“An American Carol” isn’t very funny, which I realize may be a deal-breaker, considering it’s a comedy. But it’s a fascinating artifact, an experiment in something that you don’t see very often: satire from a right-wing point of view, aimed at the left.
The filmmaker is David Zucker, who directed and co-wrote the classic spoofs “Airplane!,” “Top Secret!,” and “The Naked Gun,” among others. He’s co-written “An American Carol” with Myrna Sokoloff (her first film credit) and Lewis Friedman (one of Zucker’s “BASEketball” cohorts), and it’s his first film to really have an agenda. In the past, his targets have been frivolous things — movies, pop culture, and so forth — and often his humor has simply been absurd, with no satiric target at all.
That just-for-laughs brand of silliness is in scarce supply in “An American Carol,” and the issues are much weightier. The film’s theme is that wimpy, effete liberalism, represented by Michael Moore and his ilk, is anti-American and endangers the country. Radical Islam is a serious, imminent threat, and this “let’s negotiate with our enemies” attitude will be the death of us.
Zucker frames his argument in a take-off of “A Christmas Carol”: instead of Scrooge hating Christmas, it’s Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) hating the Fourth of July. Yes, Michael Malone, a corpulent documentarian who makes films with titles like “America Sucks the Big One.” (Kevin Farley, who is the late Chris Farley’s brother, looks more than a little like Michael Moore.) He’s gained great success in the documentary field, but he knows the real fame and fortune is in features. To that end, he’s written a screenplay, “Fascist America,” which he says is “anti-everything-America-stands-for without technically being anti-American.”
A couple of terrorists are willing to bankroll the production — to Michael’s credit, he doesn’t know they’re terrorists — but in the meantime, Michael is visited by the ghost of his idol, John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), who reminds him that his inauguration speech made it pretty clear he wasn’t a namby-pamby pacifist like Michael is. The movie uses JFK’s real words: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Thereafter, Michael is visited by the ghost of George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer), who takes him through some alternate history. What if the war protesters in 1940 had successfully convinced America not to fight Hitler? What if Lincoln had opted not to fight the South in the Civil War?
Equating those wars with the much more nebulous “war on terror” is a drastic oversimplification, but satire is often based on exaggerations and black-and-white ideologies. There’s often no room for gray areas when you’re making a satiric point. Likewise, the film’s basic premise — that criticizing America’s actions is the same thing as “hating America” — is ludicrously flawed. You can go along with it, though, for the sake of the movie. Or if you can’t, maybe you don’t watch the movie in the first place.
Zucker’s humor is wildly hit-or-miss. Jokes about Michael’s weight and eating habits get old pretty fast. Then again, I like that Zucker isn’t above making jokes about Patton, too, and even about the car accident that killed him. (Wow.) A scene with zombies from the ACLU clogging courtrooms is weirdly amusing, and the ineffectual terrorist-training video (with Goofus-and-Gallant-style do’s and don’ts), plus another one purporting that Christian terrorists are equally dangerous, are broadly funny.
A sequence on a college campus is perhaps the most astute. A student “demonstration” is defined as “when students show what they don’t know by repeating it loudly,” and then there’s a musical number in which the professors harmonize on how they’re the same America-hatin’ liberal hippies they were in 1968, and how useless universities are now (“You’ll get extra credit if you’re poor, black, or gay!” they sing).
Where Zucker goes almost unforgivably off the tracks is when the ghost of George Washington (Jon Voight) takes Michael to the church he used to worship at in Manhattan — St. Paul’s Chapel, which also happens to be next to the World Trade Center. Washington opens the chapel doors and shows Michael the wreckage of Sept. 11, 2001, driving home the point that America is in dire straits and must fight against the enemy.
Using images of an annihilated, still dusty Ground Zero in a comedy would be one thing if the intention were to be as taboo and offensive as possible — if the filmmaker KNEW he was crossing the line and was doing it on purpose, in other words. But Zucker doesn’t seem to have that attitude. He seems to think it’s OK because, underneath the comedy, he has such a Serious Point to make. He’s dead wrong, though, and this scene is uncomfortable (not in the funny way) and appalling (not in the intentional way). Surely this gross misappropriation of 9/11 is as self-serving and inexcusable as any of the “anti-American” behavior he accuses Michael Moore of.
The film is a lackluster effort, with Zucker’s considerable talents having been narrowly focused onto one topic. I’m giving it a just-barely-recommended grade not because it’s terribly funny (which it isn’t), but because I found its point of view so interesting. Consider it a curio representing a philosophy that’s mostly overlooked in Hollywood. Many spoofs these days are completely worthless; at least this one has some ideas in its head, ill-conceived though some of them may be.
B- (1 hr., 23 min.; )