Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Most Fascinating Bad Movie Ever Made

Parody is hard to do right, a fact complicated by the fact that it's often quite hard to tell when people in the genre are trying and when they aren't. For every "Airplane!" there are five "Scary Movies"; for every good Mel Brooks film there are three bad Mel Brooks films. Parody is hard to make appear intelligent and virtually never ages well. And that brings us to the morbid curiosity piece that is "Not Another Teen Movie."

First off, let's look at that movie poster. Click on it; it gets bigger. Movie titles started becoming logos sometime in the late 1970s or so, and in the time since there has never been one that looked less finished than this. The gradated colors of the block letters and the bad shadowing effects point to somebody taking skills learned in Microsoft Excel and transferring them to Corel PhotoPaint. Even if this was 2001/2002 (and it is; note the top billing for the VHS format), that's pretty bad.

The movie itself is a whole other can of twisted aircraft wreckage you pulled out of a swamp. See, although the bulk of what we think of as teen movies came out in the 1980s, the single most definitive entry ever made into the genre - "American Pie" - had come only two years before, although you can see the full list of references here. The amount of material in that list suggests that somebody with a misspent adulthood watched all of these movies, noted things worthy of parody and then built a script around them. The plot line follows this.

Leading lady Chyler Leigh plays Janey Briggs, which was basically the beginning and end of her in movies. Janey is the "pretty-ugly girl," who simply needs to take off her glasses and let down her ponytail to become gorgeous. Her father is crazed alcoholic Vietnam vet Randy Quaid, whose bizarre acting talents were never better used. Janey and her horny younger brother Mitch (Cody McMains) attend a school populated entirely by teen-movie stereotypes. Popular kid Jake (Chris Evans) accepts a bet by other popular kid Austin (Eric Christian Olsen) that he can make any girl prom queen. Janey is chosen.

Other plotlines swirl beneath the surface. Jake's insane pervert sister Amanda (Lacey Chabert) is trying to get him to sleep with her, and later makes out with the elderly undercover reporter who is somehow passing as a teen. Janey's brother and his friends are the stereotypical sex-crazed teens who pack for a crazy trip (that never leaves the neighborhood). Randy Quaid is still Randy Quaid.

Remember how I mentioned earlier that this was 2001/2002? The movie came out in December 2001, which means the home video release (on VHS, you guys!) would have been in 2002. But that also means that this is one of the small crop of films that were made before September 11, 2001 but released after it. Despite all the very real problems with Not Another Teen Movie, it can probably get a better reception now than when it came back. Goofy in a quintessentially American way, this couldn't have played particularly well to people who were sitting in theatres trying to remember what it meant to be American. Having adjusted over the ensuing decade, viewers can now appreciate the lack of quality with clear eyes.

What's really fascinating is that the people who made this film wanted - really, really wanted - for it to work. Ron Lester, the guy who played Reggie Ray, said on the DVD featurette (because there was a DVD featurette, and, God help me, I watched it) that he wanted to be the guy who played a parody of his own role as Billy Bob in "Varsity Blues." He's happy about it (something I suppose I would have never known if I'd bought the VHS copy).

This man's IMDb page shows that at the time, he had been in three feature movies and one of them was "Good Burger." But he wanted to make fun of himself. To continue focus on his character, there is a slot on the scoreboard in the school stadium that shows how many concussions Reggie Ray has left, and it grimly counts down as the movie goes on. There's nothing funny in that when you hear it explained, but seeing it happen you feel a sense of distant and morbid humor, and that humor is the life-giving ichor that stops this film from being totally unwatchable.

Grim one-upsmanship carries the movie like a robot carries an unconscious blonde in '50s horror - stoically, without emotion or the ability to register nuance. Remember the "Czechoslovakian" exchange student in "American Pie," who ends up being an unwitting accomplice in internet sex hijinks? Here they just have an exchange student named Areola, who is naked. All the time. Cerina Vincent, who played her, didn't sound anywhere near as happy as Ron Lester in the featurette. I believe she was entirely edited out of the film when it ran on television, which hopefully helped keep the people who had seen her here and the people who knew her as "the yellow Power Ranger" in separate camps.

I made fun of Mel Brooks at the beginning of this article because I recently rewatched "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," which was clearly made by a comedian at the bottom of his game. But how did that happen? He's a legend; he made "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles." How did he sink to making a bad Robin Hood parody followed by an even worse Dracula parody? That last was starring Leslie Nielsen, who rose to maturity in serious roles before taking a permanent turn to comedy with - wait for it - "Airplane!" Why does comedy always seem to strangle those who love it most?

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