The biopic parody Weird is a glorified Funny or Die sketch

The crowd last night at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, which the internet tells me is the oldest regularly operating live theatrical venue on the continent, howled through just about every minute of the midnight premiere of Weird: The Story of Al Yankovic. Now, I’m not here to cheat anyone’s yum. The “well, that was just stupid” from one person can always be from the other Dare to be stupid. But I could cautiously suggest that there wasn’t much Foreign could have done to leave this one stone-faced audience. After all, here we were at the first showing of TIFF’s famously rowdy Midnight Madness program in about three years. People entered the room with a chuckle. They laughed at the “strobe effects” warning for the film. They were thoroughly to clown. And that would only benefit this officially unofficial, goofly made-up version of the famous song parodist’s life story—a comedy that never ceased to be a three-minute awkward sketch and unnecessarily extended to nearly two full hours.

In reality, Foreign is exactly that. The inspiration is a dozen years old Funny or Die fake trailer, whose only joke was, “What if you put the clean-mouthed, clean-living polka maestro with the library of food-based Top 40 spoofs in a gritty, riotous, rock-and-roll biopic?” The real Yankovic, in fact, has lived an eventful life, marked by sudden tragedy, a few legal cleanups, and nearly half a century of work spanning the overlapping music and comedy worlds. Almost none of that catches up Foreign, which Yankovic and director Eric Appel — who co-created the original viral video — are instead using as an opportunity to riff on some of the music biopic’s moldy conventions. There is more or less only one joke in this expanded take on the conceit, and that is the creation of a fictional reality in which Yankovic (played with a certain winning seriousness by Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe) became the biggest star in the world.

And here’s a young Al who is struck with inspiration as he stares at a pack of bologna, says out loud that no one gets famous overnight (just before turning on the radio to find out he’s instantly famous), and a parade of fellow counter-cultural, comedy-nerd favorites like Dr. Demento, Wolfman Jack and Pee-wee Herman, all played by… fellow comedians who wink at their own impeccable good taste in influences. To run did a lot of stuff like this 15 years ago, and with a lot more precision. (Why exactly is that) Foreign told by the man with the baritone adherent voice? Shouldn’t this be a bull’s eye on music biopics, not the music biopic ads?) Comparisons would be easier to avoid if Appel and Yankovic didn’t step into some of the same territory and blast huge chunks of playtime on a subplot about Al’s disapproving father.

Foreign could have used more of Yankovic’s unique humor, and less of the random sub-ZAZ material that fills his slim story.

Much of the real Yankovic’s wholesome dork-vaudeville spirit seeps into the material through jokes like a very Al version of the stereotypical wild teen party (I’ve laughed, I confess, at cool kids seriously debating the merits of polka deep cuts) and a general willingness to self-mocker about the unique space he has created in the pop culture consciousness. No one can really confuse Foreign for self flattery; that would require a lot more jokes based on factual details of his work or cultural footprint. The movie doesn’t build much on the original Funny or Die strategy of just throwing glasses, frizzy hair, and brightly patterned shirt on the standard lyrics of melodramatic Hollywood warning stories about the music world. It could have used more of Yankovic’s unique humor, and less of the random sub-ZAZ material that fills up its svelte story, including a very unnecessary joke about action movie profusion, perhaps only relevant to clowning about the kind of testosterone parties that were huge in the heyday of “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Surgeon”. (Evan Rachel Wood capably takes over from Olivia Wilde as the queen of pop. For perhaps obvious reasons, Michael Jackson is only mentioned, not portrayed.)

The general laziness of the parody is unfortunate, and perhaps a surprise. For everyone Foreign leaning on just a handful of his most popular parodies (this isn’t a particularly exhaustive love letter to the man’s legacy or his diehard fans), Yankovic has proven to be a crafty, skilled parodist in his main medium, well beyond his novelty re pop hits skins; you can hear his music smarts in his general genre pastiches and universal artist parodies. For example, listen to “Germs,” an invaluable and compositionally refined Nine Inch Nails tribute that friend, fellow reviewer and Weird Al superfan Nick Allen pointed out to me. Incidentally, Nick was recently gearing up for a backstage, artist-meet experience on Yankovic’s tour that ended up with, for safety reasons, a thick sheet of glass between him and Al. In the autographed photo commemorating the meeting, the two had been posed separately and then Photoshopped together. Afraid to say that’s funnier – and weirder – than just about anything in Foreign.

Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues throughout the week. For more work by AA Dowd, visit his Authors page.

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