — and Fraser is either stoned or drunk or way more surfer-dude than any Canadian I’ve ever seen. He’s hilarious, and he’s cracking me (and Jon Stewart) up with his attempts to describe the plot of Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

The film itself should be so funny.

It might help to be drunk or stoned when consuming Back in Action, because the brand of lunacy — loonacy? — on display is awfully forced and strained and self-conscious, and if you’re the kind of person who finds everything much more amusing when inebriated, then I would recommend going that route. Also, if intoxication makes it easier to swallow an undeniable classic being sent through a wringer of crass commercialism, take that into account. Oh, and then there’s the whole “I’m getting old, look what they’ve done to my childhood memories of sitting in front of the TV all Saturday morning with a bowl of Cheerios” thing that mind-altering substances can help with.

It’s not that Back in Action is so horrendously awful that you want to run screaming from the theater… it’s that it’s not very Looney Tunes. Call me picky, but when I’m offered Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, I have certain expectations. Back in Action, though, is far from something worthy of Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, no matter what Brendan Fraser told Jon Stewart tonight — Bugs and Daffy and the Coyote and Elmer Fudd and the rest of the gang may affect the outward appearance of their former selves, but there’s some necessary pizzazz that’s missing. The various animation voiceover veterans filling in for the late, great Mel Blanc may have succeeded in fooling the ear, but they can’t fool the heart: there’s a fundamental spark that’s not there. And even those things might have been forgiven if the essence of what made Looney Tunes so looney was present, but where the original Tunes were subversive, Back in Action is smarmy; instead of lobbing zingers, it’s lobbing spitballs. And it’s all anvil, no anticipation.

Let me defer to Brendan again. In the publicity materials, he says about the original cartoons: “They introduced me to classical music, comedy timing, the art of joke setup and delivery.” But it seems that no one here heeded those lessons. What passes for humor is just one smack in the head after another — this was written by Larry Doyle, who also wrote the tragically unfunny Duplex, and that may be the problem right there. None of the intellectual anarchy that informed the ravaging of operas is present — one sequence, in which Bugs and Daffy are chased by a suddenly and inexplicably evil Elmer Fudd through the paintings in the Louvre, comes close, but even those bits are all punchline, no setup. The timing is all wrong, and that’s because you can’t time jokes that don’t slowly gurgle to the surface but simply erupt without warning. You can’t time a joke when you don’t let the audience see something of it coming.

To describe the plot will make it sound funnier than it actually is, partly because I’ve made you wait for it, exactly how the movie itself never bothers to tease anything out. Fraser (The Mummy Returns, Monkeybone) plays Brendan Fraser’s former stunt double who sets off on a buddy-road movie with Daffy Duck, after both of them get fired from Warner Bros., where Fraser was a security guard and Daffy was second banana to Bugs Bunny. Jenna Elfman (Town and Country, EDtv) is a Warner VP for comedy — the oxymoron of corporate comedy is never explored; Chuck Jones would have had a ball with it — who needs Daffy back to finish her latest picture, so she sets off with Bugs to follow Fraser and Daffy to Vegas. (Chosen by the filmmakers as a setting for its own cartoonishness, probably, today’s Las Vegas is the perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with Back in Action: something once alive with its own wicked spiritedness that’s been Disneyfied and familified and reduced to a pantomime of its former self.) They all end up in search of the Blue Monkey Diamond, which can turn people into monkeys for some reason, and pursued by the chairman of the Acme Corporation, played by Steve Martin (Bringing Down the House, Novocaine), which is nowhere near as funny as it sounds. Neither is Timothy Dalton (American Outlaws, Possessed) in a parody of his James Bond self. Roger Corman’s cameo is mildly amusing, but only if you recognize his face. Joan Cusack’s (It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Toy Story 2) mad scientist is highly amusing.

But she’s barely in the movie. Instead of Joan Cusack’s highly amusing mad scientist lady, we get exploding TNT and inconsistent cartoon physics and a breathtakingly audacious (and not in a good way) instance of product placement. The few genuine laughs have nothing to do with Looney Tunes lunacy, like how there are Daleks in Joan Cusack’s mad laboratory. I’m not sure why they’re there, and they seem pretty confused about the surprising turn of events too, but hearing them warble “Exterminate! Exterminate!” while wobbling across the floor — and being taken as a serious threat while doing so — was hilarious.

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