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Aspiring filmmakers Mel Funn, Marty Eggs and Dom Bell go to a financially troubled studio with an idea for a silent movie. In an effort to make the movie more marketable, they attempt to recruit a number of big name stars to appear, while the studio's creditors attempt to thwart them. The film contains only one word of dialogue, spoken by an unlikely source. Written by
Scott Renshaw <email@example.com>
I suppose if anything epitomizes the style of Mel Brooks it is audacity, obscenity and a forthright quality that others seem either reluctant to use or often overplay with disastrous results. Brooks will do anything for a laugh. Anything. He is, for all intents and purposes, incapable of embarrassment. He's a rabble-rouser. His movies abide in a world in which everything is likely, especially the outrageous, and Silent Movie, where Brooks makes a bountiful aesthetic gamble and pulls it off, makes me laugh abundantly. On the Brooks calibration of amusement, I laughed not too radically more or less than at Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles or The Producers. It just doesn't have the subversive and ironic panache of those classic films.
Brooks' fifth film as director, Silent Movie is streamlined fun. It's obvious in almost every shot that the filmmakers had a party making it. It's set in Hollywood, where Big Pictures Studio lurches on the brink of Chapter 11 and a merger with the mammoth Engulf and Devour syndicate, a daintily disguised reference to Gulf+Western's Paramount takeover. Enter Mel Funn (guess who), a has-been director whose career was stopped cold by drunkenness, who pledges to salvage the studio by persuading Hollywood's biggest stars to make a silent movie. This is a scenario that results in countless inside jokes, but the thing about Brooks's inside jokes is that their outsides are funny as well.
The wild bunch of Mel, Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman embark to charm the superstars, resulting in the shower of one, who counts his hands, confused, and discovers he has eight; and swooping another out of a nightclub audience. There are several "actual" stars in the movie, but the fun is in not knowing who's next. Everything transpires surrounded by a glossary of sight gags, classic and original. There are bits that don't work and durations of up to a minute, I guess, when we don't laugh, but a minute can feel pretty long. Perhaps it is Brooks' desire to control all that displaces an objective view of what will work.
Nevertheless, in a movie overflowing with skillful Chaplin-, Keaton- and Laurel and Hardy-inspired set pieces, these parts are the chef d'oeuvre: Right before seeing the Studio Chief, Mel and his friends cross their fingers for good luck, and Mel can't uncross his. He shakes hands with the Chief, and the Chief's fingers are crossed rather than Mel's. The Chief then passes this crossed state to his secretary's fingers the same way. Another running gag is obvious discrepancy between the title cards and what the characters are really saying. The spoken lines are inaudible, as it is indeed a silent movie, but they can be clearly lipread. At one point Brooks asserts misgivings about DeLuise's idea of a silent movie by shouting "That's crazy!" as well as an agitated mouthful, but the screen says "Maybe you're right." In another scene, Marty hits on a nurse but gets slapped. When he gets back in the car, Mel obviously mouths a curse word, although the screen says "You bad boy!" And then there's the scene where Feldman and DeLuise haphazardly unplug and plug in his heart monitor various times, winding up changing the screen to a ping pong game and playing while the Chief flatlines and recovers over and over. Brooks stands outside the majority of Jewish comics and filmmakers in his lack of self-derision and in the success of his main characters, but still, humor is his own defense mechanism against the world, and he goes for broke.
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