If the Scary franchise continues beyond Scary Movie 4 — and there’s no reason to think it won’t, so long as the universe keeps providing such spoof-ready pop-cultural phenomena as Saw, The Grudge, and Tom Cruise’s lovestruck gymnastics on Oprah’s couch — then here’s a modest proposal: Enforce a one-term limit on whichever auteur de junque is entrusted with Scary 5, 6, 7, or 13. That way, not only would more artistes get to play in the game (I’ve got a hankering to see what Baz Luhrmann would do with the form, in full Moulin Rouge twirl) but audiences would be spared the diminishing returns bred of overfamiliarity with a genre that’s hit-or-miss to begin with. (One man’s Chris Elliott-as-Village-idiot snot joke is another woman’s look-at-the-wristwatch moment.)
All this is my way of saying that just as the Wayans brothers’ Scary Movie 2 was a duller model than their original Scary Movie, so David Zucker’s Scary Movie 4 offers nothing we didn’t see in his Scary Movie 3 — except, perhaps, the uncomfortable sight of Dr. Phil trying to mock the unbearable lightness of being Dr. Phil while Shaquille O’Neal peddles his Shaq-ness. The plot (what plot?) solves the mystery of a haunted house, a ghost boy, and an alien invasion, stumbling goofily from punchline to punchline; the Brokeback Mountain joke with two black cowboys (Anthony Anderson and Kevin Hart) defending their heterosexuality while reaching for lubricants was tired four months ago. I bow to reliably funny franchise princesses Anna Faris, as resilient heroine Cindy Campbell, and Regina Hall, as Cindy’s horny pal, Brenda. (Faris, a Brokeback cast member for real, now gamely bathes Cloris Leachman with a bucket of fake urine in the name of hilarity.) But I wonder when the pair might want to relinquish their whoopee-cushioned thrones. (Craig Bierko plays War of the Worlds’ Tom Ryan playing Faris’ next-door neighbor and boyfriend. And a fine crazyperson he makes bouncing on Oprah’s furniture with Cruisey mania, too.)
As ever, the criteria for mockworthiness have less to do with the scariness of the source material (or, for that matter, the precision of the joke bombs) than a certain self-seriousness expressed in an easily identifiable production design that’s ripe for loving cannibalization. Zucker and his crew (including scripters Craig Mazin and Jim Abrahams) have fun with the working-class housing in War of the Worlds (and Dakota Fanning’s gumdrop- colored wardrobe), the dour landscape in The Village, and the accursed little stool that signals tragedy in the ring in Million Dollar Baby. They just don’t have much to say about the movies they mock.
And as ever, the jokes are a jumble of the gross, the baggy, the raunchy, the mistimed, and — every once in a while — the refreshingly incorrect. The scariest moment in Scary Movie 4 involves Zucker veteran Leslie Nielsen, playing his patented bumbling President Harris: While the U.S. is under attack, this yutz sits in a chair at an elementary school, raptly listening to a kid read a book about a pet animal.