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Eric Jonrosh's The Spoils of Babylon

Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // March 8, 2016
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted March 20, 2016 | E-mail the Author
In "The Spoils of Babylon" -- that is, the IFC comedy program "The Spoils of Babylon" -- we learn that author-slash-playwright-slash-screenwriter-slash-director-slash-fisherman, etc. Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell) adapted his novel of the same name into a 22-hour miniseries, only for it to go unreleased and unappreciated. Presented here in a truncated three-hour version, each episode is bookended by a drunken Jonrosh trying to explain himself and yelling at the wait staff in the restaurant where the introductions are being filmed. The story of "Babylon" -- that is, Jonrosh's miniseries -- surrounds Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire), adopted son of Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins), a driller who strikes it big in the Texas oil fields. Despite their wealth and power, Devon has his heart set on a woman, Cynthia (Kristen Wiig). The only problem is that Cynthia is his adopted sister, and Jonas forbids their relationship. Over the course of six half-hour installments, Devon tells the whole tale in flashback while he sits at his desk with a bullet in his stomach.

Watching "The Spoils of Babylon", one develops two conflicting opinions about it: one, it's very funny, and two, it's kind of pointless. The show spoofs the type of miniseries that most modern audiences probably don't remember and have never seen, mostly serving as an excuse for some very famous people (Maguire, Wiig, Ferrell, Robbins, Val Kilmer, Jessica Alba, Haley Joel Osment, and the voice of Carey Mulligan) to get together and goof off. The program was produced, written, and directed by Funny or Die crew members Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele, who also worked together on the theatrical feature Casa de Mi Padre. That film had similar issues, because neither approach feels quite right: "The Spoils of Babylon" is too flimsy to be a movie, rarely varying its tone or approach, and too meaningless to be a great television show (although enough did to garner a sequel, "The Spoils Before Dying", it's hard to imagine people actually awaiting the next episode).

In the world of horror comedy, one of the worst major trends is the "intentionally bad" movie, garbage like Sharknado or Lavalantula, which builds the ineptitude of the filmmakers into the concept. A spoof like "Spoils" is infinitely better entertainment, but there is a tendency to rely on jokes in the same kind of ballpark. Transition scenes in the first couple episodes use obvious models and toy cars. Rear projection footage blatantly loops. Sets look intentionally cheesy, down to poorly-crafted props. There's even an extended bit where Jonrosh, making a Hitchcock-like appearance in his own program, is clearly cut in from another set at another time, and is missing from wide shots of the same scene. As with everything in the show, sometimes this material scores a laugh, but there's also nothing more to it than the awkwardness of drawing attention to the artificiality of the program. (I seem to recall a similar joke in Padre involving a lion or a leopard.)

The show's scripted humor is basically the same thing: melodrama heightened to the point of absurdity. When Jonas Morehouse forbids Devon and Cynthia's relationship, he doesn't just say "I forbid it," he repeats himself multiple times, in increasingly agitated fashion, until he ultimately collapses. Devon goes on to have an affair with Dixie Melonworth (Alba), a research assistant in an underwater laboratory Devon spends his time in. When Cynthia and Dixie finally confront each other, an extended slap fight ensues. Another scene has Cynthia spending a tense meal with Lady Anne York (a mannequin, voiced by Mulligan), which repeatedly cuts to plates of food being eaten furiously. The program is narrated by Devon from his desk as he dies from a gunshot wound, recording his tale Double Indemnity-style, and each episode opens with a shot of blood leaking from his sleeve onto the desk, until the puddle has nearly consumed the entire surface. To Piedmont and Steele's credit, the repetitive nature of the story and humor never become tiresome, even when watched in a single sitting, but it does contribute to the feeling that "Spoils" is more consistent than creative.

In the lead roles, Maguire and Wiig have a relatively easy job: take the material and play it as straight as possible. Wiig, whose versatility at shifting on a dime between silly and serious is invariably on point, adds to the humor by getting the audience to invest in her passion for Devon, even though they probably shouldn't want to. Maguire, meanwhile, gets an automatic boost just by being willing to partake in the absurdity, and then multiplies it by matching Wiig beat for beat. Although movies like Spider-Man and Pleasantville offered Maguire the opportunity to show off a comedic side, it's still impressive to see him go toe-to-toe with someone like Wiig and come out looking like an equal (and without being upstaged by the increasingly silly hairstyles his character adopts as the years pass). Bonus points go to Osment, whose deranged commitment to his character cover up some stiff delivery, while Kilmer and Michael Sheen go tragically underutilized in bit parts.

IFC have mocked up a pretty accurate and stylish poster for "The Spoils of Babylon", featuring a small lineup of the show's ensemble cast, with a fittingly melodramatic main image of Devon and Cynthia about to kiss. Disappointingly, Anchor Bay didn't keep up their end of the bargain, with a lazy rear cover that's so sparse and simplistic that it makes the package seem cheap. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, "The Spoils of Babylon" looks and sounds pretty good on DVD. A big part of the joke, as mentioned above, is that the majesty of "Spoils" is actually extremely limited and low-rent, so there's often very little depth or great detail for the transfer to reckon with. Colors are often toyed with or adjusted, with soft vignettes and other old-timey tricks used to root the show in the era when it was supposedly produced (the 1970s). Sound effects are often a substitute for key visual information, such as the sequence where Devon is in a war plane that gets shot down over a jungle. All things considered, this is a fine standard-def presentation of the show (one might even suspect that a crisper digital presentation would add a layer of cheapness to the look of the program that was less intentional). English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
Sadly, none.

"The Spoils of Babylon" is a funny show with minimal ambition, loosely spoofing a format that most of its audience probably doesn't understand a reference to (as opposed to the general soap opera parody), and one which straddles an uncomfortable line between something that should be watched in big chunks, but not necessarily with too long of a wait in between sittings. In theory, that makes DVD a pretty good way to experience the show, although it feels suspiciously like an unintentional aspect of a program created by guys whose history lies in web comedy. The disc would be a much better buy with some bonus features, but it's still recommended.

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