There are moments during “The Spoils of Babylon” when it’s hard to know if the comedy miniseries is paying homage to, or spoofing, the bodice-busting and sudsy televised novels of the 1970s and ’80s. In their day, these bigger-than-life (and longer-than-necessary) melodramas were major television events, stuffed with grandiose dialogue and angst-ridden acting, all served with a healthy side of forbidden love. The adjective “sweeping” was always involved, and the decor usually included a conveniently placed fainting sofa.
Now the genre is low-hanging comedy fruit, ready for picking and juicing into silliness, as “Spoils” so aptly demonstrates.
“Spoils,” produced by Funny or Die, is presented as the work of fictional author Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell). The premise is that his book was adapted into a 22-hour miniseries in 1976 and eventually shelved by Hollywood. It’s been dusted off and is being shown (in a very edited version) for the first time. The boozy, pretentious Jonrosh explains that even the streamlined interpretation is “far superior than anything on television today.”
Ferrell’s introductions are slightly more entertaining than the miniseries itself. He’s a master at parodying once important figures who have fallen into cultural obscurity, such as his “Saturday Night Live” take on Robert Goulet. His inspiration here is a drunken Orson Welles, who made commercials for Paul Masson wines in the late 1970s. Please, I beg of you, watch the outtakes of these commercials on YouTube.
Jonrosh’s bloated saga centers on a Depression-era oil prospector, Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins), who strikes it rich while trying to keep his daughter Cynthia (Kristen Wiig) and adopted son Devon (Tobey Maguire) from consummating their long-smoldering, near-incest passions. After fighting in World War II, Devon marries a mannequin, (voiced by Carey Mulligan) to keep his lust for Cynthia in check as the family empire grows. Chortle if you must, but that mannequin gives a solid performance.
“Spoils” is an intentional mess. And if you can accept this humble production as the fictional work of a second-rate author during a time when television was loaded with shlock and feathered hair, it can be a delight. Maguire, not necessarily known for his comedic acting, does an admirable job of keeping up with the ludicrous hairpin turns of the plot.
It’s no surprise that Wiig excels in the preposterous story. She chews and claws her way through “Spoils” as if she schooled herself for the part by binge watching “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Thorn Birds,” and “Shogun.” Those raging eyes! The slapping! The poly-blend blouses! Even if you have reservations about committing yourself to the six parts of the show — and you probably should — it’s worth watching to see Wiig. Never has an actress in a bad wig pointing a knife at a mannequin and screaming an indignant “How dare you” ever looked so convincing.
It’s almost endearing to see celebrities line up to have fun with all this scheming. Val Kilmer cracks a smile, Jessica Alba plays Maguire’s lover, and, in what is likely to be a career-changing role, Haley Joel Osment finds just the right level of absurdity to play Cynthia’s evil son.
If viewers can’t quite pick up on the goofiness of it all, Steve Lawrence sings the opening theme song and outdoor scenes are shot with model homes and toy cars buzzing along train hobbyist landscapes. “Spoils” is not an extended “Saturday Night Live” skit. It’s a brave, and at times uneven, experiment. It’s also a reminder of a time when television was a much simpler and campier place.
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