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The epic mini-series events of the 70s and 80s may be well behind us and forgotten by many of today’s television viewers, but that apparently isn’t enough to save them from Funny or Die style parody. Drawing on the genre’s reputation for soapy family drama and melodramatic plot twists, “The Spoils of Babylon” produces a tale that brings together every piece of cheesy dialogue and low-level film production that can be imagined, and it actually turns out to be pretty funny. With the likes of Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, and Will Ferrell himself hosting the affair, there’s plenty here to enjoy even if six episodes does seem a little long for this particular joke.
Hosted by the very drunk best-selling author of “The Spoils of Babylon,” Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), this adaptation of the fictitious novel eases viewers into a spell-binding epic that spans several generations. The story begins in 1931, when a young orphan, later named Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire), is adopted by impoverished oilman, Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins). From there, this rags to riches tale of the great Morehouse family line follows Jonas’ rise to power as an oil tycoon, as well as the budding romance between his daughter Cynthia (Kristen Wiig) and Devon. With the Great Depression and World War 2 acting as the tale’s backdrop, however, it isn’t long before the loving family is sucked into historical events and torn apart by betrayal, greed, and even murder.
Now, some may question why this genre of soapy television was chosen to be parodied in the first place. Going by the references and jokes made so far, there appears to be plenty to poke fun at, but it’s hard to justify doing so when so few members of the audience will have even seen any of the original series. Luckily, poor production values and horrendously bad plot lines are eternal. While your mileage may vary when it comes to understanding what specifics are being parodied, a lot of the elements that the series mocks are not unique to mini-series epics of the 70s and 80s. So long as you’ve seen at least one soap opera, cheesy action flick, or war-time coming of age movie at some point in your life, the humour won’t be lost on you.
“Well that’s pretty expository.”
Before any of the cast members are even allowed to speak, the inherent ridiculousness of the plot shines through in its cinematography and soundtrack. Relying heavily on chaotic, mis-matched editing that aims to be more dramatic than continuous, and a score that is powerful in its over the top fervor, a lot of the humour comes from the over-dramatized details that we’ve all seen played straight in one movie or another. Considering that some jokes do prove to be better than others, the attention given to visual parody is what saves a lot of scenes where the jokes don’t quite hit their mark.
Which is a good thing as jokes that miss the mark are a little too frequent in this series. Given that each episode only has a run time of roughly twenty-two minutes, jokes that fail to garner a reaction do stand out quite a bit. On the other hand, there’s always at least a couple of jokes per episode that are perfectly timed and do well to balance out the bad ones. Episode one gives us the memorable scene of Jonas giving Devon a compass that has a much too long inscription inside. But it’s in episode two that we’re introduced to the lovely Lady Anne York (voiced by Carey Mulligan), a mannequin who is wife to Devon, romantic rival to Cynthia, and representative of all the beautiful but one-dimensional female leads of the world. Lady Anne’s scenes with Wiig are perhaps one of the best examples of what “The Spoils of Babylon” can be when it finds its stride as Wiig and Mulligan effectively play up the humour for all it’s worth.
While some of the comedy is hit-or-miss, the series’ star-studded cast manages to produce a number of humorous scenes that make for an enjoyable watch. It isn’t necessarily the smartest or the most consistent approach, but the close attention paid to details that have caused so many movies and series to go sour over the years is cathartic, if nothing else.