It’s the gesture that matters this late in the game, not the art: “The Starving Games” is the sixth directorial effort from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, and they are nothing if not consistent. Their interests in parody have always ranged from whatever’s generally zeitgeist-y at the time, though they’ve begun specifying their targets with “Vampires Suck” and their latest, both of which deflate the trends of recent young adult novel adaptations. It was pointless when the duo was satirizing everything under the sun, but at least in “The Twilight Saga” and “The Hunger Games,” they’ve selected targets that aren’t postmodern or self-critical in any imaginable way. When Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones get in those ridiculous “Hunger Games” wigs, is it any more respectable than working actors making some chump change in a major 2013 release that bothers to parody the Na’vi in “Avatar”?
The story is basically “The Hunger Games,” with only the names changed in Cracked Magazine style. Maiara Walsh is Kantmiss Evershot, District 12’s best hope for salvation in volunteering for the Hunger Games, or the Starving Games—there seems to be some in-movie confusion over what the competition is called. Here, the prize is some combination of half-eaten food, and Kantmiss’ archery skills are the only thing separating her from the herd of young, hungry competitors, including lovelorn lad Peter (Cody Christian). Admittedly, there’s something funny about fans worldwide signing off on a white kid named Peeta, only for a parody to turn around and simply call him Peter. Later, the “tracker jacker” bees from the source material are referred to as “tracker bees” instead. Some things are un-mockable.
The material mostly hinges on the absolutely game Walsh, who throws herself into a number of sub-“Mad TV”-level gags with aplomb, reminding one of the early work of Anna Faris. She’s an attractive personality forced to play the joke instead of the character, and she gets a few tasty reaction shots to sell the sort of gags that wouldn’t even make a ten year old smile. These films used to get a few established comedy names involved, but this time the only recognizable face is Diedrich Bader, having a merry time as President Snowballs. With everyone desperately mugging for the camera, his studied deadpan is the closest relationship this production has to professionalism.
Many of the gags are as basic as you can imagine, pop culture riffs done by people who don’t even know what they’re mocking: a man in a balloon exclaims, “I am Oz, the great and powe-“ before being killed by an errant arrow, though what that has to do with “Oz The Great And Powerful” is unclear. Other jokes simply involve characters from one film walking into this one, as Kantmiss confronts Harry Potter, the Avengers and even the crew from “The Expendables.” That last group is a reference that eats itself, considering these are actors playing actors who are playing characters in a movie that represent thinly-veiled versions of said actors. It must be said, the fellow playing Chuck Norris looks and acts nothing remotely like Norris, tossing off a quip that sounds like a dimwit ad-libbed it in the moment, even though it was clearly scripted and shot by industry veterans. Once again: this is the sixth film from the Friedberg/Seltzer directing team.
Most of the other jokes are variations on brutal comic violence, involving people getting hit in the head, shot, or blown up. The picture’s philosophy seems to be that if a dead-spot is approaching, CGI a poorly-rendered explosion onscreen and say that someone just stepped on a mine. There’s also a couple of those old fashioned record-scratch double-takes that used to be so big in commercials, not to mention gags that involve entire groups of people groaning, “Huh?” in unison. Better are the jokes filling in the blanks in the “Hunger Games” concept, illustrating society’s downfall being caused by the failure of democracy, the election of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj as President and Vice President and the overwhelming corruption of corporations. It says something that Friedberg and Seltzer thought that last part was a joke. There’s humor in truth, and these two think that explicitly mentioning “The Running Man” and “Battle Royale” is as honest as shit gets. They also think that a Celebrity Hunger Games would end in Oprah Winfrey eating the other participants, a joke that only works if you know something about Oprah and cannibalism that the rest of us don’t.
But who cares at this point? Friedberg and Seltzer are six movies into their directorial career, with two more projects on the way. They’ve filled a peculiar niche, purveyors of a joke-based empire hosting gags that would be ignored on YouTube, but play to more than they deserve. To denigrate their dubious accomplishments is to repeat what everyone said seven years ago, when “Date Movie” debuted to massive grosses, proving that it doesn’t need to be a movie, it just needs to be loud, obnoxious, familiar, and vaguely feature-length (this one clocks in close to seventy minutes before the bloopers take us over the top). The world’s got more than enough space for loads of bad pornography, where there is minimal pleasure to be gained from the bare essentials of what people want to see. Surely there’s enough space for Friedberg and Seltzer as well. [F]