What constitutes a parody film? This is an interesting question. If a film takes a set of tropes and engages with them academically, as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (emphasising, respectively, the psychosis of Adam Sandler and the alcoholism of Philip Marlowe), is it a full-blown parody or more a critique?
What if we see a genre being updated to reflect a newer set of values, as in the revisionist Westerns or later Disney movies such as Tangled and Frozen? Or the works of auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, whose films exist within recognisable milieux yet use these to emphasise their characters’ relationships with the world? Then there’s the sense that, due simply to a century of film history and proliferating genre tropes, most films these days are in a sense recognisable and riffing on a multitude of ideas the average viewer simply knows, and gets. Maybe the question is: what isn’t a parody film?
Enter our completely official and totally highbrow phrase: Giggleability. New release Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has this in spades, as its main characters create a series of hysterical odes to classic films, each a mini-masterpiece of parody in their titling alone. To celebrate, here’s 10 excellent parody movies with oodles of giggleability as they show us the madness within even the most serious of genres:
10. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
“Name? Austin Danger Powers. Sex? Yes please!” The world’s greatest spy, frozen since the 1960s, is thawed in 1997 to once again battle his notorious nemesis, Dr. Evil – the uncannily Blofeld-esque spawn of a “relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low-grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery.” This shagadelic romp through a changed landscape doesn’t quite destroy the spy-movie sexism it occasionally tries to lampoon, but Austin is just so damned charming that it doesn’t matter. Years before Archer reimagined James Bond as a rampant egomaniac, Mike Myers had him pegged as an outdated sex pest; both characters, of course, always just about manage to save the day with an endless stream of quotable one-liners.
9. Hot Shots! (1991)
After Platoon, Wall Street and Young Guns, Charlie Sheen finally found a leading role tailored to his particular talents, giving a masterclass in deadpan delivery in scene after scene. This budding dramatic heartthrob never had the chops for an emotional centre, so thank God Hot Shots! came along. Like Leslie Nielsen in writer-director Jim Abraham’s earlier film Airplane!, Sheen’s (apparently) earnest portrayal of Lt. Topper Harley anchors the endless one-liners in this absurdist military parody – after all, if there’s one thing comedy characters don’t realise, it’s that they’re in a comedy. Sheen, Cary Elwes and an excellent Lloyd Bridges all shine in a movie that out-Top Guns Top Gun, ramming every line home in glorious fashion (“Pete ‘Dead Meat’ Thompson is dead” is a favourite). American planes will always be superior as long as there are men like Topper Harley in the cockpit. And German parts.
8. Love and Death (1975)
Before Woody Allen actually tried to be Ingmar Bergman, he was lampooning European serio-cinema and Hollywood historical epics – all from a script which was itself a parody of Russian literature. Taking in wars, aristocratic romance and a helluva lot of hilarious philosophical pondering, this pseudo-Tolstoyan parody is rich with irreverent one-liners and the kinds of fatalist touches that would mark Allen’s work from his next film (Annie Hall) onwards. Even considering Allen’s genuine affection for Serious Art, nothing here is sacred: even when hapless scholar Boris meets his inevitable death at the end, the spoofing and jabbing at high-minded pathos is hysterical (particularly the wonderful Allenesque reading of “Now, if you’ll excuse me: I’m dead”). If there was ever an argument for Woody Allen’s influence on comedy, it’s Love and Death.
7. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
Fans are screaming. The lights are dimming. A man leans dejectedly against the wall, seemingly psyching himself up. The stage manager is tetchy; it’s time for the show! This, however, is no ordinary performer: Dewey Cox, we are told, needs to think about his entire life before he plays. A smell-blind troubadour raised in Alabaman poverty, Dewey walks hard over life’s rocky road through the nascent rock-n-roll of the ’50s, the psychedelic ’60s and even ’70s punk.
At various turns he bears uncanny resemblances to Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. He even has a ‘dark period’ (let it be noted, musical historians, that ‘Middle Dewey’ was very different to ‘Early Dewey’). Walk Hard, oddly, draws most of its appeal from the way it structures its tropes and stereotypes – each comprehensively and viciously skewered – into an actual story for an actual main character, co-writer Judd Apatow once even describing John C. Reilly’s protagonist as a Forrest Gump figure.
There are rises and falls, constant drugs (“Alright, but just this once”), babies everywhere and, of course, multiple moments of divine inspiration taken almost verbatim from films such as Ray, Walk the Line and The Doors. Peculiarly, the ‘Brian Wilson’ section looks, sounds and feels exactly like Love and Mercy, which came out eight years later. Some stereotypes you just can’t destroy.
6. Young Frankenstein (1974)
If you can argue with a core cast composed of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr and Cloris Leachman then you’re a damned fool. Frederick Frankenstein (“It’s Fruhn-kun-steen!”), an American neurologist, lives in his grandfather’s crazed shadow… until one day he receives a summons to Transylvania and quickly gives in to a morbid hereditary fascination.
