Wednesday, May 27, 2009
For all the controversy surrounding the release of Fanboys, the Weinsteins inadvertently made it the perfect companion piece to the source of its parody. Die-hard fans waited for the Star Wars prequels for nearly two decades after Return of the Jedi, eagerly awaiting news in a time before the internet. As with Episode I, Fanboys earned itself a fair amount of discussion amongst legions of people who hadn't seen it: news of re-edits, pushbacks and its eventual limited release only riled up potential viewers more and more. It all created a heaping slab of hype and Fanboys, just like Episode I, couldn't live up to the pressure.
Episode I itself plays a major role in the film: set in 1998, Fanboys charts the quest of a group of Lucas-obsessed buddies to make it to Skywalker Ranch and a steal a print of the prequel so that their dying friend might see it, as he will not live to the theatrical release. Apart from the cancer-ridden Linus (Chris Marquette), there's Windows (Jay Baruchel), who spends his time communicating online with a cyberdate who claims to be "a cross between Sarah Michelle Gellar and Janeane Garofolo;" Hutch (Dan Fogler), a Trekkie hating, Rush loving madman; and Bottler (Sam Huntington), the only one of the group who grew up, and who must get in touch with his repressed nerd in the course of the 2,000 mile journey.
Writing the script for this must have come easily for Ernest Cline and Adam F. Goldberg; after all, the entire trek is cobbled together using classic Star Wars lines and clichéd notions of superfans. This of course mimics the actual dialogue of such people, who, as Roger Ebert rightly noted, fall back on scripted conversation when they feel too unsure of themselves to come up with one of their own. God knows I spent my formative years letting George Carlin and Monty Python do all the talking, and I still fall back into pop culture referencing with alarming frequency.
But that sort of communication, as befitting lines stolen from films and comedians, is acting. We're meant to identify with these characters -- and the film paints them in nothing but a flattering light -- yet they can't even identify with themselves. Had this been played up with a bit more of a sardonic edge, this element could have scored some big laughs, but this film is in total service of the fans. The filmmakers clearly wanted George Lucas's stamp of approval (which they got), so they keep the entire thing light, which is strange considering the backbone of the story revolves around a young man dying of cancer.
That reminds me: did anyone on set have any idea what a terminally-ill person looks and acts like? Just because the character was diagnosed too late for chemotherapy and thus never suffered the ravages of that treatment doesn't mean he can be running all over the place with rosy cheeks when he's weeks away from death. In retrospect, the entire controversy over whether or not the cancer plot stayed in the film is moot, as it has no real impact on the story. Sure, without their friend to serve as motivation, the gang would look like self-serving fanboys, but that's how they look anyway. They're trying to keep the tone so light that, apart from delving into these characters to poke fun at them, they omit any moment of potential pathos involving the disease, except for a brief moment in a hospital that barely pauses for breaths before trying for more laughs.
And when the dialogue fails (and it does. Often.), director Kyle Newman trots out every cameo he can muster. Everyone from Billy Dee Williams to Kevin Smith shows up at some point, but few of them have anything to add other than name recognition. One of the few cameos that offers anything of substance is Carrie Fisher's, as it gleefully inverts the famous Han-Leia exchange in The Empire Strikes Back. It's not a blistering send-up or anything, but I'll take what I can get with this movie. But the one cameo that definitively works is a hilarious appearance by William Shatner as the man who gives the group "classified information" to help them break into Skywalker Ranch. The rest of the time, however, Fanboys uses its non-stop stream of nerd celebrities simply to perk up viewers bored by the actual narrative.
The one bright spot in all of this is Kristen Bell as Zoe, the equally geeky female friend who joins the adventure halfway through the film when she has to bail the guys out of some local jail. Bell, who portrayed Veronica Mars, already has geek cred to spare, so she never looks out of place as the dorky-yet-mature (by these standards anyway) girl, though some will doubtless say she's too attractive or some such nonsense. There are plenty of attractive nerds out there, especially when it comes to enjoying one of the most popular movie franchises in history; why can't people who go outside occasionally also love sci-fi?
But she can't buoy this flaccid comedy, because nothing ever really happens. The hijinks are so repetitious they even put Seth Rogen in two of them as entirely different characters. And the lack of any satiric bite makes the parody mundane; I mean, come on, it's Episode I. The fact that a die-hard fan wants his last memory on this Earth to be what would become likely the biggest and most infamous gut punch in the history of cinema is ripe for dark comedy but, apart from a few winking references (the best of which being a man who tattoos Jar-Jar on his back, assured that the character will be huge), they never really lay into the irony because they needed Lucas's approval. Compare this film to that other sci-fi parody Galaxy Quest, and you see why the latter remains such a great film: the filmmakers ultimately pay tribute to superfans, but they don't shy away from teasing these people. Also, it used its cast to play around with the show: for example, Sigourney Weaver is perfect for the role not because she played Ellen Ripley, but because Ellen Ripley helped break women out of the sort of "space secretary" role that she plays in the film. It adds a nice, subversive touch without calling attention to itself. Though it occasionally makes its endless references work and it boasts a great final line, Fanboys is so desperate to underline every moment of cribbed dialogue and every cameo to the point that it only highlights how weak the film truly is.