Scary Movie 4 (Dimension) begins with Shaquille O'Neal coming to in a dingy room, his leg trapped in a vise, à la Saw. He sits up—and bonks his head on a pipe. Then he stands up—and bonks his head on the ceiling. If that description made you spit your coffee all over your keyboard, then run to the nearest theater, and you might want to pass on the soda. But if it sounded a little stale, the type of thing you'd seen before—maybe in Scary Movie 3, when Charlie Sheen's character was also introduced waking up with a series of head bonks—then the latest spoof from director David Zucker isn't worth the 83 minutes, or the dozen or so head bonks. And if you think that spit-take reference was hokey, stay far away indeed: No gags are too hoary for this movie.
The Scary Moviesare a curious Möbius strip of a franchise. Scary Movie was the writer Kevin Williamson's title for the script that became Scream (1996). Bob Weinstein's Dimension Films owned the rights to the original title, and the first Scary Movie (2000), directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans, was a hard-R, gross-out comedy smash spoofing Scream (itself a knowing, self-referential satire). But Wayans' wan R-rated haunted-house Scary Movie 2 (2001) underperformed, and the studio turned to Airplane! (1980) and Naked Gun helmer David Zucker to give the franchise broader, PG-13 appeal. Zucker delivered the series' biggest opening-weekend take; Scary Movie is now, improbably, the Weinstein brothers' biggest commercial franchise.
Not surprisingly, the fourth installment is a total retread of its predecessor. Once again, the plots, styles, and wardrobes of a few horror hits—this time it's mostly War of the Worlds, The Grudge, The Village, and the Saw movies—are uneasily shoehorned into the cinematic Cuisinart. And once more, the main characters aren't satires of those movies—they're the usual gang of idiots: Anna Faris' admirably vacant-eyed Cindy; Regina Hall, whose horndog Brenda's gruesome demise in Scary Movie 3 is sunnily dismissed; and new addition Craig Bierko, playing the Tom-Cruise-in-War-of-the-Worlds part. The leather jacket and first name (Tom) are gimmes, but the character's just another oblivious stiff. Cruise's self-doubting blue-collar hero shtick would be ripe for satire, but the movie would rather let their Tom bang his head and make stinky in his pants. "Why don't any of us have dryers?" asks one bystander as the alien tripods land, a nice jab at Steven Spielberg's clothesline-saturatedvision of working-class New Jersey, but such critiques are few and far between.
Jokes from Scary Movie 3 are recycled ad nauseam: Instead of the little boy from The Ring as a neglected punching bag, it's the Dakota Fanning character in War of the Worlds. Anthony Anderson again engages in a drawn-out, misguided fight. There are more cameos from just-behind-the-curve rappers (this time it's YoungbloodZ, Chingy, Lil' Jon, and Fabolous). Carmen Electra strips down to her Pussycat Dolls outfit for no reason at all—I mean, she's the blind girl from The Village. This stuff wasn't funny the first time, and it wilts on-screen the second. Leslie Nielsen's reprise as the imbecilic president is the rare bit of recycling that works, though a shirtless scene is a brutal reminder of how long it's been since Lt. Frank Drebin threw clay with Jane in Naked Gun 2 1/2.
What's worse, Zucker continues his tendency to let scenes escalate into mindless shouting, as though that fulfills the promise of a punch line. It happensin the faux-Saw opening, with Shaq (failing to live up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's proud straight-man legacy from Airplane!) and Dr. Phil, and in the oddly timeworn bit about unlocking a car door. In a movie so scrupulously up-to-date (a not-bad Brokeback parody, a reference to MySpace) how did that stay in?
That's not to say that there aren't any laughs. Bill Pullman (as Bill Pullman in The Grudge, kinda, and William Hurt/Joaquin Phoenix in The Village) andMichael Madsen (Tim Robbins' War of the Worlds kook) prove the wisdom of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker theory of casting dramatic actors in spoofs. A conversation in subtitled Japanese—"Hari kari tsunami kamikaze bansai!"—is inspired. But the heart of the movie's problems is its lack of heart. As Robert K. Weiss, a longtime ZAZ collaborator and the producer of Scary Movie 4, once said, "You have to have something invested in these characters, otherwise it's just a jokebook." Airplane!, Top Secret, The Naked Gun—they were movies, not an accumulation of sketches. In Scary Movie 4, the romance between Tom and Cindy has its deadpan highs:
Cindy: "We're already finishing each other's—"
But that kind of worthy silliness comes in dribs and drabs, and then the two spend most of the film working through the plots of their respective parodies. They engage in long, closed-mouth kisses, which must be a joke of some kind—everything is—but only underline the love story's phoniness. After all, why worry about characters when there are more movie references to jam in? That may be the biggest horror of all: The Scary Movie 4 filmmakers were scared to make a movie.