Mel Brooks' new comedy, "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" (citywide), puts us through a flurry of jokes relating to everything from Larry King to valet parking to, of course, Kevin Costner. In other words, the Sherwood Forest guy gets the Brooks treatment--thwackingly obvious cornball vaudeville with a streak of inspired lunacy.
Most of Brooks' movies, including "Blazing Saddles," "High Anxiety" and "Spaceballs," have been genre spoofs. The most successful of these, "Young Frankenstein," was also the one in which Brooks seemed to care most about the genre. You probably can't turn out a great spoof if on some basic level you don't love what you're spoofing. You have to love the conventions enough to go a little crazy (with glee) when they get violated. One of the reasons why, say, "Spaceballs" didn't work is because Brooks didn't really connect with the intergalactic genre. It was, literally, too far out for his way-in nuttiness.
The Robin Hood movies that probably mean the most to Brooks are the ones starring Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, but "Men in Tights," no doubt for commercial reasons, is mostly Costner-era riffs, and you can feel that Brooks isn't quite in sympathy with his targets. There's something a little dutiful and desperate about portions of the film, as if Brooks were trying to capture an audience he didn't really connect with.
As insurance, he works in variations on some of his greatest nutball moments from his earlier films: For example, the rappers who belt out the "Sherwood Forest Rap" recall the chain gang singing "I Get a Kick Out of You" from "Blazing Saddles." This stuff is still funny--it survives the transition--but it doesn't strike too many fresh notes.
The best way to enjoy "Men in Tights" (rated PG-13 for off-color humor) is to blank out the dull knockabout passages and sit tight for the kind of loopy squiggles that only Brooks can come up with. (His co-writers were Evan Chandler and J. David Shapiro.)
As Robin and Maid Marian, Cary Elwes and Amy Yasbeck are a bland twosome, but many of the supporting players are in comic overdrive. Richard Lewis, as Prince John, is playing his usual wacked-out neurotic schlep, but, in this Sherwood Forest setting, he seems funnier than ever.
Roger Rees is the Sheriff of Rottingham and he goes at his villainy in the best Master Thespian manner. Tracey Ullman plays the witch Latrine under enough makeup to sink a freighter. (The joke is that you can still tell it's Ullman.) Brooks himself turns up as a rabbi who performs bargain circumcisions, and he's so funny that you wish he'd stick around longer. The movie feels a little hollow when he's not on screen.
Everybody knows that Brooks, when he's really on , is the funniest man in the world. But it's possible he's never quite found the medium that would bring out his wildest inventions. Maybe the best way to realize Brooks is just to let him loose--that's why his appearances on talk shows are such giddy highs. As a performer in his movies, Brooks often approximates those highs, but the cumbersome process of putting together a movie slows him down; he doesn't have the kind of skills that might unify his scattershot jokiness. This isn't the worst thing in the world--what's enjoyable about the best parts of "Men in Tights" is its grab-bag, throwaway style.
But Brooks makes concessions in his films that dilute his genius. The obviousness of much of the humor in "Men in Tights" comes across like a downgrade for the kiddies. The actors pause after their lines as if waiting for the jokes to reach even the dullest in the audience. There's a funny bit, for example, where Prince John shows up in each scene with his facial mole in a different location--funny, that is, until the sheriff points out the joke. And do we really need Dom DeLuise doing a take-off on Brando's Don Corleone, or telling us he "could've been a contenda"?
It's possible that Brooks' commercial instincts are right here, and that the young audience for this film needs the jokes spelled out for them. Like most filmmakers, Brooks is probably content to have a hit with whatever works these days.
'Robin Hood: Men in Tights'
Cary Elwes: Robin Hood
Richard Lewis: Prince John
Roger Rees: Sheriff of Rottingham
Mark Blankfield: Blinkin
A 20th Century Fox presentation of a Brooksfilm production in association with Gaumont. Director Mel Brooks. Producer Mel Brooks. Executive producer Peter Schindler. Screenplay by Brooks & Evan Chandler & J. David Shapiro. Cinematographer Michael D. O'Shea. Editor Stephen E. Rivkin. Costumes Dodie Shepard. Music Hummie Mann. Production design Roy Forge Smith. Art director Stephen Myles Berger. Set designers Bruce Robert Hill and Cate Bangs. Set decorator Ronald R. Reiss. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (off-color humor).