Plot: Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire) is the immensely wealthy leader of Morehouse Conglomerate. Drunk and near death, he decides to record the story of his life, starting from when he was adopted by aspiring oil tycoon Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins).
Funny or Die has always been an interesting beast of a website. Lead by Will Ferrell himself, the comedy site is best known for taking well known celebrities and sticking them into comedic videos online. Viewers can then either vote if the video is “Funny” or if it should “Die.” The reason I bring this up is because The Spoils of Babylon is a Funny or Die production. With massive talent on camera like Tim Robbins, Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, and many others, it’s basically a much longer TV version of a Funny or Die video. This essentially brings us to one simple question: Is The Spoils of Babylon “Funny,” or should it “Die?”
The first thing people notice about Babylon is the immensely notable cast. I’ve already mentioned several, but there’s also Val Kilmer, Haley Joel Osment, Steve Tom, Jessica Alba, Carey Mulligan (voicing a literal mannequin that becomes Devon’s wife), and I could have sworn I saw David Spade and Molly Shannon in the opening credits. Babylon’s first two episodes, “The Foundling” and “The War Within,” only contain a mere fraction of these stars. Maguire’s Devon Morehouse is the main lead with Robbins’ Jonas Morehouse in a supporting role as Devon’s father and Wiig’s Cynthia Morehouse as Devon’s adopted sister/early love interest. With excessively over-the-top acting and drama, these three main leads do a great job selling Babylon as a ’70s miniseries parody about a family rushing into power.
Most of the comedy lies in the show’s use of excess. Everything from the dialogue to the setting is intentionally overindulged. Whenever there is a sweeping landscape shot, it’s not just low quality. It’s exceptionally low quality with visible wires carrying toy planes and architecture taken straight from a high school diorama. When Devon is reading an inscription on a tiny compass given to him by Jonas, the inscription is read as a several page speech. Will Ferrell is the narrator named Eric Jonrosh and he’s not just drinking a glass of wine. He’s drinking THREE glasses of wine at the same time. The list goes on and on. Acting is also intentionally extreme with almost every line giving off a thick, dramatic feel. When first presented these features about this miniseries parody of a miniseries, I was nothing but smiles. I’m a big fan of dry humor, subtle gags, and parody so I was already having a good time in the first few minutes. My definite favorite came in “The War Within” with Devon’s mannequin-wife named Lady Anne York having her own montage. That was just brilliance.
Then the show starts beating the proverbial dead horse. Most of the sight and dialogue gags that are brought in during the show’s opening moments repeatedly make an appearance as the show goes on. The compass speech happened very early on in “The Foundling.” In “The War Within,” Devon has an unnaturally long speech while drinking a glass of water in his crashing plane. When Val Kilmer and Steve Tom pop up as Generals to tell the Morehouse family of Devon’s apparent death, they all repeatedly thank each other to the point of ridiculousness. It’s basically the same idea (extended dialogue where there shouldn’t be) re-purposed over and over. The same can be said about the intentionally low budget environment that is repeatedly used as a sight gag. It’s still funny, but it starts losing the originality and enters predictable territory after a period of time.
Babylon also dances on the line between drama and comedy. Yes, the show is supposed to be a comedic parody about a dramatic miniseries, and yet it sometimes loses itself trying to be one or the other. The themes the show explores aren’t funny by any means. Losing a loved one to war? Becoming an oil tycoon and ruling the county? Entering into a forbidden love with someone who is family? These are all main dramatic vocal points of programs like There Will Be Blood, Game of Thrones, and almost every war movie ever. Babylon plays all of these up as if to make them dramatic and then plays them up even MORE to make it comedy. That is just naturally a hard sell and I unfortunately found myself not laughing at a few intentionally comedic moments because of the drama Babylon itself puts on.
It also doesn’t help that Babylon isn’t the sidesplitting hilarity I expected it to be. You have such a talented cast here that have all been amazing in previous projects. The fraction of the cast that has appeared on screen so far has done an excellent job melding into this world of excess. They all take this theme and just run with it. Yet dramatic comedies are always a tough nut to crack. You can either have it be too dramatic, taking away any real sense of comedy, or have it be too comedic and take away any real sense of drama. Babylon handles this in a different way by being overly dramatic to hit comedic notes but the same difficulties still apply. It’s not the easiest thing to make drama funny.
As a parody, you really can’t get much better than The Spoils of Babylon. It excels at recreating the miniseries’ of TV past. There is no real weak link among the cast either (so far) with each big star fully embracing the absurdity and excess that runs rampant in this world. As a comedy, Babylon is definitely not the funniest thing produced by Ferrell, Adam McKay, and the rest of the Funny or Die crew. A lot of the jokes are either repeated too often or are so absorbed in overt drama that they lose their punch. But I can’t say that the show isn’t funny at all. It does bring on plenty of laughs that make this a show worthwhile enough to see every week. With all this in mind, I’d say that The Spoils of Babylon is unquestionably more on the “Funny” side of the scale.