The old adage is that tragedy + time = comedy. While depictions of the Holocaust were once a very bad idea, it’s now perfectly acceptable (for example) to show Hitler getting a pineapple shoved up his ass or to let Uwe Boll make a movie about Auschwitz. I have to wonder, though, if there aren’t some missing variables in this equation. It’s tragedy + time, sure, but how much time? Is thirteen years long enough? What about tragedy + time + Emilio Estevez? I’m not sure what that equals but it certainly isn’t comedy. While it seems inevitable that most historical events will eventually be turned into a film, no matter how important or cinematic, my money for cinematic depictions of the ’92 LA riots was not on a cheap, ramshackle comedy starring Snoop Dogg, Emilio Estevez and a surprising hodgepodge of has-beens and character actors.
For the nine-year-olds out there too lazy to use Wikipedia (I don’t judge), the LA riots were a period of six days in which all hell broke loose in downtown Los Angeles. Four white police officers were let off scot-free after they were videotaped beating the shit out of a black guy named Rodney King. Although the beating came after a car chase through LA and the police officers said they were attempting to arrest an aggressive and violent King, the video shows King almost motionless on the ground getting the tar kicked out of him. Clearly, there was treachery afoot and everyone reacted accordingly. More than fifty people died as a result of the riots and it is seen as a pretty shitty historical event for all involved.
Music video director Marc Klasfeld (responsible for a lot of Sum 41’s early videos as well as the classic Alien Ant Farm joint Smooth Criminal) thought it was just brimming with comedy opportunities. That’s why he opens the film with a montage of atrocities ranging from Columbine to 9/11, terrorist beheading videos and the Oklahoma City bombing: comedy. The LA Riot Spectacular subscribes to the comedic theory (one shared by Uwe Boll’s Postal, in fact) that nothing is off limits (good) and that anything told with a snarky tone is immediately funny (bad). I like to think of myself as not having a stick up my ass about these kinds of things, but I also don’t necessarily think that reading Hitler’s Wikipedia entry is instantly hilarious just because it shouldn’t be.
To properly explain the way The LA Riot Spectacular works is actually fairly complicated. It’s extremely densely packed with jokes and zany juxtapositions to the point where a breakdown of all of those elements would probably take longer to read than the film’s rather short 77 minute runtimes. For argument’s sake, here’s how the first scene plays out. Police officers Koon and Powell (Christopher McDonald and Emilio Estevez) decide to pursue a car with the license plate number FUKDUP1. Their chase takes the form of a horse race narrated by the helicopter traffic news dude, all of which is set to a jaunty banjo score (jaunty banjo scores are pretty much neck-and-neck with scenes of people shitting as far as recurring WDIE themes go, thus far). The cops have a running bet on the odds of the perp’s ethnicity: 3/1 Hispanic, 10/1 black, 40/1 Asian… you get the idea. Koon and Powell place their bets on Hispanic and are disappointed to see a black guy named Rodney King (TK Carter) come out of the car instead. After a nurse sizes up any potential health issues and his sob story of growing up in an alcoholic household doesn’t work on any of the white cops, King says ‘let the beating commence’ and the film veers very briefly into factual territory when King is, in fact, beaten.
Midway through the beating, Snoop Dogg arrives in a hydraulic-assisted cop car (!) and addresses our worst fears. What is this, a sick joke? What’s next, The Columbine Jamboree? In Snoop’s own words: no matter who was right and who was wrong, that shit was fucked up. Snoop dubs it a classic American tale, fireworks go off and I’m really of two minds at this particular point in the film. On one hand, covering your ass with a character that breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience that what you’re doing is funny and not offensive is pathetically weak shit on par with the ____ Movie franchise. On the other, getting Snoop to do it is a stroke of addled genius. Although it’s not clear why Snoop gets his own LAPD squad car or what exactly his role is in all these shenanigans (he seems to narrate, but then he also shows up randomly in the film to stare at what’s going on; it’s certainly the film role that most accurately encapsulates Snoop’s role in the music industry), it’s hard to say no to Snoop. At one point he silently enters a courtroom and busts out Fuck Tha Police FOR NO FUCKING REASON and the entire courtroom full of cops just sits there, watching him with a vaguely guilty look on their faces like dogs getting scolded for taking a crap on the carpet. If nothing else, this movie rekindled my love for the larger-than-life icon that is Snoop motherfucking Dogg.
Music video directors are often derided when they make their move to the silver screen for privileging visuals over narrative. I’m happy to report that Marc Klasfeld dispels all of these clichés by delivering one of the ugliest digitally-shot films this side of Inland Empire. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the movie was made on cell phones; I’m actually pretty sure the iPhone takes significantly better-quality video at this point. The grainy, hand-held look is meant to give the film a cinema vérité edge, I guess, although it gives it more of a high-school AV edge. Instead of blowing the budget on not making the movie look like a blown-out bucket of shit, Klasfeld seems to have instead chosen to buy the rights to a ton of songs (including the aforementioned N.W.A. jam). I’m pleased to report, however, that Klasfeld reused this shitbox aesthetic to much greater effect in the admittedly pretty great viral video where little kids put on Scarface as their school play. That two-minute clip encapsulates what Klasfeld is trying to do here infinitely better than the sophomoric hour-and-change of The LA Riot Spectacular.
