Midway through "Spaceballs" (citywide), Mel Brooks' latest movie parody, Brooks appears in one of his two roles--waddling along, robed in pickle green, face coated with something he describes in the press book as "Jewish gilt." His character is "just plain Yogurt," a kosher version of Yoda from "The Empire Strikes Back" whose catch phrase is "May the Schwartz be with you!"
But, actually, Yogurt sounds more like Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old Man, or the irascible art-house kvetcher of his short "The Critic." And this sporadically hilarious movie could use some kvetching to puncture the super-spectacle morass engulfing it.
In "Spaceballs," Brooks is satirizing space opera--primarily the "Star Wars" trilogy and its merchandising empire, with a few sideswipes at "2001," "Dune," David Lean and the Flash Gordon serials and a double blast at "Alien" and at Chuck Jones' cartoon "One Froggy Evening" (the latter prompts one of the movie's half-dozen or so great sight gags).
This lavish tale of the intergalactic war between smiling Druids and vicious Spaceballs is also full of his usual hipster show-biz gibes, laced with inside Jewish humor.
Yet, since the gags are a little tacky--since heroine Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is called a "Druish princess," hero Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) drives a Winnebago with rocket jets and his sidekick, Barf (John Candy), wears coveralls with a tail hole--it seems wrong somehow that the sets and effects aren't more tacky, too. "Spaceballs" might have been much funnier and more inventive on a much smaller budget.
Occasionally the expense pays off, as in the wonderful opening shot of an insanely elaborate starship that sweeps over us against inky infinity, going on and on . . . and on and on! But sometimes the elaborate jokes just clang and clunk, as when Lone Starr jams the Spaceballs radar with real jam--and no peanut butter.
Brooks gets a stellar production and his technicians, especially production designer Terence Marsh, often catch the S-F opulence of the George Lucas films. But, as in "History of the World, Part I," Brooks' gags seem dropped in vast, expensive expanses, the movie caught in some huge flypaper--of budget, sets and special effects. Everything gets inflated and overblown, even the usual Brooks male-bonding saga.
This is a multimillion-dollar extravaganza satirizing other multimillion-dollar extravaganzas--which begins to seem a bit like attacking a President by hitting him over the head with another President.
Some of the gags in "Spaceballs" are screamingly funny. Some are mildly amusing. Others seem forced, pokey or--deliberately, of course--flatulent. Throughout, you're moved to laughs and groans, sometimes simultaneously.
Early on, there's a terrific moment when the villains try to outguess the heroes by getting an early-release "Spaceballs" videocassette and running it on the ship's monitor; eventually they're watching a movie of themselves watching a movie.
Watching this, you want Brooks to pick up the gag and wind it all the way through--VCR and reality getting hopelessly entwined. You'd like him to close with some special-effects hyper-warping paroxysm, or maybe see a huge slithering hunk of gefilte fish out on those "Dune"-like dunes. Yet the gags often don't seem to extend themselves far enough; only a few, like the merchandising satire, really run through.
Brooks' humor works so much out of frontal assault, calculated hysteria and aggressive hyperbole that he seems to need comics with a real gift for frenzy and explosion--like Zero Mostel, Ron Moody, Sid Caesar, Brooks himself or Gene Wilder.
In "Spaceballs," there's a brief bit with the nauseating mozzarella space-gangster "Pizza the Hutt" where the movie suddenly seems to find its right pitch. Dom DeLuise, doing the voice, roars the jokes across, just as Mostel or Caesar would have.
Comparatively, some of the other actors--Daphne Zuniga, Bill Pullman, Dick Van Patten, even Joan Rivers (as a robot's voice)--are good, but too polite. The ones who get properly extreme are DeLuise; John Candy as Barf, the poor man's Chewbacca; Brooks as both Yogurt and Skroob the unscrupulous, and Rick Moranis playing "Dark Helmet"--who has resonant James Earl Jones-ish tones with his visor down, and turns squeaky little nerd with the visor up.
If "Spaceballs" (rated PG, despite raunchy puns) disappoints you, it isn't because it's unfunny or not entertaining. Brooks at medium pressure is still more amusing than most movie makers.
But there doesn't seem to be any sensible reason why the man whose first film was "The Producers," a masterpiece of vulgar all-stops-out satire, should still be cranking out these increasingly grotesque, grandiose movie parodies almost two decades later--especially when you compare him with Woody Allen, who didn't start out nearly as well. Shouldn't Brooks look at "Broadway Danny Rose" or "Hannah and Her Sisters" and feel a little sheepish?
A great ad-libber, he's been making movies recently where the spontaneity seems drained out--vast, lumbering burlesques where the biggest jokes seem to be on the accounting department. Yet this is a comic film maker who, when he hits the right key, can leave you almost helpless with laughter.
Brooks seems stuck in the shtick of these parodies, and, more than anything, you'd like him to free himself, try something different-- try, for example, a backstage movie comedy that does to Hollywood what "The Producers" did to Broadway.
Maybe it's his misfortune to be working in a movie era whose motto often is "Do it the same, but do it bigger!"--and whose notion of epic grandeur is usually only more meshuggaas.