Unfunny 'Men in Tights' finds Mel in a torpor

July 28, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Robin Hood: Men in Tights" starts being funny with its title, gets even funnier in the credits ("And Tracey Ullman as Latrine"), gets funnier still in the first second after the credits, when five snazzy rappers dance up a storm in their little Sherwood Forest duds to set up the story. Then it stops being funny with an absolute vengeance for the next 90 minutes.

Where have you gone, Mel Brooks?

The movie is an extended parody of Robin Hood movies as a genre and the Kevin Costner "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" in particular, but it doesn't even have the guts to go hard after Costner's absurdity, which is its nominal reason for existence. Once in a while it stirs from its slumber for a giggle or two, but more commonly it dozes as torpidly as a fat yellow cat in the warm sunlight.

Brooks is a tragic case, at least to the extent that any really rich guy can be tragic. But he's had his past, his work, his entire career, stolen from him. He, after all, pioneered the raucous, raunchy, joke-intense parody in such films as "High Anxiety" (Hitchcock), "Blazing Saddles" (westerns), "Young Frankenstein" (monsters, probably his best). He was extremely successful. He was on top of the world.

And then came "Airplane," "Naked Gun," and others from Brooks' frank imitators David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, and they were just flat, cold better. The Zuckers and Abrahams were funnier, they were faster and they understood how many more jokes could be front-loaded onto the form, until their movies were dense medieval tapestries of yuks, a Bayeux of cruel, gurgling, upchucking laughter.

In comparison, this "Robin Hood" feels slower than sludge. The jokes come not three per second but three per half-hour. Moreover, Brooks has remained primarily a verbal comedian. As a director, his work utterly lacks the visual ingenuity of the Zucker-Zucker-Abrahams stuff; those boys cram humor into every square inch of the frame.

We're stuck with Cary Elwes making a game stab at a somewhat prissy Robin. Elwes, with his pleasant, forgettable face and bland ways, really doesn't register with much authority. Far more memorable is Roger Rees as the Sheriff of Rottingham -- get it? -- who at least brings some intensity to his work.

Then there's Richard Lewis as Prince John. I can see how this might have sounded so good in casting meetings: Lewis, with his whiny, modern self-pity, his New York line readings, his sharp sense of Feifferesque alienation, would be a spectacular non PTC sequitur in the world of Robin Hood. But he's a spectacular dud. He's so slow. He seems to take in a deep breath before he speaks and then spit each . . . word . . . out . . . one . . . at . . . a . . . time.

Brooks himself, as Rabbi Tuchman, an analogue to Friar Tuck, has a lot more raw power than Lewis. He should have made a lot more use of himself and his comic persona. And a blind Merry Man gets more laughs-per-screen-exposure than anyone else in the film.

But generally, Brooks' humor is extremely limited. The movie has three jokes: the non sequitur, as in the West Side Lewis as Prince John; the fall-down-go-boom pratfall that tweaks genre conventions (Robin cuts the rope but the candle-holder falls on his head, not the advancing guards); and the "it's only a movie" thing, where the actors stop to consult the script or in a sword fight Robin skewers a stagehand's sandwich.

Brooks seems to be a linear thinker rather than an exponential one; he can only do one joke at a time. He starts it, he stops it, and then he starts another one. The Zuckers/Abrahams combine have the gift of developing true sequences of comedy that, to steal a concept from the great American film critic James Agee, niftily and nimbly dance up a line of pain from titter to chuckle to guffaw to bellow to crushing, oxygen-depleting belly laughter. Brooks abandons you somewhere between the snicker and the smirk.

MOVIE REVIEW

'Robin Hood: Men in Tights'

Starring Cary Elwes and Mel Brooks

Directed by Mel Brooks

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG

**

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