Eric Jonrosh is back, introducing another “filmitization,” as he terms it, of one of his highly (self)-regarded novels. The Spoils Before Dying is a second outing of intentionally terrible filmmaking from creators and writers Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele (writer of Will Ferrell’s other conceptual goofs Casa De Mi Padre and A Deadly Adoption). This time out, the Giant-esque epic family melodrama of last year’s IFC miniseries The Spoils Of Babylon gives over to a Chester Himes-style murder mystery set in the smoky clubs and alleyways of the 1950s jazz scene. Piano player Rock Banyon (Michael K. Williams) is given two days to solve the murder of his former lover, torch singer Fresno Foxglove (“The Topanga Songbird”), before two crooked cops (Marc Evan Jackson and Steve Tom) put the finger on him.
The problem with this setup, as it was with The Spoils Of Babylon, is Jonrosh. Now a boozy, self-important has-been of the “Orson Welles copping an attitude on the set of his frozen peas commercials” school, he has insisted on overseeing every aspect of this film adaptation of one of his works, right down to writing the overwrought jazz standards sung by Fresno and Kristen Wiig’s pill-popping chanteuse Delores O’Dell. Because no mere team of competent filmmaking professions could interpret his vision—which involves incessant explanations of the soul of jazz music, talking cats, unnecessary and unconvincing miniatures, drug trips, hot-but-censored interracial sex scenes, helicopter attacks, and a secret Nazi plot—like the bloviating author himself. As ever, Ferrell as Jonrosh introduces each of the six installments—swaddled in scarves and sweaters and swilling his contractual wine by the bucketful—extolling the virtues of yet another lost masterpiece and railing against the philistines who’ve kept it from view until now.
Ferrell’s Jonrosh, a comic creation of controlled, grotesque egomaniacal dissolution, is vital to the six-episode-long joke, the framing device adding another level to a gag that might otherwise run dry. Mining laughs from the intentionally terrible tends to run out of gas once the premise is established and the first round of inept performances, special effects, editing, dialogue, and plotting is displayed. The Jonrosh framing device provides depth to the awfulness, which carries it further; our knowledge that there’s an overestimating egomaniac at the controls makes the jokes ring with added tones. Over two-plus hours, however, even that element can wear thin; as intermittently fun as The Spoils Of Babylon was, its second half went limp. Both the plot and performances of The Spoils Before Dying are tighter, and this focus keeps the narrative taut, even as the miniseries and actors still find time to fiddle around with a bit if it seems rewarding.
Williams is an inspired choice as lead. His natural gravitas—accentuated with a raspy jazzman’s whisper—lends Banyon a legitimacy, even as he’s getting lost in his own metaphor as he compares the cops’ role in the vast conspiracy he’s uncovered to “the old pair of pants you wear when you’re painting your house so your nice pants don’t get dirty.” As silly as things get, Williams is such a commanding lead that it makes The Spoils Before Dying, improbably, work as a mystery as well. The same goes for the supporting cast—especially Michael Sheen’s cagey homosexual (which everyone pronounces homo-sexual), Kate McKinnon’s boozy floozy, and Chris Parnell’s smooth drug dealer Bebop Jones (as usual, character names are spot-on funny in the Babylon universe)—all exaggeratedly precise characters that would be at home propping up a legitimate film noir.
If there’s a criticism this time out, it’s that not enough is made of Jonrosh’s uninformed, unwarranted faith in his own genius. Setting the film in a jazz world the author clearly has little knowledge of results in the funny running bit of characters periodically just naming of every jazz musician Jonrosh could think of. But there’s no use made of the racial element of this second story—if Jonrosh were revealed as being as ignorant of his black characters as he is of literally everything else in his fictions, there might have been some more edge to the comedy. The Spoils Before Dying is still a distinct improvement over its predecessor, however, with a more confident formula of left-field concepts. It also features Naked Gun-style sight gags (too-specific signage, specifically), and repeated instances of precious, extended time taken out of a 21-minute episode to have a character do something silly.
The Spoils Before Dying is almost too well-made at times, with Banyon’s stirring defenses of artistic integrity (a man does, in fact, have to have a code) and freedom from oppression coming across, even in Jonrosh’s purple prose, as something the author (who claims to have been drummed out of America over similar, real-life stances) truly believes in. It’d be like watching Ed Wood give his impassioned speech in defense of crossdressers in Glen Or Glenda if Glen were played by Michael K. Williams instead of the infamously terrible director himself. There’s nothing more disastrously funny than someone whose passionate beliefs outstrip his ability to express himself. Eric Jonrosh is a terrible writer—luckily, in filming his The Spoils Before Dying, he accidentally attracted a great leading man.