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Josh Reviews The Spoils of Babylon

April 26th, 2016

How did I miss this??  The Spoils of Babylon is a brilliant, hilarious six-episode IFC mini-series from 2014 that parodies televised “event” mini-series, featuring an extraordinary cast that includes Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Tobey Maguire, Tom Robbins, Haley Joel Osment, Michael Sheen, Jessica Alba, and Val Kilmer.  I adored every minute of this.

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Each episode of The Spoils of Babylon begins and ends with an “interview” with the mini-series writer/director Eric Jonrosh, played to note-perfect perfection by Will Ferrell from within an enormous fat suit.  Jonrosh is a corpulent Orson Welles-like figure, a perfect parody of full-of-themselves “artistes”.  Though I suppose my describing him as such is a terrible insult to Mr. Welles, who was actually a genius.  Jonrosh, on the other hand, seems to just THINK that he is, and his pompous, drunken ramblings at the start and end of each installment are absolutely wonderful and hilarious.  Take care to pay close attention to the fine print under Jonrosh’s introductory title at the start of each episode, listing his many interests/professions.  Some very good jokes in there!

Within that framing device is, amusingly, another framing device, as the dying Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire) tells his life story as he bleeds out from a gunshot wound.  (Each of these second introductions at the start of each episode ends with an overhead shot of Devin’s hand on the microphone he is using to record his tale, with increasingly copious amounts of his blood spilling out onto the table.  I may be a disturbed individual, but that made me laugh a lot.)

In the tradition of the epic mini-series, we follow the Morehouse family through many decades.  We first meet Devon as a young boy, when he is adopted by Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) after being found on the side of the road.  Devon and his adoptive sister, Cynthia Morehouse (Kristen Wiig), immediately fall into forbidden love, a passion that will drive them together and pull them apart over the course of the rest of their lives.

That leading trio are absolutely perfect.  I feel like Tobey Maguire has fallen out of Hollywood’s favor in recent years, but this miniseries reminds you of his talents.  He’s wonderful here, over-acting to the exact right amount to land the jokes of this overwrought parody of a drama.  This is great casting, as Mr. Maguire’s natural intensity only makes his performance that much funnier.  He’s a completely different type of actor than is Ms. Wiig, but somehow their pairing works absolutely perfectly.  These two are brilliant together.  Ms. Wiig gets many of the mini-series’ best moments, as she follows Cynthia from young, naive girl to tough-as-nails, cynical titan of industry.  Whereas both Mr. Maguire and Ms. Wiig draw some big laughs from their occasional over-acting, the great Tim Robbins for the most part under-plays his role as family patriarch Jonas Morehouse, which is the perfect choice.  He is hilarious.

Those three performers are the leads, but they are surrounded by a terrific ensemble.  The slightly plump, grown-up version of brilliant child actor Haley Joel Osment was probably the only good thing about Kevin Smith’s Tusk, and he’s terrific here as Cynthia’s embittered son Winston Morehouse.  Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), meanwhile, is very funny as Cythia’s beaten-down husband Chet (a perfectly named character).  Jessica Alba is perfectly cast as the beautiful young woman Devon gets involved with as a way to forget Cynthia, while Val Kilmer is deadpan genius as a tough-as-nails military man who pops up a few times in the story.

The mini-series is not afraid to go to some loony places.  Devon’s first wife is played by a mannequin for some reason, while his black-and-white Bob Dylan/beatnik drug-addiction scenes become a very funny mini-movie all their own.  The Spoils of Babylon’s over-wrought story would be funny enough on its own, but each episode is also filled with many clever moments and gags.  One of my very favorites was a sequence in which Val Kilmer and Steve Tom, playing American generals, arrive at the home of Jonas and Cynthia Morehouse to tell them that they believe Devon has perished during the war.  The scene is staged so that it is obvious that Mr. Kilmer and Mr. Tom were not actually in the room with Tim Robbins and Kristen Wiig, while the dialogue repeatedly emphasizes that they are all together in one room.  It’s a riot (and a great parody of the way films often try to trick the audience into believing that scenes shot in different locations on different days were actually done all together).

I didn’t know anything about The Spoils of Babylon before I stumbled across a mention of it on-line last month.  I am thrilled to have seen it, and stunned that I hadn’t known anything about this wonderful comedic enterprise.  Bravo to creators and writers Matt Piedmont (who also directed the mini-series!) and Andrew Steele for their wonderful creation.  And, wait, there is already a sequel??  I need to track down The Spoils Before Dying immediately!!

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