Mel Brooks Monday: Life Stinks

Like with The 12 Chairs, I had no idea Life Stinks existed before I watched it for this retrospective. And, once again, my lack of expectation paid off. Unlike The 12 Chairs, this is no lost masterpiece; in fact, in some ways it isn’t even very good. But it does things no other Brooks film has even attempted, and is definitely worth a look for fans who may have never heard of it like me.

The jokes in Life Stinks are, on the whole, pretty mediocre, but this is the one time in Brooks’ filmography where that is not a deal breaker, because I don’t really see this as a comedy. It’s more of a dramedy, a film that flirts with comedic elements but, on the whole, has something more serious and important than laughter on its mind.

Brooks casts himself as Goddard Bolt, a filthy rich business mogul and unlikable cad who dreams of turning a well-known L.A. slum into a shopping complex. But Bolt’s business rival Vance Craswell (Jeffrey Tambor), who matches Bolt in both wealth and complete disregard for human life, wants to build his own complex on the same land. So the two make a gentleman’s bet: if Bolt can survive 30 days on the streets without his money or his power, Craswell will concede the land. But, if Bolt gives up, the land is Craswell’s.

Will Bolt survive 30 days on the streets when he hasn’t worked a day in his life? Will he learn valuable lessons about the dignity of his fellow man? If you’re breathing air, you already know the answer. Everything here has been done before; from the rich man’s bet (hello Trading Places) to the unlikable guy who finds the heart he never knew he had (too many 80’s movies to count).

Bolt wanders the streets as he attempts to learn and master the art of being homeless, everything from perusing soup kitchens to performing for money to finding a place to sleep. Along the way he befriends a colorful cast of characters, including Sailor (Howard Morris), Fumes (Teddy Wilson) and the fiery Molly (Lesley Ann Warren). The first half of the film is filled with a lot of jokes that fall rather flat, but when tragedy strikes, it’s pretty emotional. Brooks has never handled true drama very well, but here it works better than the comedy. The film balances the light moments with the heavy reality of homelessness brilliantly.

Life Stinks is a charming and well-acted addition to the Brooks canon.

Life Stinks is a charming and well-acted addition to the Brooks canon.

Despite the movie’s familiar concepts, it still feels refreshing because for once Brooks made a straightforward movie, with a plot and complete character arcs, rather than a spoof. In concept and theme, it feels very much influenced by the films of John Landis and Harold Ramis. But rather than riffing on those directors’ styles, it’s more of a loving homage. It’s also the rare Brooks films with a socially conscious message; the filmmaker has something valuable (though pretty obvious) to say about the human condition.

But the real reason to check Life Stinks out is the acting. Everyone here is a home run. Tambor, currently making waves with his head-turning role in the Amazon show Transparent, is really funny as the goofy-yet-vindictive Craswell. His comedic timing is impeccable. Brooks gives what is perhaps his best-ever performance, balancing the funny and the tragic elements of his character with ease. There’s a sequence near the end set in a hospital wing that had me rolling, but then I felt guilty, because Bolt is actually in a lot of pain and at his lowest moment, and other characters are taking advantage of that for a laugh. I’ve never seen Brooks straddle the line of the tragicomic so well, as a director or as an actor.

The real star, however, is Warren as Molly. She starts out goofy and more than a little crazy, but once we learn her backstory we begin to understand why she is so bitter at the world, and how she tries to hide her pain by looking tough and brushing aside her real emotions with off-color jokes. It’s an incredibly affecting performance, and I can’t say enough about how much nuance and energy she brings to the entire film.

While the movie features some interesting left turns for Brooks as a director, there’s still some reliably entertaining Brooks moments, including a sweet musical number and some good ol’ slapstick. But the directorial trait that shines through the most here is heart. This is a passionate, tough little film that you can tell everyone involved poured their hearts and souls into. The result is so infectious, you can’t help but smile.

