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The premiere episodes of IFC’s epic, mock-romance mini-series, Eric Jonrosh’s The Spoils of Babylon, were finally aired last night. Featuring a star studded cast, including Will Ferrell, Tim Robbins, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Wiig, amongst others, The Spoils of Babylon is an exercise in ridiculousness.
Meant to be a parody on great romances that spanned the middle of the 20th century, the humor is usually one note and often falls short. It relies too heavily on the mashing together of a hyper-real melodramatic story that will devolve into the same excessive jokes for laughs. It is very much Casa de Mi Padre, which was directed and written by the same people who bring The Spoils of Babylon, in a different setting with different characters. Although there is a glimmer of hope, as the second episode did show improvement over the first.
Each episode starts out with fake author Eric Jonrosh, played by Will Ferrell. He is old, disheveled, and prone to rants and tangents while he tries to tell the audience what his book/mini-series is about and what he had to do to write it and produce it. While there is some humor from these segments, especially from “The War Within,” they ultimately are just Will Ferrell riffing on whatever he feels like while sitting in a fancy restaurant drinking wine. Once introduced the actual Spoils of Babylon story begins.
The actual Spoils of Babylon is very random and offers up parodies of everything imaginable. The mini-series is filmed in a 1960s style, complete with a well done opening credits scene in “The Foundling” and a somewhat psychedelic sex scene in “The War Within.” With that stylistic choice comes an epic story that begins in 1931 and quickly moves forward through World War II by the end of “The War Within.” Every establishing shot is clearly of miniature model buildings. In one scene where Devin Morehouse (Tobey Maguire) races across town it is actually a toy car that moves along a very visible track. It is clear the joke is meant to be, amongst the grandiose epic there is some very chintzy production.
It is this type of ridiculous, over the top humor that will be repeated over and over again. The story is clearly a parody but lends itself into the so serious it is ridiculous realm. Devin Morehouse is immediately adopted by a hard on his luck oil driller, Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins). Devin and his adopted sister Cynthia quickly fall in love as children, and Devin has very conflicted feelings about it once he grows up. Jonas finally strikes oil just as he is about to sell off his land and soon thereafter Devin rushes off to become a Naval pilot in World War II. It clearly hits all of the points an epic romance of this era would and really reminds you of some more classic parodies. However, where a Mel Brooks knew just the right type and amount of humor was needed to augment a parody story, Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele does not.
The scene in which Jonas gives Devin an inscribed compass is a good example of the type of comedy to expect. After telling Devin that the bank is going to foreclose on the house and land the next day, Jonas gives Devin a compass with an inscription inside. Devin reads the inscription, which turns out to be the length of a short essay while Jonas asks him to continue reading.
The inscription is actually a fairly well written and, in the right context, could be considered a heartfelt message if not for the fact that it is meant to be inscribed on the inside of a pocket compass. At the end it is signed “Your Fat” instead of “Your Father” and Jonas makes a comment about how the space inside the compass could have been used better. Directly after this exchange a banker comes to rub it in Jonas’s face that he is going to take over his land only to have oil spurt out the top of the oil well they are standing next to. Devin and Jonas then do a celebratory dance while oil rains down on them to stick it to the banker.
If that doesn’t sound very funny it’s because it isn’t and, unfortunately, that may have been the funniest scene in “The Foundling.” It is this brand of humor where the joke goes on forever, in hopes of reaching that point where a once funny joke becomes funny again after constant repetition, that is found smattered all over Spoils of Babylon – the excessive humor of excess. But when the original joke isn’t that funny in the first place why would it be funnier the longer it goes?
But yet, the more ridiculous the premise of the joke is the funnier it actually becomes, at least in the case of “The War Within.” While scenes of Jonas softly slapping Cynthia repeatedly or Devin using different cathouse metaphors while in a dogfight in World War II, the scenes with Devin’s new wife Marianne – who is simply a mannequin with makeup and clothes and a voice dubbed over – end up being the funniest bits of the second episode.
Whether it is the somewhat psychedelic sex montage between Devin and Marianne, or Cynthia listening to Marianne describe how deep and passionate her and Devin’s love is while angrily cutting up all sorts of food, these moments are the funniest of the show. It seems that when Spoils of Babylon decide to be utterly over the top and ludicrous is when the show works best. This includes a scene where Cynthia pops up in different parts of the room while her and Jonas are being told that Devin has died, without any other shots showing her move from one spot to the other.
Eric Jonrosh’s The Spoils of Babylon is an exercise in ridiculous excess. It is clear that the creators have filtered very little, as evident by Marianne being a mannequin. The comedy is all in the same vein and when it works it does end up being pretty funny but just as often it doesn’t work and it becomes boring. While there was marked improvement between the first and second episodes there is still a long way to go before The Spoils of Babylon feels like a must watch event.