@Home entertainment: The Spoils of Babylon on DVD
SNL alumnus Matt Piedmont creates a strange homage to the era of early ’80s miniseries with The Spoils of Babylon, an elaborate, six-episode spoof starring Will Ferrell as a washed up auteur and Kristen Wiig as an oil heiress with the hots for her bastard brother
The Spoils of Babylon
Starring: Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins, Tobey Maguire, Val Kilmer, Michael Sheen, Haley Joel Osment
Directed by: Matt Piedmont
Running time: 138 minutes (six episodes)
By Katherine Monk
Kristen Wiig may have lost the primetime Emmy Award for best lead actress in a mini-series to Jessica Lange, but in this case, the nomination was the real victory because The Spoils of Babylon is nothing more than one extended joke in six instalments.
A self-satisfying send-up of the early 1980s, and the ubiquitous TV mini-series that lathered up the mainstream airwaves with tales of lust and ill-gotten lucre, The Spoils of Babylon originally aired on IFC and was the brainchild of former Saturday Night Live writer Matt Piedmont, one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch in 2012.
You can sense Piedmont’s nostalgia for the days of The Thorn Birds, Rich Man Poor Man and Dallas running through this convoluted yarn that follows one family’s rise from dirt poor to filthy rich. In fact, if you were too young to ever see Orson Welles stumping for Ernest and Julio Gallo’s oaky barrels, chances are you’re going to miss a lot of the references. Then again, do you really need to know Will Ferrell is spoofing Welles as he introduces each episode in the character of bestselling author Eric Jonrosh?
The sight of Ferrell in a fat suit sporting a bushy grey beard, guzzling red wine in oversized glasses and waxing eloquent about his own genius is amusing in its own right, but the broad strokes of Ferrell’s performance are edited for even sharper comic effect.
One minute he’s talking about having sex with the leading lady, and the next, he’s waving a gun around like a suicidal madman. What makes it funny is the attempt to hide the joke: They don’t linger on the gun waving. Instead, they cut away from it as quickly as possible, as though that bit with the gun never happened.
They’re treating it with mock earnestness and because everyone here is playing it as straight-up as one could play a story of oil riches and incestuous desire, the weird vibe kind of works. But you wonder how long it can last.
The Spoils of Babylon feels like a sketch that wandered out of the writer’s room and scaled the electrified fence, free to roam at large for as long as it pleased, enlisting A-list actors to its side with every new scene.
We see Tim Robbins play an aging patriarch who raised his daughter Cynthia (Wiig) alone before stumbling into an abandoned boy on a dirt road. Jonas Morehouse (Robbins) tells the foundling that he can choose any first name he wants, but from now on, his last name is Morehouse.
The boy decides to call himself “Devon.”
And if you think that’s funny, you’re going to thoroughly enjoy the random bouts of absurdity blended with farce, physical humour and satire that makes The Spoils of Babylon more than just an extended sketch — or the most elaborate running joke involving a squirrel (watch for stuffed nut collectors throughout this ‘Ecureil Noir’ production.)
Devon’s wife is played by a mannequin with a British accent, but when she perishes in a fire set by Cynthia, he decides to create an underwater laboratory where he does research with Dixie Mellonworth (Jessica Alba) — “she’s a legitimate scientist.”
Then there’s Michael Sheen as the emasculated husband of Cynthia and Haley Joel Osment as her jealous son with an Oedipal problem.
Despite the relentless silliness, there is substance here in the microcosm of a spoiling Babylon. Not only are they skewering mini-series convention with episodic sin, they’re nodding to the world as it was in the late 1970s, before the Internet, before climate change, before cynicism set in and exiled our collective soul.
“Who’s watching this garbage?” screams the auteur Jonrosh during one of his booze-fuelled introductions. “What’s going on? Not only here, but generally speaking…”
By the time Farrell actually appears in the mini-series as the Shah of Iran, we realize The Spoils of Babylon is a comic, but symbolically accurate, rendering of the entire oil economy and its role in the establishment of the military industrial complex.
More than anything though, this is goofy homage to the hyperbolic heyday of American television dramas, when mainstream media shaped opinion like a hairstylist with a can of Final Net, and the greedy side of the American Dream was celebrated as modern heroism.
It does feel long with six episodes clocking in at over two hours, but that’s the beauty of a DVD release that allows the viewer to stop and start at will without buffering or bookmarking: You can take in these Spoils at your leisure with a fine bottle of red… and get ready for the sequel, The Spoils Before Dying.
Available now via Anchor Bay.