Life Stinks is a charming and delightfully old-fashioned slice-of-life story. Some might find its clichés and predictable story beats distracting, but the movie has more than enough heart and stellar performances to make up for it. It’s a true gem for Brooks fans looking for something a little different.



Unbroken review

The facts of Louie Zamperini’s life are extraordinary, but what truly makes his story one-of-a-kind are the emotions involved. Fear, pain, courage and faith—the kind of all-encompassing dedication that only the strongest survivors possess—these feelings often coexisted in what must be one of the most extraordinary lives ever lived. No wonder Hollywood has been trying to make a movie about his life since the 1950’s.

Director Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, based upon Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, does a fine job with the facts of Zamperini’s life, but struggles in making us feel the deep emotion and empathy a story like his  should evoke.

The film chronicles Louie’s almost unbelievable story of survival: after the WWII bomber’s plane crashed over the Pacific, he was stranded at sea for 43 days before being captured by the Japanese and hustled around to several POW camps, each with increasingly brutal conditions. He survived relentless torture, beatings and immense starvation, as well as the kind of psychological damage it takes a lifetime of recovery to overcome.

Louie’s dramatic struggles during the war are intermingled with stories of his childhood and teenage years; a young Italian-American drifter with no direction, he was convinced by his brother, Pete, to take up running and eventually became a star, breaking records during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The cuts between the intense scenes of war and the quiet backstory are sometimes jarring, but set a nice pace until the war scenes take over. The first half of the film is pretty extraordinary; the stranded-at-sea segment, in particular, is absolutely riveting. But once Louie is imprisoned and becomes a merciless target for the brutal camp commander Watanabe, also known as The Bird (Takamasa Ishihara, rather miscast), the movie settles into a workmanlike pacing that really drags the film down. Scenes of quiet power, whispered conversations between POWs as they find ways to steal food and listen in on news about the war effort, are juxtaposed with scenes of increasingly brutal—and numbing—physical and emotional abuse.

Even if you haven’t read Hillenbrand’s book, it’s easy to guess that Jolie and a slew of writers (the Coen Brothers, Richard LaGravenese and Willaim Nicholson) are giving us the Spark Notes version; easily digestible, pretty and rather dull. The plot is missing some crucial links. Louie’s Olympic runner backstory is pretty interesting, until it’s abandoned. How did Louie end up as a soldier, exactly? We’re told Louie misses his family terribly, but we only get one brief scene of them coping with his potential loss during his two-year absence. There are many scenes where the audience is expected to extrapolate emotions that the movie doesn’t deliver on, which leads to a lot of tonal confusion.

Unbroken is a serviceable but hardly gripping biopic.

Unbroken is a serviceable but hardly gripping biopic.

How are we supposed to feel, for example, when The Bird begins to relentlessly beat Louie with his belt? Are we angry at The Bird? Sure, but there is more to his character than the movie is willing to reveal. Why does he pick on Louie so much? What is his endgame? Is he simply a sadist, or does he feel he is doing what is right for his country? The central relationship in the film is between these two men with unbreakable spirits, yet we can’t get a bead on exactly what their relationship is, other than tormentor vs. captor.

Then there’s the ending, which may leave many cold. The film ends on a nice note, but then come the credits, with more than a few “explainers” letting us know what happened to the characters next. Might we have seen, for example, Louie’s battle with nightmares and alcoholism following the war? His trouble marriage? Or his ultimate redemption, brought about by his conversion to Christianity and his desire to make peace with his wartime captors? There is a powerful story of redemption here, but why did the filmmakers feel the need to bury it? Many war epics are three hours, but this one clocks in closer to two. I’m usually a fan of brevity, but in this case an extra hour could have given us a fuller picture on the scope of Louie’s life.

Despite the film’s myriad flaws, there is brilliance here, and that mainly comes in the form of Jack O’Connell, who does an outstanding job as Louie. O’Connell conveys emotions that would take pages to explain in a book through a simple glare, a laugh or an off-color joke. Where the writing falters in portraying the indomitable spirit of this man, O’Connell fills in the gaps. It’s one of the most physically grueling, effortless performances in ages.

