If the conventions you skewer are no longer remembered, are you still making a spoof?
That’s the question raised by noir satire “The Spoils Before Dying,” a spiritual sequel to IFC’s Funny or Die-produced “The Spoils of Babylon,” which last year parodied over-the-top miniseries about the trials and tribulations of wealthy families.
Choosing, in 2015, to take on film noir is a bit like filming an entire TV movie mocking the conventions of Lifetime TV movies–something that “Dying” stars Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig did just last month. Of a generation that grew up when cable was still emerging and the Internet had yet to fragment the media, their cultural references are oddly dated; think of how many addled C-list celebrities Wiig played in pastiche game show sketches over the years on “SNL.”
The plot of “Dying,” a three-night miniseries, focuses on 1950s jazz musician Rock Banyon (played by a glowering Michael Kenneth Williams, who blessedly doesn’t elbow the audience in the ribs to remind us that he’s in a comedy). He’s being framed for the murder of his former lover, as well as that of a world-renowned scientist, but the cops happily give him three days to find the real murderer. Over the course of 72 hours, he encounters old flame Delores DeWinter (Wiig); a buttoned-up gay man played with rigid pomposity by Michael Sheen; a handful of Nazis; and some ghosts. Songs are sung, some PSAs regarding drug use and jazz music are thrown in as so much padding, and lousy rear projections are employed, tee-hee, to remind us how bad special effects in film and TV used to be.
The A-list cast can mostly be divided into two camps: those who play it straight enough to make the proceedings funny and those playing themselves playing a character (hello, Maya Rudolph!). That Ferrell, as the washed-up, overweight director of the film who opens and closes each installment, falls into the latter category should come as no surprise. His impersonation of late-career Orson Welles wasn’t funny during “The Spoils of Babylon,” and it’s gained nothing in the intervening year. Mostly, the cast is asked to do so little it’s shocking how many recognizable faces populate the scenes, from Haley Joel Osment to Molly Shannon to Kate McKinnon. Most characters are reduced to a single joke repeated endlessly, under the assumption that the repetition of words or phrases constitutes comedy–McKinnon’s teary, tipsy floozy does almost nothing other than recite a list of famous jazz musicians with whom she’s gone to bed–and the word “homosexual,” first given a subtle umlaut by Sheen, gradually shifts and morphs until it’s practically a series of gasps and gargles.
What increases one’s disappointment with the whole is that it looks so great. The lush cinematography and set designs, all neon lights and mid-century modern mountain cabins, point up the falseness of the choice to highlight “cheap” special effects, unless the joke is that the budget was used up on professional lighting and camera work. And Williams and Wiig have a lovely rapport, with Wiig giving the most assured performance. She’s clearly a fan of the genre and the era, and she not only sings some catchy jazz tunes but cycles effortlessly through a number of period-perfect homages, from Anita O’Day to Doris Day. But it is Williams who grounds the series. His refusal to find anything around him funny keeps the proceedings from falling fully flat; unfortunately, you may be bound to share his opinion.