Recently, during my trip to Dubai, I had the blessing of several hours peace and quiet in the form of a long-haul flight. Six hours on a plane each way, plus the time at the airport where you get to while away the hours people-watching, reading or browsing through the insane array of shops these places always seem to have.
On the flights themselves I made use of the in-flight entertainment system to catch up on all the latest cinema releases. Two of the half a dozen movies I watched during my travels stuck out to me, for different reasons.
Whilst both films subverted traditional crime fiction narratives and made parodies of the formulas they use, one did so incredibly successfully, and the other failed miserably.
The Happytime Murders was the film that impressed me in its parodying of the hardboiled detective. Whilst critical reviews have been poor, audiences have received the film better, and I personally enjoyed it.
Unlike something like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or other sit-coms or films that simply use the police as a space to keep their characters, The Happytime Murders combines comedy with crime fiction. The film adapts certain aspects of the crime fiction genre and combines them with the use of puppets, swearing and sex to create a funny version of a crime fiction narrative.
“The city of angels; a dirty sun-drenched beauty contest at the edge of the pacific.” This is the film’s opening line, and it could have been a opening from a Raymond Chandler novel.
Another good example of parody is the new Murder Mystery film Netflix created, in which Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler take a trip to Europe and are caught up in an adventure on a yacht. The movie offers both laughs at the expense of the hapless American couple, as well as thrills in the form of a number of car chases and a murder mystery plot that revolves around some very hilarious yet implausible killings.
Both of these films parody the crime fiction perfectly and offer funny examples of how the genre can be mocked and showcased at the same time. One example of a film that does not parody the genre properly is Holmes And Watson, the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly vehicle that is so deeply unfunny it is almost painful. The film is neither funny nor does it exhibit any of the exhilaration and thrills of a traditional crime fiction film.
Its titular detectives are lame and bawdy, whilst the plot itself is slow and not remotely gripping. There is no real danger, and the jokes simply make the plot worse, if anything. By making the detectives randy, raunchy idiots and the villain a cackling fool surrounding by goons, the writers create a truly boring and pointless film.
Parody is, in my opinion, best showcased on screen, although obviously crime fiction as a genre is incredibly open to parody, and indeed entire sub-genres, such as Golden Age crime fiction, arose as a means of altering and parodying the established form of the genre. On screen, however, this technique can really be bought to life and comedy is more easily portrayed.
So, in all, parodies are a great way to enjoy a genre, especially crime fiction, but when they’re done badly they really do suck. Good parodies of the genre need to combine comedy with the thrills and make their jokes about the ways in which the formula falls down. Parodies also need a good plot to succeed, and well-rounded characters, and all of the general characteristics that go into making a good crime fiction piece in the first place. Only once the building blocks are in place can filmmakers and writers start to toy with the formula and create something that will make their audience sit up and take notice.