Perhaps the most oft-quoted line from Zack Snyder's cinematic adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel 300 is "Tonight we dine in hell!" Chowing down on a box of Butterfinger Minis during a screening of Meet the Spartans, you will truly understand what that means.
You remember 300, right? A ridiculously self-serious bunch of oiled-up, seminude muscular Spartans battling against deformed Persians through sepia filters, in slo-mo .... No doubt you heard the gay jokes. No doubt you made some of them. But never did you think an entire movie could be made from those mild titters.
The writing-directing team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer thought otherwise. To this deadly duo, there is no joke so lame it can't be repeated. Did you hear the one about how Donald Trump wears a wig? That Paris Hilton is a spoiled bitch? Or even ... get this ... Britney Spears might be crazy? Friedberg and Seltzer once again prove themselves to be the cinematic equivalent of that annoying friend who thinks repeating the jokes he saw last night on TV is the funniest damn thing ever. The terrible twosome should have stopped working after their 1996 screenwriting breakthrough Spy Hard, in which Leslie Nielsen reenacted scenes from such box office hits as Pulp Fiction and True Lies with less than half the energy and none of the wit of the source material. (Nielsen's presence in these movies used to be mandatory; nowadays, Carmen Electra is the regular.)
Inevitably, Friedberg and Seltzer hooked up with the Wayans brothers, and became two of the six writers of Scary Movie, a spoof that was genuinely funny, largely because it imposed a raunchy black perspective on the traditionally white-bread slasher genre. Just a guess here, but it seems likely that was mostly the doing of Shawn and Marlon Wayans. The remaining two writers, Phil Beauman and Buddy Johnson, would later write Not Another Teen Movie, a spoof that provided moderate laughs; now by themselves again, and directing their own scripts, Friedberg and Seltzer promptly crapped out Date Movie and Epic Movie, which once again turned out to contain fewer laughs than the material being satirized.
Meet the Spartans is a mild improvement over Epic Movie, which is like saying that a debilitating fever is more fun than appendicitis, but at least it mostly sticks to spoofing one movie, rather than trying to string together random scenes. Yes, Shrek and Spider-Man show up, but as asides rather than the main event, a 300 parody grounded in the not-so-awesomely cool idea to have King Leonidas kick every annoying celebrity in the world into a bottomless pit. So down go Britney, Dane Cook, Ellen DeGeneres, the judges of American Idol, Sanjaya ... this might be an entertaining time-waster as a flash game on some Web site you're screwing around on while pretending to work, but paying $10 or more for it on the big screen is idiotic. In all fairness, Ike Barinholtz' Dane Cook impersonation, honed on MADtv, is decent; and the blatant mocking of Tom Cruise's Scientology beliefs is a somewhat bold move — and may end up getting Friedberg and Seltzer blacklisted. (Hate to side with L. Ron Hubbard's crew, but let's hope so.)
Mostly, what's shocking about Meet the Spartans is how lazy it is, which is a shame for former U.K. teen star and pop singer Sean Maguire, whose Gerard Butler impersonation is spot-on. But aside from the obvious gay jokes ("I Will Survive" performed twice), what remains is an endless array of product placements masquerading as self-referential humor — Dentyne, Gatorade, Hooters, Red Bull, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf are only the most obvious — and movie references that Seltzer and Friedberg don't even trust the audience to get. Casting Borat's Ken Davitian as King Xerxes works as a sight gag, but it's not enough just to show it; the narrator has to say "Xerxes. He looked a lot like that fat guy from Borat." Likewise, when Carmen Electra dons a black Spider-Man suit, the very same narrator has to tell us that she's "like Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man 3."
And then there are jokes cribbed from other comedians. The chastity belt gag comes from Robin Hood: Men in Tights. There's a live-action Grand Theft Auto bit that Dave Chappelle did better, and a stand-off involving "Yo mama" jokes. Even Carlos Mencia is subtler.
Oh, yes: There are more 300 parodies on the way, and while there's no reason to hope the National Lampoon version will be any better, I can recommend David and Daniel Holechek's 305, which should be out on DVD in a month or so. It not only replicates the look of the source material more effectively on a lower budget, it also understands that even in a parody movie, the characters and story need to make some kind of sense. Meanwhile, Friedberg and Seltzer apparently have something in the works called Raunchy Movie. Won't someone kick them into that bottomless pit?