Thanks to the intertwined forces of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer and the Wayans brothers, the standards for parody have fallen so low over the past 15 years that I no longer dare expect to laugh at movies from either camp. After joining forces for the sadly precedent-setting, zeitgeist-capturing abomination that was 2000’s Scary Movie, Friedberg/Seltzer and the Wayans split apart, so as to inflict the maximum amount of harm on our culture. At this point, I’m satisfied if their movies don’t broadcast contempt for their characters, their audience, and humanity as a whole. I no longer expect spoofs to be funny; I just want them to not make the world a coarser, sadder, stupider place.
It’s easy and fun, and also somewhat accurate, to lay the blame for the sad decline of the cinematic spoof at the feet of Friedberg and Seltzer—responsible for Epic Movie, Date Movie, Meet The Spartans, Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck, and more, as well as the forthcoming Superfast and Who The F#@k Took My Daughter?—because they are, objectively speaking, the worst. To understand what makes Friedberg and Seltzer two of the most reviled names in comedy, all one needs to do is look at the “Connections” page for Epic Movie on IMDB. The descriptions of individual spoofs and references in Epic Movie go far beyond unfunny into the realm of anti-poetry. Under “References” the page includes semi-literate write-ups of individual gags, such as:
In the “Cribs” scene, there is a version of Scarface (which is on every Cribs host’s tv) played out by goat people
American Pie (1999)
When Edward first sees the White Bitch he comments “Stifler’s Mom”
The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
The White Bitch’s turbo sleigh with the Gnarnia Drift license plate
The “spoofs” section, meanwhile, contains entries like the following:
at the end snow pissing scene peter says “lets cross streams”
Hustle & Flow (2005)
Harry Beaver says “It’s hard out here for a beaver” a spoof of the Oscar winning song from Hustle & Flow.
A Concert For Hurricane Relief (2005) (TV Special)
Tumnus is interrupted by a Kanye West look-alike who says “the White Bitch doesn’t care about black people.”
Reduced to overly casual, typo-and-error-filled description, these references seem even sadder and more desperately random than they do in the film; they’re a pathetic time capsule of what was trending in 2007 and, like a bright piece of tinsel, attracted the exceedingly short attention spans of Friedberg and Seltzer.
Yet some of the blame for parody’s decline from the giddy heights of the films of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane!, Top Secret!, Police Squad! and The Naked Gun) to the dispiriting lows of Date Movie must be laid at the feet of the masters themselves, and not just because one of them famously became an insane, right-wing hack. (That would be David Zucker.) The parodies that ZAZ made after going their separate ways were generally undistinguished at best (High School High), and outright dreadful (An American Carol) at worst. David Zucker has even devoted a chunk of the past decade to extending the life of the Scary Movie franchise after even the Wayans and Friedberg-Seltzer teams had abandoned it.
1991’s ninth highest-grossing film worldwide, the Jim Abrahams-directed Top Gun parody Hot Shots! felt at the time like the last gasp of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker empire. But in 2014, it looks more like an unfortunate bridge between the simultaneously smart and silly brilliance of the ZAZ films and the debased, reference-dependent school of comedy practiced by Friedberg and Seltzer. Life has a funny way of making you resent the things you think you like.
Sure enough, the genial affability I fuzzily remembered as being one of Hot Shots!’s greatest strengths (particularly in light of the ugliness of the spoofs that followed) now seems like one of its greatest weaknesses. The movie’s inoffensiveness is strangely offensive, replacing the innate likability of Airplane! (a quality that allows the film to get away with some pretty edgy gags) with an unforgivable blandness. For all its flaws, Top Gun was incredibly distinctive, but Hot Shots! is hopelessly generic. After an opening credits sequence that faithfully reproduces the electronic majesty of Harold Faltermeyer’s Top Gun score, Hot Shots! makes no further efforts to reproduce the style of what it’s spoofing, or to be stylish at all. A Top Gun parody with a fierce indifference to style is already well on its way to losing the game.
Charlie Sheen stars as Navy fighter pilot Topper Harley, a reckless maverick of a top gun—or hotshot, if you will—trying to outrun the tragic shadow of his father’s mysterious death two decades earlier. It’s an incident that left him with what sexy psychiatrist Ramada Thompson (Valeria Golino) deems a clear-cut case of “Paternal Conflict Syndrome.” The traumatized and shell-shocked Topper has been living as a Native American, portrayed in a sequence that offers the cheap, lazy buzz of familiarity that comes with clumsily referencing a well-known pop-culture entity—in this case, the then-recent Dances With Wolves. There are scattered jokes in the sequence, like a wise elder listening to MC Hammer on his Walkman, and Topper telling the Naval officer sent to bring him back into the fold that he’s now known as “Fluffy Bunny Feet,” due to his fondness for fluffy bunny feet; but the sequence’s central appeal lies in the audience’s ability to immediately recognize what the film is referencing.
That holds true of many of the film’s sequences. Like so many subpar spoofs that would follow, Hot Shots! makes audiences feel hip and in the know by constantly referencing movies and television shows so ubiquitous that seemingly everyone is familiar with them. In the process, the film sometimes feels like an in-joke everyone in the world knows, which defeats the very purpose of an in-joke.
