What is comedy? That seems like a strange question to ask after 100 years of cinema, but Epic Movie—the latest from Scary Movie scribes and Date Movie directors Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg—strays so far from the solid fundamentals of filmmaking that it calls the very foundation of humor into question. Is it enough to simply place a familiar pop-culture phenomenon into an unfamiliar context? Can contemporary comedy be reduced to the simple equation "pop-culture reference + slapstick violence or scatology = hilarity"?
Epic Movie gives audiences ample time to contemplate such weighty matters, minus such distractions as funny gags or a consistent satirical slant on its material. Kal Penn leads a cast of faintly familiar faces as one of four orphans embarking on an epic quest that crudely juxtaposes elements from Pirates Of The Caribbean, The Chronicles Of Narnia, and X-Men. Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, and Bad Santa's Tony Cox are among the once and future Hollywood Squares vets in supporting roles, but the biggest surprise is Crispin Glover as the film's Willy Wonka surrogate. Glover at least has an excuse for prostituting his idiosyncratic gifts for a fat studio paycheck; those self-distributed experimental films about conjoined midget twins with Down Syndrome aren't going to fund themselves.
Much of Epic Movie subscribes to the "Mad Libs" school of comedy: What if Johnny Depp's goofball Pirates Of The Caribbean swashbuckler launched into a pirate-centric version of Saturday Night Live's Internet-favorite rap song "Lazy Sunday"? (The answer, incidentally, is that it'd be like The Office's parody "Lazy Scranton," but minus the laughs, satire, knowing self-consciousness, and finely wrought evocation of working-class drudgery.) And what if that painful bit of meta-comedy segued nonsensically into a parody of The Pussycat Dolls that implied they might be somehow be trafficking in sex and skin rather than solid musicianship? As it barrels artlessly through one dispiriting spoof after another, Epic Movie embraces the glib put-downs and pop-culture-reference-as-punchline ethos ubiquitous on the lazy snarkfests that pad schedules at E! and VH1. The film relies on its faulty connection to the cultural zeitgeist for its characters, plot, and gags, but pop culture moves so quickly that Epic Movie already feels dated and irrelevant. It's an ersatz comedy filled with unconvincing celebrity look-alikes and tone-deaf parodies. Only the desperation and cynicism feel authentic.