A good parody is hard to spin beyond the here and now. Take "Weird Al" Yankovic, for example. The pop-music jokester has put out 11 regular albums since 1983, when the accordian-playing nice guy's spoof of The Knack's "My Sharona" (titled "My Bologna" and recorded in the men's room of his college radio station) started his career as a musician, comedic icon and food fetishist when it blew up on The Dr. Demento Show. However, every hilarious and unforgettable cut like "Eat It", "Like A Surgeon" and "Smells Like Nirvana" that hit was matched by fade-away tracks like the New Kids jape "The White Stuff" (an ode to Oreos), the Rocky III goof "Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye Or The Kaiser)" or the misjudgment "Taco Grande" (a riff on Latin rough-boy Gerardo's only hit, "Rico Suave"). The secret to a successful parody is complex, involving a careful balance of picking a song that is big enough, worthy of a good-natured dressing down and most important, funny. The same is true with movies, and the latest in the popular Scary Movie series is a great example of what can go right and wrong with such an attempt.
Scary Movie 4 is a real mixed bag, and some of that has to do with how broadly writers Pat Proft, Jim Abrahams and young Craig Mazin play things. In telling the story of ditzy Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris) and her efforts to save the world from the seemingly unstoppable alien "Tri-Pods" (à la War Of The Worlds), they run the range from smart to stupid, clever to crass, slick farce to dick-and-farts. The slapstick -- especially when involving children like The 4400's Conchita Campbell -- is a little extreme, but at least the Brokeback Mountain gags involving returnees Anthony Anderson and Kevin Hart are cruelty-free. Since the barrel-scraping Wayans Brothers are no longer on board (having departed the franchise after Scary Movie 2), the core of the humor has shifted away from callously mocking gays and the handicapped (something they did not need to do in the promising days of I'm Gonna Git You Sucka). Now, with seriously funny Airplane!, Top Secret! and Naked Gun director David Zucker at the helm, the series is kinder and gentler. With this (and Scary Movie 3) scaling back from a grime-ridden R to an occasionally gross PG-13, Zucker and longtime lieutenants Proft and Abrahams focus on being challenging instead of just plain offensive.

Skewering movies like The Ring Two, The Grudge, Saw and The Village -- and easily molding its story accordingly -- this go-'round plays like a MAD Magazine parody that you'd be likely to go back and read maybe once again. Like Mystery Science Theater 3000, the jokes come so rapid fire (sometimes affecting the timing and pacing) that groans quickly turn into laughs (and vice versa).

For detail freaks, the movie's biggest problem is the way it looks. Shot in HD, parts of it look like crisp, rich 35mm, with others looking like third-generation video dupes, with a smoky haze and cruddy-looking ghosting effects when the physical action moves a little too quickly or when a dark scene is not lit quite right. The colors look a little off and a little pale, and overall, the flick looks drab and not quite finished. Techies like George Lucas might make filming digitally look slick and easy (often to the detriment of story), but for not-so-technical fare like this that's made on a fraction of the budget and time, flaws and shortfalls get magnified the larger the image is blown up (the IMAX version of Spider-Man 2 is a good example of this kind of loss of quality). Perhaps in another 5-10 years, digital will be a lossless standard, but for now, it is an as-yet-unproven experiment, a technology still in its infancy.

Craig Bierko channels well the desperate, over-the-top idiocy of Tom Cruise, from the Mission: Impossible III star's lousy dad in Spielberg's War Of The Worlds, to his real-life, maniacal episode on Oprah last year (with Oprah played by lovely, ballsy former MAD TV'er Debra Wilson). Leslie Nielsen is his usual hilarious self, laying waste to George Bush with a riotous jab more telling and memorable than Michael Moore's in Fahrenheit 9/11. The opening scene cameos by Shaquille O'Neal and Dr. Phil McGraw (spoofing Saw) are fun, and Carmen Electra sending up Bryce Howard's blind girl in The Village is a good goof, as amusing as she is sexy (despite a cringe-inducing, run-on poop gag). Charlie Sheen, who starred in both of Abrahams' and Proft's Hot Shots! movies, has a brief but memorable role early on which gives new meaning to the term "dick joke".

