Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 2, 2016)
An IFC miniseries, The Spoils Before Dying presents a comedic take on film noir. This DVD includes all six episodes, which I’ll view in broadcast order. The plot synopses come from the IFC website.
Murder in B-Flat: “Legendary writer and director Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell) presents his lost masterpiece, The Spoils Before Dying. Jazz pianist Rock Banyon (Michael K. Williams) passes out and awakens to find he is accused of killing his one time lover Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph) and scientist Wilber Stygamian. The cops give Rock three days to help solve the murder. Instead he splits town for Mexico where he runs into a washed up singer named Delores DeWinter (Kristen Wiig).”
Dying acts as a “sequel” of sorts to 2014’s The Spoils of Babylon, but they really only share two clear elements: their “creation” by Jonrosh, and their existence as parodies. Babylon went after 1970s/1980s “epic” mini-series and not the 1940s/50s film noirs seen here, so they target different genres – though with a handful of actors in common.
Parody is a delicate genre, but after one episode, I like what I see from Dying. Ferrell’s take on Jonrosh as a blustery late-life Orson Wells entertains, and the episode mixes cheesy production values with intentionally bad dialogue in a likable manner. I don’t know how well Dying will sustain interest across another 100-plus minutes, but I’m happy so far.
Blues for Barnaby: “In the hidden room beneath scientist Wilbur Stygamian's house, Rock is drugged and left for dead. His hallucinations take him into the darkest corners of his mind. He survives what was supposed to be a lethal injection and pays a visit to Gerhart Moll. Gerhart knows what he is looking for – a modern statue once owned by Adolf Hitler. The statue will clear his name, but the clock is ticking and he's not the only one looking for it.”
Given his background in more serious projects like Boardwalk Empire, Williams seemed like an unusual choice for a spoof like this. However, he turns out to be one of the miniseries’ best elements, as he does well in the role. Williams offers a light comedic touch that avoids over-acting, and he helps keep the show interesting.
That’s Jazz: “The pressure of trying to solve the murders and clear his name is getting to Rock. After blowing a big TV gig he ends up in a bar where he meets Kenton Price (Michael Sheen). Kenton reveals that scientist Wilbur Stygamian was a powerful player in the underground 1950s gay community. Meanwhile another body turns up, a sax player who went missing the night Fresno died.”
As noted, Williams’ performance works because he plays things relatively straight. Other castmembers fly all over the place, and that leads to some over the top work. Wiig filled that niche in prior shows, and Kate McKinnon goes too goofy here. I’m not sure why those two opt for such broad comedy, but it doesn’t work.
A few new actors add some zest, though. Sheen gives his character a good tone, and Chris Parnell brings pep to an impresario. Overall, “Jazz” continues the series on a fairly solid path.
Fear Steps In: “With only two days to clear his name of now three murders, Rock pays a visit to Kenton. Before Kenton can tell him who the killer was, he is shot down, leaving Rock with no answers and only one name, Gerhart Moll. Back in his apartment he has a conversation with his cat about making a jazz album with strings. He then decides to break into the house of scientist Wilbur Stygamian and discovers an underground room with three evil people waiting for him.”
More than halfway through the miniseries, I feared Spoils would start to fade, bur “Fear” benefits from two elements. First, the return of Chin Han’s “Mexican” enforcer offers a brief delight, and Peter Coyote’s voiceover as a talking cat brings us a trippy interlude. A few bits misfire, but “Fear” keeps us pretty engaged.
The Trip Trap: “In the hidden room beneath scientist Wilbur Stygamian's house, Rock is drugged and left for dead. His hallucinations take him into the darkest corners of his mind. He survives what was supposed to be a lethal injection and pays a visit to Gerhart Moll. Gerhart knows what he is looking for – a modern statue once owned by Adolf Hitler. The statue will clear his name, but the clock is ticking and he's not the only one looking for it.”
“Trap” feels a little looser than usual, partly because the drug trip that informs the show’s title goes on too long. A few other elements feel a bit too on the nose as well. Still, the episode comes with a few laughs, so it’s a decent entry.
The Biscuit Eaters: “Rock finds the mysterious statue that holds the secrets to his freedom. He heads to his cabin in the woods with his manager Alistar (Haley Joel Osment) and Delores (Wiig). Federal agents jump Rock and there is a shoot out. Rock explains why he can never do a jazz album with strings and then goes to meet J. Edgar Hoover (Ferrell) for a final showdown.”
Spoils comes to an end with a moderately satisfying finale. Truthfully, there’s no good way to finish the series, as the story made so little sense that the actual “climax” didn’t matter. While “Eaters” does provide a proper conclusion, the action and character elements feel irrelevant.
Nonetheless, “Eaters” does deliver an enjoyable enough end to a decent parody. Spoils never threatens to turn into anything sizzling or hilarious, but it brings us general amusement across its two hours.