Sunday 2 October 2011

BASEketball (1998)


Back before David Zucker became one of the men behind Airplane!, The Kentucky Fried Movie and the Police Squad series, and thus changing the face of comedy forever, he was a regular youngster playing ball with his friends in his driveway. However, the game they played wasn’t the one you would expect. They played a game of their own creation, a weird hybrid of baseball and basketball. As it is, their formative driveway hi-jinx stayed only within that small circle, and Zucker would go on to become a famous filmmaker with his brother and friend. In 1998, though, when he hadn’t stepped behind the camera for a few years, Zucker decided that it was time to share the game of his youth with world.

Two jobless losers from Milwaukee, Joe Cooper (Trey Parker) and Doug Remer (Matt Stone), invent a new game playing basketball, but using baseball rules: BASEketball. After the game gains popularity, and with help from billionaire Ted Denslow (Ernest Borgnine), they form the Professional BASEketball League where everyone gets the same pay and no team can change cities. However, when Denslow dies and bequeaths the team to Cooper, a rival team owner, Baxter Cain (Robert Vaughan), tries to force changes on the game to make more money.

Considering that the film was about the creation and development of a hybrid sport, it seems somewhat fitting that the comedic influence of the project would be something of a hybrid itself. Although it was a project pursued without the aid of David Zucker’s regular partners, brother Jerry and friend Jim Abrahams, his individual comedy stylings are still very well established: a simple storyline crammed with jokes to the point of bursting. To try and compliment this, a new sensibility was added, namely Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park. South Park had landed on TV screens the year before and made an instant impression on the world for its crudeness (both in jokes and production values) and its controversy (the show was one of several things blamed for youthful delinquency). Convinced that the show would last only one season before being cancelled, Parker and Stone looked elsewhere for their next project and fell upon Zucker’s new film, which would be his first as director for seven years. Needless to say, the potential for these different comedic methods mixing together did create something of a ripple of anticipation. As it is, South Park wasn’t cancelled, which meant that Parker and Stone, now committed to two different projects, had to film BASEketball by day and make South Park by night.

When I said that Zucker tends to operate with a basic story for his films, I’m not kidding. The script for BASEketball is a thing riddled with cliché and standard set-pieces, which clearly is written in such a manner that the force of personality is what makes the film, and jokes, shine. There are familiar Zucker-isms in there, including his standard cruelty to kids bit that lifts straight from Airplane! (someone accidentally causes a sick child distress) and gags in the background, as well cameo appearances from his old buddies Robert Stack and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. However, there are two things that I find odd about the script. The first is that there are, including Zucker, four credited writers on this film. Seriously, four? Normally when more than two people contribute to a script, it starts to suffer from the old Too Many Cooks Syndrome, making it feel disjointed and unwieldy. But the script for BASEketball doesn’t feel this way at all, if anything suffering from feeling too basic, with little development beyond the simple blueprint of the very familiar story arc. That sure is a lot of no effort from four writers.

The second problem that I have with things is that Trey Parker and Matt Stone clearly had such an integral influence on how this film was made, so it’s seems unfair that they not be given credit at all. For example, the role of Squeak Scolari was concocted by the pair, who insisted that Zucker create a third character for the central unit, and this has a huge effect on how things progress. Plus, so much of their dialogue is so clearly their words and not those that others wrote for them, with the infamous ‘psyche-outs’ being the biggest example of this. When they’re not onscreen, you can bet that it was Zucker and co. behind it; when Parker and Stone are onscreen, there is virtually nothing that isn’t theirs. There are even numerous jokes that refer directly to the pair. For example, when they signed up for the film, many of their South Park fans instantly began calling them sell-outs, so when Joe calls Doug a sell-out, they both get a look on their faces as if they’ve heard this somewhere before. Also, Parker twice breaks out character voices from South Park, of Mr. Garrison and Cartman respectively. There is even a scene featuring a song written and performed by Parker to his own character, which is itself so very much a thing that he would do.

And this rather brings me to a major point of the film. Whilst I do think it’s funny, and laughed several times throughout, there is a clear gap between how funny the Zucker portion is and how funny the Parker/Stone portion is. They’re both funny, but the latter jokes, for all their crudity, are much more effective. Most of the film will give you small laughs and chuckles, but the big laughs come from the aforementioned psyche-outs, which are given all of their punch by Parker and Stone. It therefore creates a weird imbalance in the film, where you spend a lot of the run-of-the-mill, if competently handled plot waiting to get back to the bits you know will be funnier. Now, Zucker has done a good job in keeping the pace up, so the film isn’t a slog, but there’s still the mild sense of impatience that comes through it all. Certainly, there are some jokes that simply don’t work, like Ernest Borgnine singing I’m Too Sexy in his own video will, but there is certainly more funny than not.

The performances are of varied quality. Parker and Stone both put on a very spirited and funny show (although Joe and Doug are likely not a million miles away from the reality of the pair’s friendship); Dian Bachar really commits to the role of Squeak Scolari, being self-effacing, emotional and damn funny (his delivery of the line “I am not a piece of shit” absolutely slays me - seriously, I had to stop and laugh just there); and even Yasmine Bleeth actually regularly hits a decent comedic stride for much of the film. Robert Vaughan is also always a decent bad guy, but Jenny McCarthy comes off the worst, though it’s mostly because her role requires her only to look good and not do too much else.

BASEketball is a pretty silly movie, and the story is as familiar as it can get, but it’s harmless and has still got some very funny stuff to it. It’s the psyche-outs that are the best jokes, so you may end up feeling a bit uninterested when they’re not on, but there is still enough to keep you entertained throughout. Honestly, it’s a perfectly decent Friday-night-with-friends movie, so don’t judge it too harshly.

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