Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele have an impressive and possibly doomed dedication to making detailed send-ups of genres with which their audience is almost certainly unfamiliar. Their 2012 movie “Casa de mi Padre,” which Piedmont directed and Steele wrote, featured a Spanish-speaking Will Ferrell in a deadpan homage to telenovelas and Spaghetti westerns, complete with loving recreations of shoddy production values. Their new project “The Spoils of Babylon,” which premieres on IFC this Thursday, January 9th at 10pm and, like “Casa de mi Padre” is produced by Funny or Die, is a spoof of ’70s and ’80s event miniseries, with some nods toward the more bloated, bombastic side of filmmaking from the era.
“The Spoils of Babylon” is a miniseries itself, made up of six half-hour installments supposedly cut down from an original 22-hour run — or so Eric Jonrosh tells us. Played by Ferrell, who alongside Adam McKay also serves as an executive producer, Jonrosh supposedly first wrote the novel on which “The Spoils of Babylon” is based, then adapted it for screen and putting his then-wife Lauoreighiya Samcake (Kristen Wiig) in one of the lead roles.
The production ran for years and costs millions of dollars, and while Jonrosh claims the resulting “masterpiece” is “far superior to anything on television today,” it apparently never aired in the ’70s when it was originally made. Jonrosh introduces each episode sitting in an empty restaurant surrounded by multiple glasses of wine like some nightmare Orson Welles in his later years, rattling on about his genius and past sexual exploits.
When the actual story of “Spoils of Babylon” gets started, it reveals itself to be a sprawling family epic centered on the impossible love between Cynthia Morehouse (Wiig) and her adopted brother Devon (Tobey Maguire), with Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins and others making up the starry cast. But Piedmont and Steele are more interested in mimicking the quirks of the genre and artifacts of the era than they are making overt jokes. The first episode spends over a quarter of its runtime on Jonrosh’s intro, various outdated production logos and a period-worthy credit sequence set to a dramatic theme song.
The actual stuff of the series halfheartedly looks for laughs in overacting and florid monologues. “The Spoils of Babylon” is funnier in its attention to form and technicalities — the carefully terrible framing of a shot that leaves a stuffed squirrel in the foreground of a serious conversation, the use of obvious models for exterior shots, or the way Robbins, playing patriarch Jonas Morehouse as played by Sir Richard Driftwood in his first American role, keeps slipping into British intonation on certain emphasized lines.
The result is more clever than amusing, and more likely to entertain cinephiles than the typical viewers drawn in by the Funny or Die brand or Ferrell’s presence and expecting more raucous laughs. But there’s something admirable about Piedmont and Steele’s fondness for mining for humor in the way a production is shot rather than in its content — it shows a sincere and geeky affection for filmmaking styles and cultures that are gone, and for the divide between ambition and what you’re actually able to put on screen with the resources you have.