As usual, I have to praise Roger Deakins’ cinematography as well. This is just a gorgeous-looking film, from the translucent blues of the ocean to the black soot of a coal mine, this is as polished-looking a movie as you’re likely to find this year.

Jolie is no slouch behind the camera, either. She makes good use of tracking shots and long takes, letting the movie’s best scenes play out without rushing us along too quickly.

The filmmakers have testified to how difficult making Unbroken was, and the struggle shows in almost every frame. From the writing to the staging to the editing, the film is like a pie with too many fingers in it. Making movies is hard work, but it should never look this hard. I think Louie’s story would actually be much better suited to a TV miniseries, a medium that would allow the emotions of his journey to really sink in. We may get a great filmed version of the life of Louie Zamperini someday. But, while Unbroken is passionate and occasionally stirring filmmaking, we’ll have to keep on waiting.




The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

Whatever criticisms you may level at the first two films of Peter Jackson’s ambitious trilogy of Hobbit films (and there are many), one thing is certain: they did not lack heart. Amidst Jackson’s increasingly bothersome dependence on over-indulgent CGI and a few too-many side plots and characters, the story, conflict and emotions at the center have remained very engaging.

I feared that The Battle of the Five Armies, the third film in the trilogy (not a word I ever thought I’d use to describe a Hobbit adaptation), would buck the trend, focusing entirely too much on the battle the title emphasizes and foregoing a satisfying conclusion to the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves in their effort to reclaim their homeland.

I’m very glad to say I was wrong. While the film does indeed feature a handful of entirely spectacular battle sequences, it’s the quiet moments of the film I’ll remember the most, the kind of intimate conversations and interactions that elevated Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings trilogy into legend.

The story picks up immediately after the last film left off, with the menacing dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) set to destroy the city of Lake town and its inhabitants. That threat is dispensed of rather quickly (and anticlimactically) when warrior Bard (Luke Evans) fells the beast with a spear. But even bigger troubles are brewing.

After reclaiming the mountain of Erebor from Smaug, the dwarves hole themselves up in the mountain as leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) attempts to locate a magic stone that belonged to his father. But the others fear his increasing isolation and jealous nature may be the result of “dragon sickness;” an obsession with gold. Things get worse when Thorin refuses to allow the displaced people of Lake town asylum in the mountain as he had originally promised. And others have a stake in the mountain too: the Elves, led by Thranduil (Lee Pace), have jewels in the mountain that belong to them. And the menacing orc Azog the Defiler is amassing his own orc army to storm the mountain, which could act as sort of a strategic military stronghold for the Necromancer, who is on his way to reclaiming his former title of Lord Sauron. These varying conflicts set the stage for a massive battle that could determine the future of Middle Earth.

A big problem with this setup is the lack of a very particular character: a Hobbit. The title refers to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who has accompanied the dwarves on their journey to reclaim their homeland. J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story focused on the perspective of this little Hobbit as he comes to terms with the mighty challenges around him. In this film, there’s so much politics to focus on and so many characters, Bilbo gets a bit lost in the equation. And that’s a shame, because Freeman is a very fine Bilbo, once again striking that fine balance between heroism and helplessness that made Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee such classic characters in the original trilogy.

Despite some missteps, the final Hobbit movie wraps up the tale in a grand and satisfying fashion.

Despite some missteps, the final Hobbit movie wraps up the tale in a grand and satisfying fashion.

But Bilbo still plays an important part in the story, acting as sort of the clear-headed mediator between the various warring parties. And his relationship to Thorin grows even stronger and more affecting than before. Freeman and Armitage are world-class actors, and seeing them playing off each other in-between the movie’s many frenetic moments is a real pleasure.

Other characters receive a far less noble sendoff. I ultimately appreciate the direction the filmmakers took new Elvish character Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and her complicated relationship with Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner). But Legolas (Orlando Bloom) fails to justify his appearance in the movie besides getting to be in some badass action scenes.