Mel Brooks’ greatest coup here, as with Walk Hard decades later, is drawing the viewer into an actual story with actual characters, forcing us to give a damn so the stream of bonkers jokes can sneak in and surprise. Notable also is the ingenious link between Gothic horror and slapstick comedy – when the director takes such great pains to recreate the look and style of his famous targets, even the actors’ bizarre and hilarious facial expressions become part of the furniture, reminiscent of more seriously-deployed screwy visages in older scary films. Turn the sound off and this may not even be a comedy – although that would be to lose the film’s most celebrated scene as Frankenstein shows off his creation through some old-fashioned pizzazz. In some ways, this is the best version yet of Shelley’s classic novel.
5. The Cornetto Trilogy (2004-13)
Hot Fuzz is perhaps most recommendable simply for its accomplished cleverness; but Shaun of the Dead remains a cult classic, and The World’s End ties this series together beautifully by portraying the pathetic shell of a man lost in the past (as well as, y’know, the alien stuff and endless references). All three, however, constitute a grand comedic project anchored in the very confusing difference between movies and the real world – be this with zombie-fighting slackers, deluded cops encountering “the greater good”, or middle-aged men battling alien robots. Academic? Yeah, unintentionally. Funny? Oh God, yes.
4. The Princess Bride (1987)
For many, this fast-paced pastiche of swashbuckling fantasies is the definitive film of its kind. As with others on this list, this is down to sheer earnest filmmaking skill: it draws you in and keeps you interested, with a driven plot and almost exclusively standout performances. Heck, it’s so iconic an example of fantasy cinema it may no longer be accurate to call it a parody – though that would ignore the intelligence and basic sweetness of the framing story, as Peter Falk reads The Princess Bride to his sick (and reluctant) grandson, gradually piquing the kid’s interest until boom! He’s into books, or something.
No matter how sincerely excellent it is as a film, The Princess Bride is still constructed entirely from appealing archetypes – and as Grandpa tells us, the whole thing’s about “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… ”
3. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
Nice beaver! Lt. Frank Drebin, Leslie Nielsen’s most enduring creation, is a hotshot cop trying to foil an assassination attempt on the Queen. Along the way he loses his badge, lamenting “Just think: next time I shoot someone, I could be arrested!”; he leafs through old files, trying to find missing evidence and crack the case; he seduces a beautiful woman, so beautiful in fact she inspires him to notice new things: stoplights, for instance. Drebin – Dutch-Irish with a Welsh father, in case you wondered – is the best of the bumbling best, with even the two lesser sequels elevated by his wide-eyed misconstruing seriousness. A classic police story as seen through the eyes of a man whose key question, famously, is “And where the hell was I?”
2. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
One very naughty boy finds himself at the centre of a Biblical epic with very little budget, and suffers greatly for it. The Pythons were forced repeatedly to point out that their target was not Our Lord and Saviour Himself, but the ways in which people – not least the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea – latch blindly onto such ideas without any independent thought. By extension, that includes the reverential and strangely political Epic films of the ’50s and ’60s so beautifully destroyed in this madcap rags-to-riches-to-crucifixion tale.
Brian, the not-quite Messiah played by Graham Chapman as an undernourished Charlton Heston, is Monty Python’s most emotionally resonant character; while his mother (Terry Jones), Biggus Dickus and the Ex-Leper (both Michael Palin) are amongst their funniest. If the Pythons’ earlier work was sometimes too clever-clever, here their intelligence and humour combine perfectly to elevate Life of Brian to the sublime.
1. Airplane! (1980)
Two major screenwriting factors contribute to Airplane!‘s success: firstly, it is adapted, literally beat for beat, from an actual 1950s disaster film, making it a truly stringent and recognisable parody. Secondly, there is at least one joke every minute. These two facts shouldn’t be so easily reconcilable.
Airplane! is, and always will be, comedy harmony of the highest order, the anarchic screwball movie equivalent of Beethoven. As a former pilot – who’s “been nervous lots of times” – boards an ill-fated commercial flight with some questionable food choices, a thrilling story comes together built entirely out of ridiculous wordplay and sight gags.
This launched the careers of Jim Abrahams and Jerry & David Zucker, and turned serious actor Leslie Nielsen into a comedy institution; the later films of Friedberg and Seltzer (Scary Movie, Epic Movie, etc.), based around this stream-of-jokes model but with none of the actual humour, haven’t even diminished the enduring legacy of Airplane!, one of the greatest comedies ever committed to screen.
And that’s ten! Are there any glaring omissions? What would an alternative Top 10 Parody Movies look like? Pulp Fiction? The Grand Budapest Hotel? When everything’s basically a parody, this could stretch on for days. Let us know!