Noir is a hard thing to parody, because noir itself is so close to parody even in its purest form. We like to talk about it as a gritty, realistic form of cinema — and it is! At least, sort of. But in other ways, it’s so attenuated and abstracted, with its stylized visuals inherited from German expressionist cinema and its patterns and rhythms borrowing everything from jazz to experimental film, it’s actually incredibly artificial. Even its most celebrated quality, the snappy patter and hard-boiled dialogue, is as phony as a three-dollar bill; it’s incredibly appealing and often absolutely brilliant, but it’s also not even remotely like anything that ever came out of a real criminal. So spoofing it is a bit of a tall order; it’s only the dedication of the craftsmen who made it and the bleakness of its outlook that stops it from being absurd in the first place. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying, dozens of times, with varying degrees of success.
The 2015 IFC miniseries The Spoils Before Dying — itself a quasi-sequel to The Spoils of Babylon, a parody of big showy ’80s prime-time soap operas — does a pretty valiant job of trying to parody noir, even if it doesn’t completely succeed. Created by filmmaker and comic Matt Piedmont and starring Michael Kenneth Williams as L.A. bebop musician Rock Banyon, it doesn’t always find the right spot, and is a little too unfocused to function as a real parody. However, its technical qualities are alternately precise and broadly ridiculous in a combination that works more than it has any right to, and it keeps a tenuous balance between moody subtlety and outright absurdity that keeps it chugging along right up until the end. It also never quite manages to overstay its welcome; shown in six parts at a lean 20 minutes each, it plays out to around a 2-hour feature film in total, meaning that unlike so many other comedies in the streaming age (it’s currently available on Netflix), it’s done before it starts to wear thin.
Presented as the great lost project of maverick novelist/filmmaker Eric Jonrosh (an enjoyable Will Ferrell, playing an exhausted and dissipated amalgam of Norman Mailer and Oroson Welles), The Spoils Before Dying was meant to have been released in 1959 and been so controversial that it got him banned from the United States for decades. (He also may have committed a handful of murders, but that’s not important.) Why it was such a hot property is unrevealed until the very end, when Ferrell shows up again in a much less funny role, playing J. Edgar Hoover in a corny, over-the-top way, but there are a few hints along the way, including the suggestion of a deeply pornographic sex scene between Banyon and his lover, torch singer Delores O’Dell (Kristen Wiig) that’s re-presented to us, in a great comedic bit, as a series of increasingly gross storyboards. Each episode features a similar set piece gag, and even though the comedy is wildly inconsistent, these are always hilarious: a completely insane drug hallucination sequence that is one straight face away from being brilliant, a red herring that turns out to be an extended shaggy dog joke in the form of a cheap cigarette case, and a memorable scene where Banyon and O’Dell plan a getaway using an endless series of references to nonexistent name-brand clothing, foreshadowing the product placement that would become ubiquitous in movies in only a few decades.
A lot of why the series works is the cast. Wiig is terrific, as is Maya Rudolph as Banyon’s former lover Fresno Foxglove; Kate McKinnon puts in her usual amazing work in a bit role as a femme not-so-fatale. Chin Han hams it up like mad in a tightrope amalgam of deranged ethnic stereotypes as a mysterious Mexican dandy, and Marc Evan Jackson and Steve Tom do a great job as the requisite stone-faced L.A. homicide detectives. There’s a ton of amusing cameos, including great ones from Andy Daly, Tim Robbins, the ubiquitous Chris Parnell, Tim Meadows, Kari Coleman, and, in a real head-spinner, Lou Gossett Jr. as the ghost of Duke Ellington. (Don’t ask. It works, kind of.) On the downside, Haley Joel Osment’s character is a bit of a waste of space, and Jimmy Fallon shows up to do an obvious and pointless bit. Williams, in the lead, is amazing — he puts on a raspy bourbon-and-cigarettes voice and, in a show that’s occasionally plagued with fourth wall breaks that don’t always work, plays Rock Banyon as straight as a ruler even in the most absurd moments. His performance is a reminder of what a treasure he is, and how he can play any role that’s brought to him, which should be much more plentiful and rewarding.
The jokes themselves don’t always work. There’s probably about four episodes worth of good comedy in the six episodes of Spoils, and even at its relatively tight run time, it does get a little padded at times. The metahumor sometimes works but more often doesn’t. The show is at its best when it stays in character, with the actual movie plot itself surprisingly deft and easily suitable for telling jokes that would have worked if they really had been from a movie made in 1959. Part of that is Piedmont’s alternate fidelity to the medium and total abandonment of it. Some bits are deliberately ridiculous and cheaply done; all the special effects are bottom-drawer, and every location scene is accomplished with shitty-looking plastic miniatures that don’t even try to look right, to the degree that it works as a joke even though it’s bringing a lot of attention to itself. But when he goes for accuracy, he nails it more often than not; he’s a skilled director, and the show is full of impressive-looking camera angles, period-accurate costumes and details, proper music cues and graphic design, and even a design sensibility that transcends cheapness. (It probably would have been better in black & white, but you can’t have everything, especially since it draws its inspiration and energy more from pulp novels of the postwar era than actual film noir.) It never really goes overboard with specific parodic references, but when it does — specifically, in a hilarious fight scene where the shadows fail completely to match up to the physical actions of the cast, in a perfect inversion of a similar scene in Sam Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. — it works like a charm.
Noir parody will probably never produce a classic work of its own, because the best noirs, from The Big Sleep right on down to Brick, function perfectly well as parodies of themselves. But The Spoils Before Dying is a good try, and not a bad way to spend some light moments between the cascades of darkness.