A parallel storyline concerning the fate of Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and his struggle against the Necromancer’s forces also falls flat. We get token re-appearances from Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), but after the extensive buildup these characters got in the previous films, their sendoff seems pretty unceremonious and anti-climactic. Their roles are essentially reduced to cameos.

I expect the main draw of the movie will be the titular battle (or rather, series of battles), and they deliver big-time. Although never matching the scope or scale of the Lord of the Rings films (how could they?), the battles are nonetheless mighty impressive. Despite a large middle section that consists of little more than action, it’s amazing how Jackson and company were able to keep things interesting. Part of this is the changing perspectives as we jump back and forth between characters, but another part is the variety of battles on display. We leave a massive, clashing army for a smaller skirmish or one of several one-on-one fights, and it’s all so thrilling to watch. I saw it in 3-D, and I highly recommend it. The action, much of it set against a gorgeous snowy backdrop, really pops off the screen, and it speaks to what Jackson has been able to do with 10 years of advanced technology since we left the original trilogy.

But I was most grateful for how the film handles the book’s big moments in its latter half. There are a lot of deaths in the book, and I dreaded the moments they arrived on screen. It really speaks to how the filmmakers have allowed us to connect with these characters in a way that even the brief book could never really get around to. Without spoiling anything, I was really pleased with the way these events were handled onscreen (despite one notable exception).

I was hoping that Five Armies’ relatively brief running time (compared to the first two anyway) would mean we could avoid being subjected to Jackson’s hackneyed attempts to directly tie the events of The Hobbit into The Lord of the Rings, even though their events are set decades apart. Alas, this just means these pointless diversions were truncated, rather than excised entirely. I already mentioned the disappointing wrap up to the Necromancer story arc, but what’s even worse is the nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to other LOTR characters the writers couldn’t find a way to squeeze in here. There’s also the wrap-around story introduced at the beginning of the first movie, which I found irritating to begin with. It comes full circle here, in a haphazard, almost slapdash fashion. It’s pretty groan-worthy.

Thankfully, the movie has it where it counts. Despite its many diversions, the story wraps up the intimate tale of its source material perfectly. In its best moments, it matches both the intimacy and the grandeur of Jackson’s magnificent original trilogy. This is the closest a Hobbit movie has come to matching it. I have to question some of the director’s more iffy creative decisions, but on the whole I was satisfied with the grand finale of this Middle Earth tale. If you’ve enjoyed this take on the Hobbit tale thus far, Five Armies will not disappoint.

Mel Brooks Monday: Spaceballs

As a big Star Wars fan, I’m always down for a good spoof of George Lucas’ seminal sci-fi saga. But, let’s face it, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs is really dumb. It’s less Blue Harvest and more Thumb Wars.

It’s strange to compare Mel Brooks’ comedy to any other Star Wars spoof because Spaceballs, refreshingly, is not intent to re-hash the story every movie fan knows so well. It’s more of an original story that uses comedic archetypes of Star Wars’ major characters. But the movie’s biggest sin is that, no matter how badly I want it to be, it’s just not very funny. The gags are pretty tired and the puns are mostly groan-worthy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing.

The story opens with Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the planet Druidia and her arranged marriage to a narcoleptic cad of a prince whom she doesn’t love. She runs away with her robot assistant Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers) but is soon captured by the (initially) menacing Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis). Under the orders of President Skroob (Mel Brooks), he plans to save the planet Spaceball, running low on air, by stealing Druidia’s oxygen supply.

Spaceballs is a rather sluggish but occasionally funny sci-fi spoof.

Spaceballs is a rather sluggish but occasionally funny sci-fi spoof.

The Druidian king (Dick Van Patten) hires mercenary duo Lone Starr and Barf (Bill Pullman and John Candy) to save the princess and ultimately the planet from destruction. Along the way, Lone Starr learns of a mysterious presence called “the Schwartz” as he attempts to unravel his own troubled backstory.

