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O laughter, where art thou? 

Dumb comedies bottom out with Epic Movie, The Naked Mile

Film comedies that cater to young people frequently focus on two universal topics: sex and other movies. Jokes about titillation and frustration no doubt go back further than comedy itself, while Hollywood movies, as global commodities, become big fat targets for practically everybody.

Two long-running comedy franchises earned fortunes tweaking those respective subjects before bottoming out. The Scary Movie series first spoofed slasher flicks but now launches feeble attacks at any movie within reach in Epic Movie. The American Pie franchise, once an A-list treatment of the teen-sex farce, has retreated to the straight-to-DVD market, most recently with a pseudo-sequel The Naked Mile. Dumb film comedies will always exist, but Epic Movie and Naked Mile make you wonder, do they have to be this dumb?

Epic Movie lampoons the expensive "event" films of the past 17 months or so, mostly The Chronicles of Narnia, but also The Da Vinci Code, X-Men and sundry others. Kal Penn, Adam Campbell, Jayma Mays and Faune Chambers play four orphans, brought together by golden tickets to "Willy's" chocolate factory, who end up in the magical land of Gnaria to fight the evil reign of the White Bitch (Jennifer Coolidge).

George Carlin once called "surprise" an essential element of comedy, and you wish Epic Movie got that message. Basically, they restage familiar movie scenes -- many from the actual trailers, so you can't possibly miss the gag -- and add either vicious slapstick or incongruous hip-hop songs, with virtually no variation. Perhaps the only joke worthy of the name involves a list of the White Bitch's misdeeds, including increased domestic surveillance and a botched hurricane clean-up, followed by a Kanye West look-alike saying, "The White Bitch doesn't care about black people."

Some glimmers of talent shine through. Kevin McDonald of "The Kids in the Hall" has an amusing cameo as a Harry Potter actor clearly too old for the part, and arguably Crispin Glover is better doing Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka than Depp himself. Otherwise, Epic Movie's flailing ineptitude reflects an all-consuming contempt for its audience, actual hit movies and its own lowly aims.

Compared with Epic Movie, The Naked Mile is gentle and sophisticated -- it knows the difference between a fart and a fart joke. The first American Pies succeeded partly on the appeal of quirky young actors such as Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan. The Naked Mile pays lip service to likeability with its setup of mild-mannered high schooler Erik Stifler (John White), cousin of Seann William Scott's boorish character Stifler from the earlier films, impatient to lose his virginity with his "nice" girlfriend (Jessy Schram).

When Erik and his obnoxious friends go off for a weekend at a college with a tradition of post-exam streaking, The Naked Mile descends to the level of a Porky's era dunderheaded romp. Even the unexpected set pieces seemingly go on forever, such as the detail that the slob fraternity's arch-enemies turn out to be a rival frat of tough midgets. The Naked Mile presents the point where a weakly humorous sex comedy begins crossing over into soft-core pornography, only with more outdoor shots. In terms of the quantity of unclad flesh displayed, which could be measured in acreage, the film probably sets some kind of record.

All of the Pie films contain a theme of characters being betrayed by their bodies or bodily fluids, with fake semen being a key prop here. A shrewd film such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin appreciates that you can make jokes about hard-ons and still feature interesting characters. The Naked Mile only offers real insight into sexual mores on the DVD commentary, where the actors talk about the strange etiquette that prohibits the outright ogling of their nude cast-mates and instead required lots of awkward eye contact.

Films such as Epic Movie and The Naked Mile cater to an undiscriminating audience, but the filmmakers run a risk by insulting their smarts. The popularity of short, droll YouTube parodies suggests that people can watch films such as these, say "I can make a funnier movie" and then do exactly that.

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11/20/2014

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