Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 9, 2006)
Although some readers may feel otherwise, I don't usually set out to slam movies. Every once in a while I critique a film that I already know I hate, but usually that occurs because the DVD in question is a hot property and we want to post the review of it. Sometimes it happens for other reasons, such as the fact I covered every one of the Oscar Best Picture-winning films on DVD. That meant I needed to confront flicks I knew I disliked, such as Rain Man.
However, I honestly try to remain open to new experiences, no matter how strongly the old ones make me believe I'll be unhappy. I know myself well enough that I'm not often surprised, but it does happen. For example, I expected to hate My Fair Lady because I usually donít care for musicals, but I actually enjoyed the movie quite a lot.
I decided to check out Mel Brooks' History of the World Part I. When I was a kid, I loved Brooks' works, but that was a long time ago, and I haven't felt that way in quite some time. Based on that background, I didn't expect to enjoy World but I figured I'd give it a shot. Ultimately, my original fears proved correct: this film offers a tremendously lame and unfunny experience from start to finish. Even as someone who isnít wild about Brooks, I thought it seemed very weak.
As implied by the title, the movie attempts no formal plot and instead substitutes a variety of sketches. There are six of these overall - including a "preview" for World Part II at the end - but two of the segments dominate the film: one that looks at ancient Rome, and another that takes place during the French Revolution.
The extended length of those two pieces marks the movie's biggest mistake. Had Brooks featured a very large variety of brief bits, the film could have skated past more easily. The greater the variety, the less likely we are to become tired of one subject. Unfortunately, although these pieces could have featured greater depth, they just drone on well past the point of interest. Granted, they had little going for them from the start, but at times it seems they'll never end and any comic possibilities are long exhausted by the time they finally do finish.
My criticism of the longer segments may imply that the shorter ones are more amusing, but that's not the case either. They're just as insipid and humorless as the others, but at least the pass more quickly. Brooks often seems to confuse "offensiveness" with "cleverness", as we find during the musical treatment of the Spanish Inquisition. Brooks mined comic gold from "Springtime for Hitler" in his early film The Producers and appears intent on repeating this success, but similar victory escapes him. This piece lies flat on the screen and provides absolutely no wit or insight into the subject.
Much of the time Brooks also seems more concerned with cramming the film full of celebrity cameos. I'll leave out the names to avoid any possible spoilers, though most folks under the age of 30 - actually, many under 50 - probably won't recognize a lot of the stars who appear here. Cameos can be fun - in fact, one that occurs during Steve Martin's The Man With Two Brains is absolutely inspired and provides one of the movie's best bits - but the frequent reiteration of them smacks of desperation. Brooks couldn't think of better jokes so he hoped we'd be entertained by recognition value.
It doesn't work, though I respect his attempt to redeem this miserable material. How misguided and poor a film is History of the World Part I? The movie features a bevy of Playboy models - including personal favorite Lisa Welch, AKA the Most Beautiful Woman Who Ever Lived - but they don't take off any clothes! That's like hiring Picasso to perform a comedy routine. Actually, that's not a bad idea. Unfortunately, Pablo was dead by the time Brooks made this film in 1981, but had he obtained someone similar to work in the project, it might have been more interesting. As it stands, History of the World Part I is a genuinely terrible movie with almost no redeeming value.