White House Down Is the Most Sharply Observed Spoof Comedy Since Team America
Photo by Reiner Bajo – © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Surprising proof that Hollywood still can craft a memorable studio comedy, Roland Emmerich's White House Down stands as a singular achievement in parody, its auteur's intentions be damned. It's not just a pitch-perfect attack on every risible plot point afflicting today's all-exposition-and-explosion filmmaking, it's also a mad liberal's vision of an America beset by white wingnut terrorists, set in a sketch-comedy White House so broad that if you didn't know Jamie Foxx was starring as its president you might guess it to be Leslie Nielsen.
Apologies if revealing that the terrorists are Stormfront-types strikes you as a spoiler. Doing justice to the breadth of hilarity on display here will involve divulging some details, but the film is as crazy-dumb durable as a Twinkie. Lifetimes could pass with me spilling its secrets, and it would still sit there, spongy and triumphant.
That would include celebrating, in point-by-point specifics, the delicious way every single thing any person says or does in the first half-hour pays off much later in the most rousing, ridiculous ways—in moments audiences will applaud out of appreciation that, at last, the most shameless tricks of the most shameless directors have been exposed by a master satirist. Remember the hurt you felt when Spielberg, in that Jurassic Park sequel, threw a set of uneven bars into a dino-island storage shed just so the acrobatic skills the tween daughter had mentioned on the mainland could come back to dispatch those raptors? A bit of flag-team heroism in White House Down does to that moment what Airplane did to Airport, what Walk Hard did to Walk the Line, what Emmerich's own The Day After Tomorrow did to real global warming. The tragic is inflated to sublime comedy.
(Sorry: spoiler for Jurassic Park: The Lost World.)
Anyway, if a stupid moment has turned up in too many movies, it's here, too, only funnier. I probably shouldn't mention that a straight-arrow character's weirdly comic ringtone—"The Spanish Flea"!—heard in the first 15 minutes might happen to be crucial in the last 10. Or that there's key exposition embedded in the scene where a know-it-all kid schools a White House tour guide—a tour guide who later stands up to armed, murdering terrorists to defend a precious vase. (Pronounced vahzz, of course, just like Margaret Dumont would. She was also in comedies!) Or the way that Emmerich—whose other comic mode is idiot destruction à la Jonathan Winters at the gas station in It's a Mad, Mad World—actually finds a way to stage a car chase without leaving the White House. Three armored SUVs circle the North Lawn Fountain, like Chevy Chase's family stuck in the Parisian roundabout in European Vacation, which is nowhere near as funny as this movie. Then the president of the United States fires a rocket launcher out the window of a car while terrorists are machine-gunning him—a vicious burlesque, perhaps, of Harrison Ford's President Bad-Ass back in Air Force One.
There is a story to all this. Set in a science-fiction America where nobody's ever seen Die Hard, White House Down imagines that, in the name of peace, wise President Jamie Foxx has asked Congress to pull every American troop from the Middle East because he has struck a bargain with the new president of Iran. The opposition party's speaker of the house objects, for some reason. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum (playing a character whose name I bet he, too, would have to look up) is visiting the White House with his YouTubing scamp of an estranged daughter (Joey King)—a devastating critique of movies' impossible children.
Tatum, playing a war-hero D.C. cop, interviews for a job with the Secret Service and is told by his old friend Maggie Gyllenhaal that, ick, he's too working-class to guard the president because he got C's in college. So, his dreams shot, and his daughter not believing in him, Tatum slumps along with a White House tour, his overcooked plight skewering a common fallacy of Hollywood heroism: Every one of this character's personal problems are solved by the bad guys' evil scheming.
Just in time, cue the terrorists, who are actually more than mere rightwing cranks. I won't spill their leaders' affiliation, but I will give this hint: It's with one of the industrial complexes.
From there we get the most sharply observed spoof comedy since Team America. All the conventions of PG-13 suspense films take their well-deserved knocks: The dozens of dead hardly bleed, the word "fuck" is only spat once during the greatest crisis America's ever faced, children endlessly weep with guns in their faces. ("What monsters would take this material seriously?" the movie seems to be asking.) Eventually, Foxx and Tatum team up, kill some assholes, tenderly treat each other's wounds, and leave you hoping the producers ponied up for the rights to play "I Will Always Love You." The shootouts aren't as clear or funny as the ones in those paintball episodes of Community, but you've seen much worse.
My favorite bit: Foxx says, early on, in a bang-on parody of a vapid hopeful speech, that his peace plan will prove the pen is mightier than the sword. Later (spoiler!), in the Oval Office, the chief bad guy quotes that back. Guess what non-weapon object President Foxx then jabs into his neck. Come on—guess!
Often, the hilarity is indisputably intentional. If you think you'll laugh and clap, try it; if you know you'll hate it, you're right. A fun drinking game: Once the dramatic eight-minute countdown clock starts, estimate how long it takes to get near zero. I guess at least 25 minutes.
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