Lots of conservatives (me included) got excited back when David Zucker’s An American Carol was announced. As a fierce, openly conservative film from mainstream Hollywood talent, it sparked hopes that it could bring conservative messages to segments of the population the Right doesn’t normally reach and bring about a larger conservative presence in American pop culture. Unfortunately, it didn’t do all that well commercially. I’ve seen it a couple times now, and have some thoughts on what worked, and what went wrong.
To recap for those unfamiliar, An American Carol tells the tale of a sleazy, America-hating director who has been recruited by two bumbling al-Qaeda terrorists to produce a recruitment video, but the spirits of past American heroes (plus, uh, Trace Adkins) intervene to teach him some much-needed lessons about the price of liberty. Will Michael “Malone” come to his senses in time to foil the jihadists’ latest plot?
An American Carol does a few things right. For one, the casting is absolutely superb. Kevin Farley looks just like Michael Moore, and perfectly captures the boorish, self-serving creep (albeit far more likeable than the real thing). Chriss Anglin makes a great John F. Kennedy, both looking like the president and capturing his distinctive voice without descending into parody. Kelsey Grammar’s portrayal of General George S. Patton is confident and cantankerous, and while it won’t dethrone George C. Scott’s legendary performance anytime soon, it doesn’t need to—this is a comedy, not a biopic. Jon Voight delivers an outstanding, albeit criminally brief, performance of President George Washington that’s so somber and dignified that I’d love to see Voight star in a Washington biopic. Robert Davi is strong as the jihadists’ ruthless leader, and his two bumbling underlings provide lots of laughs (“All the really good suicide bombers are gone!”) The supporting cast does fine, Bill O’Reilly has a couple amusing appearances as himself, and there’s Leslie Nielsen. If you don’t love Leslie Nielsen, there’s something wrong with you. The likeable cast keeps the movie going even through some of the weaker jokes.
There are plenty of laughs to be had—this is from the guy behind Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies, after all. Most of the best material revolves around the two Taliban twits, and my favorite part of the movie was a simply brilliant sequence involving zombies (I’ll say no more so as not to spoil it). Funny one-liners abound, and, of course, it’s just not a Zucker movie until bad things happen to children with severe medical problems. On the other hand, the idea of a musical number featuring a pack of hippies-turned-academics certainly has potential, but its execution soon becomes almost painful.
Unfortunately, the film’s effectiveness at conveying a message falls flat. Often the caricatures of left-wing fallacies such as appeasement, academic indoctrination, and anti-Americanism are so clichéd, unsympathetic and over-the-top that they come across as wooden, transparent, and sometimes even juvenile. The dialogue put in liberal mouths is often little more than left-wing bumper-sticker lines strung together, with the worst offenders being an early conversation about war between Malone and his military nephew, and a talk show where Rosie “O’Connell” pushes her crackpot theory that “radical Christianity is just as dangerous as radical Islam.”
These caricatures lack the subtlety and natural flair that superior political satirists like Paul Shanklin, the Onion, and (even to some degree) the writers on the Daily Show and Colbert Report have mastered (I think this was the same problem that plagued Fox News’ short-lived Half-Hour News Hour). It’s easy to knock down a straw man, but it’s not effective—I didn’t find Malone’s conversion to patriotism convincing because I didn’t find the film’s arguments persuasive, and I doubt anyone who doesn’t already know the underlying principles and arguments would be persuaded either. And aside from entertaining, wasn’t that the point—to get the other side of the story into mainstream entertainment? Keeping that in mind, conservatives shouldn’t be discouraged by An American Carol’s lack of success. It still remains to be seen how a truly excellent, openly conservative film would fare at the box office, one that better balances silliness and substance.
An American Carol isn’t a bad movie—strong performances and classic Zucker wit make it an enjoyable 83 minutes, and conservatives will get a kick out of how mercilessly it skewers all manner of left-wing idiocy. But sadly, it fails to be significantly more than just that—a right-wing guilty pleasure.