I admire the way Brooks and crew managed to create original, unique characters while still playing off of the major Star Wars players. The memorable characters are more thanks to the acting than the writing. Joan Rivers’ C-3PO knock-off falls pretty flat, but John Candy and Rick Moranis easily steal the show. Moranis is a perfect Dark Helmet, making the dichotomy between his menacing reputation and his stunted, dweeby appearance all the more funny. He gets the film’s best (and really only) physical comedy, which I found to be pretty brilliant. Candy, as Chewbacca substitute Barf, manages to add weight as well as humor to an underwritten role.

The production design is also pretty excellent, from the sometimes imaginative sets (a flying Winnebago rather than the Millennium Falcon) to the music (John Morris’ score is a pretty suitable substitute for John Williams’ famous tunes) to the spot-on costumes. Even in the world of a spoof, Brooks manages to create a universe all his own.

Thank goodness the acting and visuals are generally good, because the writing is not. This is Brooks’ cheesiest dialogue by a mile, and his ever-famous puns are pretty eye-rolling. The pacing of the film is painfully slow, even at an hour and a half, and the stretches that go without a joke that hits can feel interminable. Many of the references to franchises like Star Trek and Indiana Jones feel phoned in for name recognition, like they’re not even trying to get a laugh.

But there are very funny moments here. Consider Pizza the Hut, a marvelously disgusting creation, who melts and oozes cheese and pepperoni while trying to sound menacing (he only gets one scene, but it’s great). It’s incredibly absurd, but so odd that it somehow works (it probably helps that he’s voiced by Dom DeLuise). A great meta-joke involving VHS tapes gets big laughs and also doubles as a Mel Brooks film history lesson. And a clever running gag is a great commentary on the commercialization and rampant merchandising of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

Sadly, these great jokes are few and far in-between. The majority of Spaceballs is a bit of a slog. It’s a charming little film, and one of Brooks’ most visually appealing, but this is light years away from the acerbic, groundbreaking wit of something like The Producers. It’s worth seeing, but there’s not much here worth re-visiting a second time.

Mel Brooks Monday: To Be or Not to Be

It’s hard to underestimate the impact Ernst Lubitsch has had on the career of Mel Brooks. The famous comedic director was a master at mixing potent social satire with big laughs, memorable characters and rapid-fire dialogue in classics like Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be.

The latter 1942 masterpiece had such an impact on Brooks that he remade the film in 1983. The result is absolutely wonderful and stands out among Brooks’ films because it is not a spoof but rather a faithful remake of a very funny, sophisticated film.

Brooks casts himself in his best role as Polish theater performer Frederick Bronski. He and his wife, Anna (played by Brook’s real-life wife, Anne Bancroft), put on shows in Warsaw to help the people forget the troubles of WWII. In August 1939, the month before Germany invades Poland, tensions are high among the Bronskis and their faithful troupe of theater performers. Frederick’s skits mocking Adolf Hitler are soon shut down by the foreign office, and Anna is spending her backstage time schmoozing with a handsome young pilot (Tim Matheson). Soon after, Poland is invaded and bombed to rubble, and the Bronski Theater is closed down. Even the Bronskis’ home is forcibly turned into Gestapo headquarters.

To Be or Not to Be retains the original's witty humor as well as its potent political gravitas.

To Be or Not to Be retains the original’s witty humor as well as its potent political gravitas.

But there are bigger threats afoot. Once Anna hears of a plot by Professor Siletski (a brilliant Jose Ferrer) to betray the Polish underground to the Germans, she hatches a plot with her fellow performers to stop the list of names from getting into German hands. There’s also the matter of the theater troupe’s harboring of several Jewish families, as the fear of getting found out and the stakes get higher and higher.

Nothing about that plot summary sounds like a Mel Brooks movie, and that turns out to be a very good thing. The story is complicated, perhaps even a bit overstuffed, but it’s dripping with political intrigue, assassination plots and compelling confrontations. Brooks, like Lubitsch before him, treats the subject seriously, and it shows. The original film’s potent political subtext has lost nothing in the adaptation.