Through the good and the bad here, Faris comes out pretty squeaky-clean. She's pretty bold in the way that she continues to cut up with the boys, seemingly unafraid of the names that some boys throw at girls who are naturally funnier than they are. She can get beaned in a scene with a pitch and say something like "I've taken balls to the face before," without us thinking Cindy a jezebel, a job filled nicely by Regina King as Faris's non-selective friend, Brenda, a promiscuous Goofus to her naïve Gallant (who has sex with pretty much everyone, including the aliens). This, the physical comedy and the poop jokes, of course, will Shirley be highlights for children (young and old) and make the flick #1 at the box office (yeah, like Disney's The Wild had a chance).


David Zucker, brother Jerry Zucker and yuk-buddy Jim Abrahams have done better than Scary Movie 4, as these select chestnuts illustrate:
  • The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) - Back when the trio was at their leanest and keenest, this juvenile, laugh-stuffed omnibus feature was the result. Consisting of TV and movie parodies loosely strung together, it includes a pants-peeingly funny chop-socky bit called A Fistful Of Yen and another called Catholic High School Girls In Trouble that would make Russ Meyer stand up and leer. The movie was directed by John Landis, who followed it up in 1987 with the relatively laughless Amazon Women On The Moon. "Weird Al" Yankovic released his own KFM-flavored feature, UHF, in 1989.
  • Airplane! (1980) - Sticking it to a decade's worth of disaster movies, the Zuckers assembled a great cast including Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Peter Graves, NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the late Robert Stack and a deadpan Leslie Nielsen in this drop-dead, endlessly quotable side-splitter. The scene with whitebread mom Barbara Billingsley translating Jive is beyond brilliant, and the late Stephen Stucker (as the flamboyant Johnny) has some of the best moments, topped only by Lloyd Bridges as a fellow air traffic controller addicted to amphetamines and sniffing glue. The quote-rich flick was followed in 1982 by the innocuous Airplane II: The Sequel, which was completely Zucker-free. Nielsen went on to star in the clunky 1996 Zuck-alike, Spy Hard, which featured a theme song by "Weird Al" Yankovic, who also directed the opening sequence.
  • Top Secret! (1984) - A handsome young actor who had only appeared in one ABC After School Special made a big splash in this WWII spoof, later going on to star in one of the biggest movies of the 1980's and a career as a heartthrob who still makes girls (and boys) gaga. His name: Val Kilmer -- and he could deliver a punch line like he was born doing it, something he would do again the next year in the geek fave, Real Genius. He played an American pop star in East Berlin who got caught up in a plot by anti-Communist rebels and was forced to sing … for freedom! Not the Zuckers' best, but still a good one to return to time and again. Alas, the soundtrack, with Kilmer singing a Beach Boys-inspired tune called "Skeet Surfin'" (which actually inspired "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Trigger Happy" from Off The Deep End) is not on CD.
  • Ruthless People (1986) - The ZAZ team brought their sensibilities to future My Cousin Vinny and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels writer Dale Launer's script, resulting in what is quite possibly one of the funniest movies ever made. Sad sacks Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater kidnap spoiled rich lady Bette Midler, assuming that husband Danny DeVito will pay the ransom for her safe return. He doesn't, hoping they will kill her. Zaniness ensues, the best of it being the scene which features Scary Movie 4 co-star Bill Pullman as the Dumbest Criminal Ever. "Weird Al" Yankovic recorded a parody of Mick Jagger's theme song, calling it "Toothless People" and releasing it on Polka Party! in 1986.
  • The Naked Gun (1988) - While the 1982 series Police Squad! that inspired the Leslie Nielsen cop trilogy only ran six episodes, it was nominated for two Emmys (so brilliant, critically-acclaimed, short-lived series like Action! and Arrested Development are nothing new). The series and the first movie had a dangerously high LPM (laughs per minute) quotient, though The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell Of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) suffered from Ebert's Law Of Diminishing Box Office Returns, not to mention dwindling laughs, too. "Weird Al" Yankovic appeared in all three Naked Gun movies.