“The death of Hollywood is Mel Brooks and special effects,” Joseph L. Mankiewicz once said. “If Mel Brooks had come up in my day he wouldn’t have qualified to be a busboy.” As much as Brooks makes me laugh, I understand why Mankiewicz singled him out as a target for bile. The writer-director of A Letter to Three Wives approached film comedy with the same literacy and formal ambition he brought to social drama (some of his early producing credits included Fritz Lang’s Fury and Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades). Even a relative trifle like People Will Talk builds to some rather thoughtful questions about how we live our lives. Blazing Saddles—a grab bag of movie parodies, sight gags, and pretty much anything else Brooks and his writers found funny—must have looked to Mankiewicz like graffiti on the remains of the studio system he once helped support.
Nowadays American mainstream movie comedies look like Brooks a lot more often than they do Mankiewicz. In fact, even Brooks’s movies seem disciplined compared to a typical big-screen sitcom like Ride Along, which opens tomorrow. The guiding principle of Ride Along seems to be “anything for a laugh,” regardless of whether the laughs make sense within any context established by the film thus far. Since watching it the other night, the gag that sticks out with me is one in which Ice Cube’s hard-assed cop is getting teased by two of his colleagues at work. Cube’s been complaining about how much he dislikes his little sister’s fiance; his colleagues egg him on by speculating about the guy’s sexual prowess. We jump between shots of the partners making vulgar faces and noises, growing increasingly antic as they go. There’s no evident concern for whether the shots match up, whether the joke fits within the flow of the scene, or whether this dumb shtick is in keeping with the characters’ behavior until now.
It seems like director Tim Story (or whoever was calling the shots) has adopted, rather gracelessly, Judd Apatow’s method of letting the cameras roll, telling the actors to riff on an idea, then cutting together what seem like the funniest bits. The problem with this method should be obvious: if the funny bits don’t relate somehow to the surrounding scene, they register as nothing more than non sequiturs. Ride Along makes this mistake so often that the characters barely seem like characters. Cube, for instance, goes from being a dour straight man (as when he’s bullying the fiance, played by Kevin Hart) to a Bugs Bunny-type of wise guy (as when he repeatedly breaks into his sister’s house to teach her about securing the premises), flipping his persona almost every other scene. Hart’s big-talking wannabe cop is a little more consistent, but this may be because, as a successful stand-up comic, he’s able to communicate a recognizable persona in his riffing.
You can probably figure out the entire plot of Ride Along from its single-sentence summary on IMDB: “Fast-talking security guard Ben joins his cop brother-in-law James on a 24-hour patrol of Atlanta in order to prove himself worthy of marrying Angela, James’s sister.” During the patrol, James lands on the trail of a crime boss he’s been trying for years to catch, and Ben, still tagging along, turns into a helpful partner in the course of a day. The filmmakers acknowledge that we’ve seen this story countless times before, relating the cop-movie elements so slackly and disinterestedly that the requisite gunfights fail to generate even the slightest suspense.
When Mel Brooks staged slack re-creations of genre movie conventions, typically it was to make fun of them. Even though Ride Along seems incapable of taking anything seriously, it isn’t a spoof of 80s buddy-cop movies like 48 Hrs. or Lethal Weapon (which would be superfluous anyway, as those films are already jokey and self-aware). Rather, it uses the generic framework because it contains lots of familiar scenes for the cast to riff on. I guess that’s not so bad if you like Ice Cube and Kevin Hart and all you want to do is spend time with them—to be fair, I found them both to be pleasant screen presences. But I don’t know if I like any actors enough to watch them fire jokes into a void for 100 minutes.