The parody movie has become so corrupted by the evils of various Wayanses and their demon spawn, Friedberg and Seltzer, that I think most of us had basically given up on the form; we'd always have our fond memories of Mel Brooks, Monty Python, Carl Reiner, and Zucker-Abrams-Zucker, but Hollywood doesn't aim that high any more. Imagine my surprise to find that a couple of Irishmen went off and made the best spoof comedy in a good twenty years. Zonad isn't exactly a parody of anything in particular--it opens with the heroic music and deep-voiced intro of a superhero movie ("Earth... center of the known universe"), and its protagonist dresses the part. But the film is more of a sci-fi comedy, with broad jabs at provincial life thrown in. The target doesn't really matter anyway; what Zonad captures is the free-wheeling spirit of those Brooks and Z-A-Z movies, where anything goes, and no laugh was too cheap to lunge for.
The title character, a chunky freeloader in a red leather suit (he bops through the picture like a plump cherry), is discovered passed out in the living room of the Cassidys, a pleasant nuclear family living in the Irish hamlet of Ballymoran. When he awakens, he explains to them that he is from outer space and has come to their village to observe earth life. That's all rubbish; he's actually an escapee from a mental institution (he's in for alcohol rehabilitation). But he quickly becomes a local celebrity, treated to free drinks and perks and the affections of the local girls.
Zonad is played by Simon Delaney, who brings exactly the right kind of sprung comic energy to the picture; he's particularly adept at showing his less-than-brilliant character thinking out loud, adjusting his answers impatiently, recalibrating his priorities while leering at the Cassidys' daughter, Jenny (Janice Byrne). Jenny is an exquisite comic creation; a busty blonde packed into a schoolgirl uniform at least two sizes too small, she begins the film by cheerfully explaining to her dense, androgynous boyfriend Guy (Rory Keenan) that she's ready for sex, laying it out in a serious of crystal-clear metaphors about flowers being ready to bloom, filled with seeds, etc. (We get an immediate sense of the film's sense of humor when, at the end of her speech, the camera pulls back to reveal she's been walking hand-in-hand with her family members during the entire speech--great reveal.) When Guy doesn't take the broad hints, Jenny's frustrated; she looks like a champagne bottle about to pop. Zonad picks up on this, of course, leading to the almost-obligatory line "What is this... kissing?"
The film is written and directed by brothers John and Kieran Carney; John is best known for writing and directing Once, a film that couldn't be further from this one. He's certainly a versatile filmmaker. The brothers adopt the grubby visual sense of early Brooks or ZAZ's Kentucky Fried Movie; it's not a great-looking movie, but then again, when has stylish filmmaking ever helped a knockabout low comedy? (In one scene of obscenely bad rear-projection, the brothers seem to be consciously quoting Airplane!) They also give Zonad a goofy musical number, a rival spaceman, and a wonderfully on-target broadside of movie training sequences. It's all so good-natured and cheery, even the gross-out jokes don't spoil the party.
Zonad is not a moment too long at 75 minutes, and even at that abbreviated length, it's running on fumes a bit by the end. This is a typical problem of the parody movie; it's all gags with no interest in plot, so by the time it gets to the point where there should be a climax and resolution, it looks pretty silly trying to create one. The Carneys manufacture a boxing match between Zonad and his rival Bonad, but can't find any jokes for the sequence that are up to the laugh-out-loud standards of what came before; they end up relying on the music cues (like "Intermezzo" from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, which was the opening credit music in Raging Bull, or "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" from Kill Bill) for laughs. But by that point, its flaws aren't all that troublesome anyway.
It pains me to say it, because the film is so enjoyable, but the anamorphic widescreen image is just terrible. It's not a great looking movie to begin with--presumably due to the low budget, or perhaps as an aesthetic choice, the movie (even seen theatrically) is garish and rather ugly, but the single layer image is a mess. Colors are muddy, black levels are all over the place, and backgrounds are badly compressed throughout; outdoor exteriors are about the only scenes that come on strong, and even those sport washed-out skin tones. Mind you, the ugliness of the presentation doesn't sink the good cheer of the movie, but a bit more care with the transfer sure wouldn't have hurt.
Also presumably due to the low budget, the only audio option is a rather thin English 2.0 mix--no surround track, which might have benefitted the big music cues and frequent sound effects. It gets the job done, though dialogue is sometimes a bit of a strain to decipher (the thick Irish accents don't help), particularly without the aid of subtitles, English or otherwise. The songs--particularly Zonad's impromptu classroom musical number--have a fuller, more robust sound.
Aside from the Irish theatrical Trailer (1:48), all we get is an Audio Commentary from writer/directors John and Kieran Carney. It's a mixed bag; there are plenty of dead spots as they watch the film, and some nowhere exchanges (one will say something is funny, the other will agree), but they do have some interesting discussions of why one gag worked and another didn't, and about the relative importance of plot in comedy (including an insightful comparison of South Park and Family Guy). Worth a listen overall, if a bit uneven.
I saw Zonad at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, was thoroughly charmed by it, and expected to check it out again during an American theatrical run that would seem assured, so sorry is the current state of domestic film comedy. But it never found an American distributor, so here it is on DVD. Hopefully it will find the audience it deserves--Zonad is a delightfully silly movie, sweetly ribald, proudly lowbrow, and funny as hell.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.