In the film’s most famous scene (or maybe my 15-year-old brain merely registered it as the most famous scene, since it involved a hot woman in her underwear), Topper and Ramada re-create the eating-as-foreplay scene from 9 1/2 Weeks, only this time Ramada’s unclothed body functions as something of a sentient hot plate, allowing Topper to prepare a full-course breakfast on her midriff and upper torso. The scene attempts to make ridiculous a scene that was already ridiculous: It doesn’t take much satirical tweaking to make feeding a partner a wide variety of foodstuffs as a prelude to sex seem silly. In a similar vein, the film references, rather than spoofs, Michelle Pfeiffer’s sensual writhing on top of Jeff Bridges’ piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys by having Ramada all but dry hump a piano during a musical number, only to fall off the piano gracelessly. There is an awful lot of falling down in Hot Shots!, providing another crucial link between Airplane! and the graceless imitators to follow.
To cite a particularly egregious example, late in the film, Lloyd Bridges’ airheaded admiral, known as “Tug,” punches a bad guy played by Efrem Zimbalist, sending him tumbling down a flight of stairs. He ends up in a dentist’s chair, where a sinister dentist who bears a vague resemblance to Laurence Olivier asks, “Is it safe?” like the heavy in Marathon Man. There’s no context to this joke; it’s not as if this dentist has been introduced before, or has a relationship with the film’s characters, or has any reason to ask if something is safe. The joke feels desperate, random, and desperately random. Before Seltzer and Friedberg got their first writing credits on Spy Hard, starring Abrahams’ old leading man Leslie Nielsen, Abrahams had already posited “groaningly obvious pop-culture reference + falling down = instant hilarity” as a can’t-miss comic formula.
The other big problem with spoofing Top Gun is that it’s already such a brilliant, sustained exercise in self-parody, albeit an unintentional one. I laughed long and hard throughout Top Gun—never for the reasons the filmmakers intended—but sat stone-faced through Hot Shots! The straight-faced love scenes between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis—a 10-year-old boy’s conception of sex, all gross tongue action, grinding, and humping in silhouette—is infinitely funnier than the wacky comic sex scene in Hot Shots!
Abrahams’ take on Top Gun is so toothless that there’s not a single joke, or even an acknowledgment, of the rampant homoeroticism for which the original film is now infamous. Hot Shots! re-creates many of Top Gun’s elements—cocky pilot with a tormented past, accomplished lover/mentor figure, pretty-boy arch-rival (Cary Elwes)—without having any real take on the material. The lone exception is a running gag involving a character named “Dead Meat,” which taps into the well-worn cliche of the military man with the most to live for being a dead man walking. In this instance, the character of Dead Meat doesn’t just have an adoring wife and awesome life, he’s also cracked the Kennedy assassination and figured out a way to end global warming—though, of course, he does’t survive to put them into action. It’s a clever, if a little obvious, idea killed by clumsy, ham-fisted execution.
Hot Shots! roughly follows Top Gun’s plot, but throws in a wildly unnecessary subplot involving an attempt to sabotage planes in order to convince the Navy to buy more jets, which does almost nothing but pad out a running time that already feels padded. Abrahams really seems to be running out the clock, filling the screen with 84 minutes of dad jokes, sub-vaudevillian shtick (there’s both a wacky doctor sequence and a character whose humor is entirely rooted in his terrible eyesight), and visual humor that, time and time again, comes down to someone falling down. What makes the film’s over-abundance of pratfall-based humor so depressing and unfunny is that it’s almost always filmed at a distance and with the actor’s face concealed. It’s one thing to watch Dudley Moore or Peter Sellers take a fall; it’s quite another to watch Lloyd Bridges’ stunt double take a spill in a long shot.
Hot Shots! keeps the lazy pop-culture references flying fast and furious. In one flashback sequence, Sheen and Golino alternately portray Rocky and Adrian and Superman and Lois Lane, and after triumphing at the end, Sheen answers a question about what he’s going to do next with, “I’m going to Disney Land!” Because who, in 1991, wouldn’t want to see that phrase reappear in a comically unlikely context? Hot Shots! keeps the jokes coming even after the film has mercifully concluded, and like seemingly all of the film’s other jokes, these ones are equal parts pleasant and underwhelming; along with the usual credits, the filmmakers also include a recipe for frosting and suggestions for things to do after the film.
I enjoyed Hot Shots! the first time I saw it because I fit the film’s target audience: 15-year-old boys living in 1991. The ideal Hot Shots! viewer isn’t just a 15-year old boy, it’s a 15-year-old boy rooted in a specific time and place. Watching movies like Date Movie or Epic Movie invites questions about how references that already feel dated and irrelevant today will look 20 years on. Hot Shots! is much better than those films, but it nevertheless conveys just how dire jokes rooted entirely in timely references look once those references become mothballed and ancient (if still recognizable).
Hot Shots! connected with audiences enough to land in 1991’s international box-office top 10 and spawn a sequel remembered largely for its subtitle, “Part Deux.” But it hasn’t endured like the films Abrahams and his collaborators made before it, both because it’s rooted so deeply in a specific cultural context, and because it’s just not funny.
I was looking forward to revisiting Hot Shots!, in part because it fuses two recent Movies Of The Week—Top Gun and Airplane!—and because I have fond memories of seeing it as a child. But revisiting it as a 38-year-old illustrated the limits of nostalgia. Seen from the vantage point of 2014, Hot Shots! looks less like the end of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker golden age and more like the beginning of the bleak period to follow, when the Wayanses and Seltzer-Friedbergs flourished and the once-mighty ZAZ team disbanded en route to irrelevancy. There would be spoofs with the Zuckers’ and Abrahams’ names attached to them in the years to come, but precious little laughter.
Up next: Fun With Dick & Jane (2005)