There are certain movies you go in hoping to love-and a movie that lampoons the political pretensions of George Clooney, the ACLU's war on Christianity, and the Anti-American antics of documentary-maker Michael Moore is probably going to be on that list for most WORLD readers. So it's too bad that while American Carol (rated PG-13 for rude and irreverent content, language, and brief drug material) does score political points, it doesn't score nearly as many comical ones.
It's not for lack of a great set-up. Borrowing from Dickens' classic, A Christmas Carol, the film follows "Michael Malone," an anti-war activist and award-winning film director, as he leads a grassroots effort to abolish the Fourth of July. In the course of his campaign, he is visited by three ghosts-John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), General George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammar), and George Washington (Jon Voight)-who show the director visions of his past and future in an attempt to pierce his unpatriotic heart with a new love for country. It's quite a letdown when such an inspired premise rarely leads to more than a few chuckles.
That's not to say that American Carol doesn't have a couple of uproariously hilarious moments. It does. It's just that most of those moments happen in the first 15 minutes. Not coincidentally it is after the first 15 minutes that Kevin Farely shows up as Michael Malone-and the laughter begins to fade.
While many of the periphery actors do a fine job sending the punch-lines home, Farely often steps on his. Dialogue that no doubt seemed side-splitting on paper falls flat on the screen. Take the following exchange:
General Patton: "Isn't there anything you think is worth fighting for?"
Michael Malone: "Well, I'd kill to direct a feature."
This is a crackling zinger of a line, but Farely tosses it off so carelessly, it slips by without registering on the audience. Kelsey Grammar, Dennis Hopper, and even Bill O'Reilly lend the plot much-needed energy, but none do enough to maintain the pace once the focus returns to Farely.
However, while Farely is a significant part of American Carol's problem, he is not its biggest. That fault lies with conservative convert David Zucker.
Zucker is the legendary director responsible for such spoofs as Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun. Like several other prominent Hollywood personalities, Zucker underwent a transformation in the wake of 9/11 when he realized that his leftist ideology couldn't explain conflicts in our modern world. He abandoned the Democratic Party and enthusiastically embraced the politics of the Right. American Carol is his first attempt to merge his newfound worldview with his work. Unfortunately, he swings at so many progressive targets, the punches he does land aren't backed by enough force. More often, the film's disjointed plot feels more like Zucker's flailing about in a Daily Kos chat room.
Some scenes feel like they could have reached the transcendent absurdity Zucker managed so well in movies like Top Secret, if only he had allowed them more time. A wonderful song-and-dance sequence in which professors rip off their tweed to reveal love beads and bell bottoms while singing about how their beliefs haven't changed since 1968- Zucker cuts it off just when it starts to get rolling. The outrageously politically incorrect scenes in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan that make up the movie's funniest-Zucker rushes through them in favor of a drawn out and rather pointless Country music concert.
Satire needs to be specific in order to amuse, and while American Carol takes aim at a vast array of legitimate liberal stereotypes, the lances poked at them are too wide to skewer anything. Nothing is more difficult than trying to be funny while driving home a deeply cherished political point. Just ask Tina Fey, or Jon Stewart for that matter. It can be done, but it needs to be done with laser-precision wit. Zucker wields a blunt axe.