Monday, April 23, 2007

Hot Fuzz

There’s a big difference between riffing on material you love and mimicking something you don’t feel in your bones. It’s the difference between first-class jazz and Muzak. It may also be the reason why Shaun of the Dead soared and Hot Fuzz fizzles out.

Hot Fuzz is the latest from actor/cowriter Simon Pegg, actor Nick Frost, and cowriter/director Edgar Wright, the talented English team behind Shaun. A fanboy mashup of romantic comedy and zombie movie clich├ęs (or, as its creators put it, “a rom zom com”), Shaun was also a clever satire on the stalled rhythms of life in middle-class London, grounding its laughs in authentic-feeling relationships, emotions, and routines. Hot Fuzz sounds similar on the surface. In an interview with The Onion, Wright says: “we pretty much cover the corruption cop genre, the fish-out-of-water cop genre, the serial-killer thriller cop genre, the buddy-action film.” But this time the parts don’t quite mesh.

An amiable Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, Hot Fuzz as hard to dislike as the eager-to-please, childlike cop played by Frost. It works hard to win our love, creating an internally logical world from its mismatched parts, but it can’t breathe more than fitful life into its creation.

The main joke in Fuzz is the disconnect between the mundane routines of a rural police officer’s life and the heroics and pyrotechnics routinely displayed by Hollywood cops. “There is no way you can perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork,” observes Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Pegg) after watching a blow-em-up cop movie with his partner, Danny (Frost).

The fish-out-of-water box gets checked off early as Angel, a hotshot London cop who has alienated his fellow officers by outperforming them, is packed off to the quiet little village of Sandford. His starstruck new partner, Danny, follows him around like a St. Bernard puppy, asking if he’s done any of the things cops do in the movies, like “firing your gun up in the air and going ‘AAARGH!’” But things aren’t as quiet as they seem in Sandford, and Angel is soon coping with more than stray swans.

The film is shot in the picturesque town where Wright grew up, which is portrayed as a place where the biggest concern is what one of the village elders refers to as “the extremely irritating living statue” and one farmer’s accent is so impenetrable it takes two translators to make it intelligible: one to break it down to somewhat less garbled form and another to turn that into the Queen’s English.

Sounds funny, right? And so it is, in spot, but it plays best on paper. Onscreen, the pacing is off, as the filmmakers spend much time spent establishing characters and situations or repeating jokes too fragile to bear the extra weight.

The trouble with writing your film after putting in, as Pegg told The Onion, “a 138-film research period” is that you can end up with a glorified Oscar-night montage. Knowing that the countless chase scenes are takeoffs on the “real” ones isn’t enough to make them funny after a while, especially when they’re too predictable, like the bit where the trim Angel vaults a series of backyard fences as his portly pal lumbers after, crashing right through the first one.

Some of their riffs inject new life into an old tune. When Angel finally warms up to his partner, agreeing to go out to the pub after work, what ensues is a funny, nicely understated spoof of the homosexual subtext underlying buddy movies, as the two go on what amounts to a romantic first date. There’s also a nice variation on that chestnut of running from an impending explosion to dive to safety in the nick of time, like a base runner sliding home.

But even the clever bits are sometimes overused. At first it’s funny when the camera zooms in and music pulses ominously at the least eventful moments, like when Angel throws his coat onto a hook, but after a while that bit gets as annoying as that living statue.

“Riffing on genres is kind of a reaction to formula,” Wright told The Onion. “When you watch so much of the [TV shows] and the films that you just think you've seen before, it's kind of going back to the well in terms of trying to conjure up the spirit of what made you excited about films in the first place.”

Maybe that’s where they went wrong. In Shaun of the Dead, it didn’t feel like they were trying.