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National Lampoon Goes To The Movies
(a.k.a. National Lampoon's Movie Madness)
(1981)

Director: Henry Jaglom, Bob Giraldi        
Cast:
Peter Reigert, Dianne Lane, Candy Clark


Special guest review!

By Mike Sullivan



Better known as the two words preceding Animal House and Vacation, it's hard to believe that at one time the National Lampoon was a wildly popular humor magazine. The Lampoon not only served as the inspiration behind Saturday Night Live but also posed a serious threat to Mad magazine. Unfortunately, the sharp and scathing Lampoon suffered through years of mismanagement (most notably Tim Matheson and Dan Grodnik's ill-advised takeover of the mag in the late '80s) which eventually led to its destruction in 1992.

It also didn't  help that the National Lampoon name was attached to numerous worthless and downright awful projects such as  the comedy album Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll and the End of the World, the comedy special Disco Beaver from Outer Space and a shelved United Artists film called National Lampoon Goes to the Movies.

Divided into three segments (originally four; the somewhat prophetically titled "The Bomb" segment was cut at the last minute. In fact, it was Notice they are rushing OUT of the theater!so last minute that images from the unused portion popped up in some of the promotional materials) National Lampoon Goes to the Movies intends to rip apart personal growth movies, Harold Robbins potboilers and buddy cop films. So right off the bat you know you're in trouble. The first two genres are obscure targets for parody while the latter was done to death even in the late '70s. It's a poorly conceived anthology that falls flat on its face early on and stays there.

After an admittedly attractive credits sequence drawn by NatLamp's Rick Meyerowitz (which also ineptly reveals the original title) we're introduced to the first segment, "Growing Yourself." Peter Riegert stars as Jason an arrogant corporate lawyer who forces his wife to leave him so that he can "grow himself" by raising his four kids alone. Jason quits his job as a corporate lawyer and opens a plant orphanage where he encounters, are you ready for this, plant batterers! HarHarHar.

Jason's not alone in his dream of growing himself. Almost everyone he encounters falls prey to this misguided attempt at self improvement including a realtor turned firefighter and his own boss who throws it all away to become a beaver hunter in Alaska. Jason's idealized view of independence quickly crumbles as he starts to repeatedly misplace his kids, (which doesn't seem to bother him) experience romantic pitfalls (one of which is Diane Lane as Jason's teenaged mistress) and watch from the sidelines as his wife becomes more successful on her on then she ever was with him.

"Growing Yourself" strives for straight faced absurdism, but more often than not comes off as forced and horribly boring. It's also pointless because the satirical target is never clear. Just what the hell is being mocked here, Kramer Vs. Kramer? Romantic Comedies? Woody Allen flicks? Isn't there a rule somewhere that movie parodies have to be, you know, parodies? This is a joyless, aimless wreck that never stops winking at the audience or patting itself on the back after every lame gag.

The second portion, "Success Wanters", is a slight improvement over "Growing Yourself." Many of the gags are nearly successful, but ultimately fail. It's psuedo humor. Comedy that appears to be funny, but on closer inspection isn't.

Ann Dusenberry stars as Dominique Corsair, an erotic dancer who exacts revenge on a group of Dairy Company presidents after they brutally rape her with a stick of butter (Y'know what makes a wacky comedy even wackier? A brutal rape!) In the course of four days, Dominique manages to become the CEO of a margarine company, puts the dairy companies out of business,
marries an Onassis-esque tycoon, cures cancer and becomes the President's first lady after the current one cheerfully steps aside.

Make no mistake about it, "Success Wanters" is a steaming pile of s**t. To be fair it doesn't stink as bad as the manure that surrounds it. This is the only segment that had a slim chance of succeeding. It's peppered with bizarre imagery (like an execution on a golf course) and even contains the film's only funny line, "Only I Noxos can make love to my son."

Ultimately, the film's clever bits are buried by a leaden pace and Dusenberry's lifeless performance. She's neither believable as an irresistible manipulator or as a human being. "Success Wanters" is additionally marred by an obscure springboard for parody. Sure, the premise isn't as unclear as "Growing Yourself", but basing a spoof around The Greek Tycoon and The Betsy? Isn't that like basing an episode of Saturday Night Live around Norwegian politics and the short lived TV series Holmes and Yoyo? Even if this was well written (and believe me, "Success Wanters" isn't), the gags are so cryptic that maybe two of the seven people that saw this got the joke.

Last and certainly least is "Municipalians" a tragically unfunny attempt at the Hellzapoppin' style of Airplane. In "Municipalians", a serial killer (Christopher Lloyd) is on the loose and the only evidence he leaves behind are copies of his drivers license. Thankfully, a duo of horribly clichéd cops (Robbie Benson and Richard Widmark) are on the case. Even at 30 minutes this is a paper-thin premise. So the running time is padded out with scenes of people shooting Benson at point blank range (Well, at least you can't say this movie doesn't give the people what they want), excruciating bits involving Barry Diamond as a "funny" junkie (Diamond would go on to repulse audiences in National Lampoon's Class Reunion as, what else, a junkie), and failed attempts at dark comedy and social satire.

As bad as the previous segments are, nothing can prepare you for "Municipalians." Not a moment goes by in which it this section doesn't make you feel like someone is shoving a dead possum in your face, and this is mostly director Henry Jaglom's fault. Jaglom never worked with a major studio before (or again.) His only experience was directing ponderous art house fare like A Safe Place. Jaglom's whiny, navel gazing, autobiographical style doesn't lend itself to the silly excesses of a low brow comedy. Jaglom has no comic timing and keeps the film moving at a snail's pace. He also ruins a number of decent ideas by staging them poorly. Particularly a chase sequence that could've been a clever show-stopping moment but instead comes off as uninvolving and static.

"Municipalians" also boasts the film's worst performances. Benson deserves credit for mocking his wholesome image but he overdoes it and it isn't long before his wide eyed naïf routine becomes irritating. Richard Widmark looks perpetually bored and he performs his dialogue as if he's being poked with a cattle prod. Christopher Lloyd, on the other hand, gives a surprisingly good performance as the serial killer. It's understated, creepy and oddly sympathetic. It almost seems like Lloyd stumbled in from another better movie.

It would be unfair to blame all of the film's problems on Jaglom. True, Jaglom was a notorious asshole who was despised by his cast and crew and yes, he was the same man behind the deleted disaster movie parody "The Bomb" (which, for the record, originally starred Kenneth Mars, Allen Garfield and Marcia Strassman) but this overlooks the fact that Giraldi was just as incompetent as he was. "Growing Yourself" and "Success Wanters" are both poorly paced laugh-free debacles and much like Jaglom, Giraldi has no clue how to shoot a comedy.

Let's not forget the horrible script that seems like it never moved past a rough first draft and contains unfunny non-sequiters like, "I hear Boulder Colorado will be the next video tape capital of America."  What's even harder to believe is that Trots & Bonnie creator Shary Flenniken and Tod Caroll were contributing writers on this abomination. Although blessed with non-stop cameos from plenty of embarrassed stars (including Elisha Cook Jr., Fred Willard, Joe Spinnell, Mary Woronov and Rhea Perlman as a hooker with glowing nipples) this is a dull headache-inducing disaster that is more interesting to read about than actually watch.

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See also: Cracking Up, Hey! There's Naked Bodies On My TV!, Prime Time

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