Another aspect of the original present and accounted for is its biting, acerbic wit and masterful situational comedy. Brooks relies much more heavily on this approach, letting funny performances play themselves out rather than writing in a bunch of jokes or puns. The result is a refreshing change of comedic pace for Brooks. There are several classic cases of mistaken identity here that really get bit laughs, but I wouldn’t dream of ruining them for anyone.

Since this is the re-telling of an old story, the movies’ biggest pleasures come in the form of its magnificent performances. Brooks has never been better or more subtle here, playing a flesh-and-blood character rather than a stereotype. His style is different than Jack Benny’s, but he really embodies the character while still making it his own. Bancroft plays Anna as a sophisticated sex symbol, someone who can use her charms against any man to get what she wants. She’s sultry but also fiercely intelligent and independent, something I’m sure made her character an early feminist icon when Carole Lombard played her in the original. Ferrer and Charles Durning work wonders as the film’s Nazi villains, and Christopher Lloyd has a hilarious small part as a blunderingly idiotic Nazi officer.

But the biggest and best surprise here in this remake is the addition of Sasha, Anna’s gay wardrobe dresser (played with surprising subtlety by James Haake). The scenes between them are both tragic and tender, such as a scene where Sasha says that, just as Jews are forced to wear gold stars, homosexuals are forced to wear “pink triangles” when out in public. His character reminds us that Jews were not the only ones persecuted by the Nazis; groups such as gays and other foreign minorities were smaller in number, but their suffering should not be overlooked.

It may be surprising to read about so much depth and subtlety from a Mel Brooks film, but I think it shows the enduring legacy of the indelible original To Be or Not to Be, as well as Brooks’ wisdom in remaking it. This is classic Brooks and classic Lubitsch; smart and sophisticated, with just enough edge to keep you on your toes. The only part where Brooks’ film suffers is in comparison to the brilliant original, one of the greatest films of all time. Brooks’ version doesn’t pack quite the same punch, but the fact that his remake works at all, let alone this well, should be counted as some minor miracle. He puts his own spin on the classic tale, and the results are very much worth your time.


Mel Brooks Monday: History of the World: Part I

There is no History of the World: Part II. How funny you find that fact may largely determine your enjoyment of Mel Brooks’ odd grab bag of history-themed shorts, History of the World: Part I.

The jokey title suggests that Brooks is spoofing the classically overstuffed historical epic, so large and unwieldy that it had to be split into multiple parts. In aping these types of films, the movie itself is a bit of a jumble; it never settles on a consistent tone, and alternates between brilliantly hilarious and maddeningly unfunny.

History of the World is Brook’s strangest film by a mile. It’s essentially a tour through the history of man (or the first half of it anyway), narrated by Orson Welles. The initial humor comes from the dichotomy of Welles narrating the events as serious fact while the actors are doing very goofy, stupid things. The movie has five main segments, from the dawn of man to the French Revolution, and I think it’s best to review the film by discussing each of the segments.

The first segment concerning the dawn of man is rather short, but pretty amusing. It follows a group of cavemen discovering fire, creating art (and, in a hilarious scene, the art critic) and hunting. It’s funny enough and makes good use of Welles’ narration, although, at this point in his career, you would think Brooks could afford some decent looking effects and costumes. Everything looks laughably cheap and fake, and I’m not sure if that’s due to budget constraints or somehow it’s part of the joke. If so, it’s not very funny.

The second segment, The Old Testament, is literally one joke, starring Brooks as Moses. It’s a classic Brooks gag, but if you’ve never seen it, I won’t ruin it for you.