In order to properly insult every race and creed, King gets a Jewish lawyer (Charles Durning) and sues the LAPD (in case you hadn’t gotten the joke when he sing-songed ‘I got a Jewish lawyer! I got a Jewish lawyer!’, he later goes on TV to explain he got a Jewish lawyer because Jews are greedy). Estevez and McDonald are made into demi-gods by the chief of police (Ronny Cox, because why not at this point); they have a wall of fame for those officers who go above and beyond the call of duty and beat up minorities. Of course, pesky liberal groups force them to be expelled from the force and they literally get crucified. We’re introduced to a liquor store-owning Korean couple who are getting forced out of the neighbourhood by the impending riots and a Mexican dude who so desperately wants to get on TV he eventually dons blackface. Curiously absent from the equal-opportunity offender list are Canadians and I, for one, am appalled.
Part of the problem with the humor (besides the usual lack of timing or wit synonymous with shitty comedies) is that Klasfeld doesn’t really have a point of view. While a movie like An American Carol is an equally heinous act of cruelty against the art of comedy, it does stand behind a fairly consistent mission of sticking it to those damn pinko commies liberals at every turn. It may have similar amounts of people blowing goats and falling down manholes whilst farting but at least its targets are consistent. The Great LA Riot Spectacular sticks it to everyone at every turn like a hormone-addled teenager on a World of Warcraft bender. Klasfeld breaks one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. Absurd social situations are shown to be absurd because the people living them stare at each other and go ‘ain’t this shit crazy?’ at which point Snoop walks in from off-screen, takes a sip of malt liquor and nods. Without wanting to insult the intelligence of anyone who may have enjoyed this movie, who the fuck finds this funny?
That having been said, shitty comedies have a way of circling back to the funny in one way or another. As a fan of inexplicable casting choices, I got a real kick out of the motley crew assembled here. The one thing that most movies of this ilk do right is casting comedians or comedic actors in their roles. The LA Riot Spectacular does not. You’ll notice that Ted Levine (playing a mustache-tastic Neo-Nazi), Charles Durning, William Forsythe (topped with a ridiculous Kilmer-like blonde wig, he plays the man who captures the beating on tape and eventually becomes a porn director), Charles S. Dutton (playing the mayor of Los Angeles, who inexplicably sports a Mr. T-inspired Mohawk) and Ronny Cox are not exactly comedy stalwarts – so, of course, the most enjoyable aspects of the movie are the ones where they embarrass themselves whilst drowning in stupidity. It’s telling that they couldn’t get (or didn’t try to get) a Harland Williams or Leslie Nielsen in there. If you thought you would live your whole life without seeing child star Jonathan Lipnicki (of Jerry Maguire moppet fame) high-fiving Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs over Aryan News Network footage of a black man getting his ass beat, well, think again.
The riot eventually does break out after the Mayor’s sob stories fail to convince. In a none-too-novel twist, the riots are announced by world-famous boxing announcer Michael Buffer and color-commentated by Snoop. Red-carpet commentators (the male one played by the usually reliable David Rasche) run around giving people advice on how to kick people in the face. Somebody draws a huge black dick on a building, which sends all the white people into fits of horror (I’ll admit this is one of the movie’s more successful gags; who doesn’t like dick jokes?). McDonald and Estevez become Billy Idol-like rock stars who ‘tune their instrument’ by hitting a black dude a couple of times. There’s a scene where two gangbangers argue whether Robert Altman is more or less indie than Jarmusch (also funny). Cox spends the entire back half of the film exploring the various etymologies of racial slurs. There’s a joke about Richard Gere getting a gerbil stuck in his ass that would probably have been outdated during the actual riots. By the halfway point, The LA Riot Spectacular is almost identical to Boll’s Postal, albeit less funny. That is a movie where Mini-Me gets gang-raped by a pack of gorillas, by the way.
The riots are eventually brought to a quasi-end when the mayor (Dutton, by the way, gives the film’s best comedic performance by a country mile) puts on a Family Feud-type game to figure out which ethnicity is most hated (the answer is Jews, by the way). King makes one last plea for tolerance and the whole thing erupts in an unprecedented orgy of violence complete with dead/injured ticker at the bottom of the screen. The cast wails on each other for a while (it’s tastefully intercut with actual riot footage) until a stray bullet makes its way to Beverly Hills, prompting the ire of George motherfucking Hamilton. He speaks for the people of the Hills when he says make it stop… and they stop. George Hamilton ends the LA riots.
So why does it exist?
The LA Riot Spectacular is funny in fits and spurts, mostly in the instances where it doesn’t try to be a kind of South Park-style equal-opportunity offender. It looks cheap as fuck and its jokes are in its image. The riots are certainly a fertile breeding ground for humor in the right hands, but it’s fallen in the hands of a man whose day job is to put dumb rock bands in jokey outfits and fake mustaches and have them rock out in an empty in-ground pool with scantily-clad babes. Klasfeld’s music-video roots may not be apparent in the grainy, butthole’s-POV aesthetic but they certainly are apparent in the surface-level satire he delivers. In the same way he’s tasked to make Sum 41 look wicked bitchin’, Klasfeld has tasked himself with making one of the most traumatic events of the last 25 years look wicked retarded using a ton of character actors thirty years past their heyday and George motherfucking Hamilton. If there’s a demographic where Hollywood Squares viewers and 14-year-olds intersect, they are the people Marc Klasfeld was trying to reach.
Or they’re Marc Klasfeld. He seems to think it’s funny.