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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


There was a very famous episode of "Seinfeld" in which a co-worker insulted George Costanza, who was unable to formulate a comeback in time. After giving it significant thought, he eventually came up with an ill-conceived retort to use on his tormenter at the earliest available opportunity: "The jerk store called. They want you back." The new comedy An American Carol is the cinematic equivalent of George's "jerk store" insult. Directed and co-written by David Zucker (of Naked Gun and Scary Movie fame), the film is openly intended to be a dig at liberals, aimed at conservative audiences who feel that modern movies too infrequently reflect their own political views. However, the humor here is so mild and so ineffectual that it has no bite whatsoever. Forget politics: An American Carol sucks simply because it's ridiculously, painfully unfunny.

The story kicks off with a band of terrorists deciding they need a better, more compelling recruitment video. To make one, they turn to a scruffy, overweight, ballcap-wearing Michigan documentarian named Michael Malone (Kevin Farley). Does this sound like anyone else you may know of? Malone has made a series of America-bashing films and is now leading a crusade to abolish the 4th of July. The terrorists feel he is the perfect choice to enhance their image. One night, the spirit of JFK visits Malone, telling him that three ghosts will appear and explain the error of his liberal ways, specifically his agreement to make the terrorist video. One of the ghosts is Gen. George Patton (Kelsey Grammer), another is George Washington (Jon Voight), and the third is Angel of Death/country music star Trace Adkins.

I can see this set-up having definite satirical possibilities, but the film finds none of them. The most immediate problem is the casting of Kevin Farley (brother of the late Chris). Farley may possibly be the least funny human being on the planet. Yes, he resembles Michael Moore, but that's about it. He doesn't appear to have any sense of comic timing. He doesn't turn Malone into a character we love to hate. He merely recites the lines flatly, as though reading cue cards on "Saturday Night Live." Farley's low-quality performance is matched by the production values, which could charitably be described as cheap-looking.

There is also the matter of Zucker infusing An American Carol with as much slapstick as with political humor. The movie's idea of incisive comedy is to have the Michael Moore clone constantly be slapped by all the other characters or trampled on in crowds. While that image no doubt provides catharsis for Moore-haters, it loses its bite when repeated 20 or 30 times. Supplementing the slapping is a tired series of gags about how fat Moore - I mean Malone - is. I like Michael Moore, but there are other, more credible targets than his weight that the film could have aimed at. Like the fact that he has been accused of "massaging" facts. (All documentaries do it to some degree as a necessary function of storytelling, but still, it's a potential source of criticism.) Or the way he has built a cottage industry peddling his anti-Bush message via films, books, and websites. Actually, Bill O'Reilly does pop up in a cameo to criticize Malone/Moore for "telling people what they want to hear" but that only serves to emphasize the pot calling the kettle black. Welcome to the world of modern punditry, whether left- or right-leaning.

Other times, the satire is just hard to grasp. At one point, Patton defends the need to occasionally take up arms by showing Malone what the world would be like had Abraham Lincoln not freed the slaves. Turns out that Malone would have been the biggest plantation owner in the country, with Gary Coleman working as his personal car washer. Excuse me but, Huh? Even when presented with the easiest of targets, An American Carol fumbles the funny. A scene lampooning Rosie O'Donnell (whom I detest) can't even manage to make a bruise because you don't understand what's being ridiculed other than her general liberalness.

Now, while I'm saying that my disdain for the picture has nothing to do with politics, we have to delve into them for a second so that I may explain why the attempt to skewer the liberal worldview doesn't work. Political satire absolutely requires some element of truth in order to be effective. Without at least a kernel of honesty, all you're left with is propaganda. Perhaps the biggest mistake An American Carol makes - other than not being funny - is that it tries to root its attacks in concepts that are fundamentally bogus. For example, it takes the position that only conservatives care about our troops serving in Iraq, which is just blatantly not true. Being against the war is not the same as apathy toward the men and women serving overseas. There is also a repeated suggestion that anyone who doesn't think America is perfect is nothing less than a traitor. To suggest that this great nation can't be improved upon is not patriotism, it's blindness. Because so many of the "jokes" are based on these inaccurate ideas, they consistently fall flat.

For all of An American Carol's attempts to stick it to liberals, there's absolutely nothing here to rattle anybody's cage. That's how incompetent it is. If anything, the jabs at liberalism are counterproductive, because they don't hit the mark. There is one thing I indisputably believe when it comes to political humor: It should go for the throat. Otherwise, what's the point? I've always resisted injecting my own personal politics into this website, except as they pertain to my feelings about movies I'm reviewing. Read my takes on Fahrenheit 9/11 or Brokeback Mountain and you could probably guess where I stand on the political spectrum. My own leanings aside, I honestly wish An American Carol had been nastier and more cutting than it is. Love him or hate him, Michael Moore's movies are effective because they piss people off. The journey of Michael Malone, on the other hand, won't boil the blood of any liberal anywhere. And it won't inspire much laughter on either side of the fence.

(1/2 out of four)

An American Carol is rated PG-13 for rude and irreverent content, and for language and brief drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 23 (very long) minutes.

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