The third segment, focusing on the Roman Empire, receives the most time and attention, and is easily the film’s highlight. Brooks stars as “stand-up philosopher,” Comicus, who, along with his agent, Swiftus (Ron Carey), befriends a black slave named Josephus (Gregory Hines, channeling Blazing Saddles’ Sheriff Bart). After the trio offends Caesar (Dom DeLuise) during a stand-up routine, they are sentenced to death in the arena. They attempt an escape with the help of a Vestal Virgin named Miriam (Mary Margaret-Humes) and her boss, Empress Nympho (a magnificent Madeline Kahn).

This segment is just plain fun, even as it cribs jokes straight from Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Brooks has gotten to a point in his career where he can start ripping off his own jokes. No, they’re not as funny the second time, but there are plenty of other original jokes that land big laughs (like when Josephus creates a giant doobie to “mellow out” his pursuers and throw them off the chase). For every tired, unoriginal joke, there’s a funny and surprising one. It’s a strange brew—a bit of a head-scratcher, actually, but it works.

History of the World is a strange brew; sometimes funny, sometimes dull and forgettable.

History of the World is a strange brew; sometimes funny, sometimes dull and forgettable.

This is also Brook’s raunchiest movie, and it shows throughout. I’ve always thought that Brooks was one of the original masters of the dick joke. Today’s comedies, thanks to the likes of Judd Apatow and the like, are too obvious with their phallic humor, putting them out for the world to see. Brooks understood well that penises themselves are not funny, but the subtle suggestion of them is. It’s almost like the audience gets to lean in on a secret: “did they really just say…was that joke really about…?” They may not immediately grab the attention like in today’s raunchy hits, but they’re infinitely funnier and well-earned.

The Roman Empire section ends with a great joke involving Comicus’ encounter with Jesus during the Last Supper, but then, just as the story is getting interesting, we’re whisked away to the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a jarring shift, but it’s hard to complain when Brooks manages to make something as grim as the Inquisition so damn funny. Here, Brooks leads an elaborate musical number as the infamous Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. In its cheery interpretation of tragic events, it recalls the classic “Springtime for Hitler” number from The Producers, and deserves mention in the same pantheon of classic Brooks moments. It’s a brilliant number, and Brooks is having so much fun, it’s infectious. This is the kind of offensive-yet-warm, biting, genius humor that is missing from so much of the rest of the film.

Speaking of which, the final lengthy segment, set during the French Revolution, is actually pretty terrible. Here, the movie stops being funny and just gets distasteful; the sex jokes go into overdrive, and the humor takes a big nosedive. It’s essentially a take on The Prince and the Pauper when the French King Louis XVI (Brooks again) finds a “piss boy” who looks just like him and, under the advice of the Count De Monet (a tragically underutilized Harvey Korman) switches places with him, so he can run away while the peasants, caught in the fervor of an uprising, cut off the head of the doppelganger instead.

Would you ever find a gang rape funny? Well, there’s one here, and it’s supposedly played for laughs. I found it incredibly mean-spirited and pretty graphic, a complaint you can’t level at most Brooks films. It doesn’t get much better. I’m kind of baffled at how tone-deaf this section is, and how much of a drop in quality it is from the rest of the film. Harvey Korman is literally playing the same cheesy villain he did in Blazing Saddles, and the movie uses all of the same jokes (no one can pronounce his name right, he attempts to kiss a woman but bumps his head instead; the list goes on). Cloris Leachman should be typically brilliant as revolutionary leader Madame Defarge, but she is given precious little to do.

The sorry affair attempts to end with a meta-joke on the level of Blazing Saddles, but it isn’t nearly as successful. In fact, much of History of the World seems like an attempt at recreating Blazing Saddles in a different setting, but the majority of the effort rings false. There’s only so much you can do when you’re copying yourself, and this movie has none of the warmth, heart or originality of that far superior comedy.

History of the World is a strictly middle-of-the-road Brooks film. It works well as a collection of individual scenes, but falls quite flat as a complete film. Brooks seemed confused about the kind of movie he wanted to make, and the result is an occasionally brilliant, maddeningly inconsistent mess.

It might save you some time and frustration to skip the movie and just watch the amazing Inquisition musical number, which you’ll find below: