MEET THE SPARTANS (2008) : Friedberg & Seltzer : 3/10

   official press notes
   Regency Enterprises and Twentieth Century Fox invite you to Meet The Spartans, from the new masters [sic] of the parody genre – writers-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. After successfully [sic] skewering Hollywood's scariest movie (as two of the writers on Scary Movie), romantic comedy franchises (Date Movie), and Hollywood blockbusters ("Epic Movie"), they now set their sights on 300, as well as on other movies that have become part of our pop culture zeitgeist.
   The heroic Leonidas (Sean Maguire), armed with nothing by leather underwear and a cape, leads a ragtag group of 13 – count  'em, 13! – Spartans to defend their homeland against the invading Persians (whose ranks include Ghost Rider, Rocky Balboa, the Transformers, and a hunchbacked Paris Hilton…no one is safe when the Spartans take on the biggest icons in pop culture).
   With Meet the Spartans, Friedberg and Seltzer bring together what they call "the highly stylized and oh-so-cool" world of the Sparta depicted in 300, with a non-stop assault on our media-blitzed pop culture.

   Maguire impressed Seltzer and Friedberg with his choice to play the character minus obvious comedic "winks." "To make this kind of comedy work," says Friedberg, "it's important for the lead actors to play their roles grounded in reality. During his audition and even while filming, Sean often seemed oblivious that he was even acting in a comedy."

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REVIEW

Meet the Spartans* is, by any reasonable measure, a bad film. That much should be apparent from even the briefest glimpse of the trailer, a cursory glance over the synopsis, or even a survey of the poster. A followup to the much-reviled moneyspinner Epic Movie (which, if nothing else, allowed Crispin Glover to incarnate Willie Wonka), it's a lame spoof of 300 which, along the way, lampoons dozens of pop-cultural targets – principally movies and TV shows.The film is aimed squarely at undiscerning Americans aged between 10 and 15: many of the references, will be lost on overseas viewers, or anyone who isn't up to speed on specific celebrity/showbiz ephemera of 2007/8 (such topicality is inherently risky: the Britney Spears 'jokes' now seem decidedly unfortunate.)
   But while there's nothing wrong with blatantly catering/pandering to a specific demographic – and opening #1 at the U.S. box office suggests that those behind the picture know exactly what they're doing – Meet the Spartans actually talks down to its audience by laboriously spelling out (and thus undercutting) so many of its gags. For instance, when a Sylvester Stallone lookalike mumblingly lumbers into view kitted out in boxing garb, the director provides an utterly superfluous close-up of the word ROCKY printed onto his shorts, just in case there's anyone out there who confuses him with De Niro as Jake La Motta. Likewise, the appearance of Ken Davitian – of Borat nude wrestling fame – as Persian god-king Xerxes is prefaced by dialogue about how Xerxes looks "just like that fat guy from Borat."
   Meet the Spartans has received a savage critical mauling at home – where it wasn't screened for the press – and is likely to receive even harsher treatment here in Britain, where it will no doubt be reviled as the latest crass import from the States. But while it's a pretty lousy piece of work that displays only intermittent signs of wit, it seems all too easy – and perhaps a little unfair – to be snottily snobby about the picture, and automatically rank it among the very worst of the year.
   Whatever its myriad faults, Meet the Spartans isn't a talent-free zone by any means. Nicole Parker, who impersonates Ellen Degeneres, Paris Hilton and Spears, among others, is clearly set for bigger and better things. And the movie certainly doesn't take itself seriously at all, barrelling along from joke to joke with a demented brio that's at times reminiscent of the Carry On series and can be rather puppyishly endearing (not to mention emphatically preferable to the dire indulgences of "respectable"/"artistic" fare such as, say, Paranoid Park, Redacted or The Pursuit of Happyness.) And not all of the gags fall flat, by any means: a take-off of Deal or No Deal is executed with something approaching aplomb, largely thanks to the interplay between Davitian (whose Xerxes takes the role of the game-show's host) and the 'contestant', Sparta's King Leonidas – played by British thesp Sean Maguire (of minor Grange Hill and EastEnders fame.)
   Maguire pastiches 300's Gerard Butler with game gusto – and while he's seemingly been cast principally on his bulky physique, nationality and diminutive, pocket-battleship stature, he proves a moderately solid and entertaining core around which the belaboured shenanigans revolve (although why his accent keeps switching from plummy English to broad Scottish is anybody's guess.) Early on, his Leonidas is humiliated when a giant penguin (supposedly a refugee from Happy Feet) squats down on his face and unleashes a torrent of milky excrement all over his face – one of countless deployments of icky bodily fluids for supposedly comic effect. One suspects that Luis Buñuel and company might well admire such wayward surrealism – the image is at least as bizarre and disturbing as anything in INLAND EMPIRE – and one also wonders if this kind of scatterbrained trashing is exactly what our entire debased, celebrity-deformed culture currently deserves (the main action concludes with a rapid zoom into Lindsay Lohan's pixellated crotch.)
   There's certainly some degree of pleasure in seeing 300 on the receiving end of such disrespectful treatment – '300 Had It Coming', as Meet The Spartans' UK poster announces. Zack Snyder's Frank Miller adaptation, though no masterpiece, was widely misinterpreted and underrated – but it certainly took itself awfully seriously. It's a ripe target for this kind of cheapo satire – not least because it was filmed entirely in a warehouse, deploying all manner of green-screen trickery to fill its vistas with marauding warriors and beasties. Meet the Spartans dispenses with the original's distinctive visual palette – there's a conspicuous lack of ruby-rain blood – and instead takes a decidedly "old school" approach to fight arrangement, including the welcome reappearance of that amateur-dramatics standby, the "sword under the armpit" technique. Indeed, part of the fun of the picture is seeing how its makers are going to pull off elaborate effects sequences (such as the non sequitur arrival on the scene of a gigantic Transformers robot) on what's evidently a relatively threadbare shoestring – one would, incidentally, love to find out what Messrs Snyder, Miller and Butler make of it all.
   Meet the Spartans' writer-directors Friedberg and Seltzer, meanwhile, miss no opportunity to parody 300's famed (and rather clumsily suppressed) homo-erotic subtexts, most amusingly when, in a take-off of Budweiser's 'Great Men of Genius' adverts, Leonidas is serenaded as "Mr Warmongering Latent Homosexual". Little touches such as this make it hard to totally reject Meet the Spartans – a thoroughly unpretentious affair which yields sufficient guilty chuckles over its brisk 84 minutes to prevent it from being a total waste of time. The credits actually start rolling at the 68-minute mark – and include the priceless information that one Ike Barinholtz played 'Dane Cook Look-alike / Bond Villain / Prophet' (how about that on your CV?!) – but are repeatedly interrupted by numerous additional scenes (not bloopers), one of which features George W Bush counselling that "war isn't the answer – I should know!" before being kicked into a bottomless Pit Of Death. Not exactly Noam Chomsky levels of invective, but nice to see all the same.

Neil Young
20.Mar.08

* French title : Spartatouille

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USA
84m (BBFC timing)

directors : Jason Friedberg (Epic Movie.) & Aaron Seltzer (Epic Movie, Date Movie.)
editor : Peck Prior (Epic Movie, The Benchwarmers, Deuce Bigalow – European Gigolo, etc)

seen 18.Mar.08 Newcastle (Empire : press show)

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from the American Humane Association website
(NB : the Association monitored the production of Meet the Spartans and rated the on-set treatment of animals in the outstanding category)

Crabs
Several small crabs crawl all over a woman's underwear in a brief close-up. For this scene, two dozen fiddler and red crabs were removed from their aquarium using a small mesh net and placed in paper cups — only a couple crabs per cup, to give them room to move comfortably. Gently tipping the cups over from a few inches above their mark, specially trained personnel wearing rubber gloves released the crabs onto a dummy. They were allowed to roam free for a few seconds before being retrieved. The crabs were only out of their aquarium a few minutes.