The Spoils of Babylon is disappointing in almost every way. That’s too bad, because it seems to have everything going for it, including an all-star cast (including Will Ferrell, Tobey Maguire, Kristen Wiig, Tim Robbins) and an amusingly specific concept: It sends up a particular type of program from a particular period of TV history, the long and expensive but dramatically and visually meh network miniseries. The subgenre ruled U.S. airwaves for about ten years starting in 1977, when Roots, one of the few genuinely fascinating examples of the form, became a surprise smash. The Spoils of Babylon is a work more in the mode of Rich Man, Poor Man, The Thorn Birds or The Winds of War: rich in melodrama, low on substance — a typical (for the period) nighttime soap opera, but with a bigger budget. That I need to explain all this for the sake of younger viewers is one of Babylon’s problems, though far from the only one. If you’re over 40 and American, you grew up watching a straight-faced version of this type of show, but if you didn’t, you won’t immediately grasp what, exactly, is being made fun of — and the story and characters aren’t amusing enough to hold your attention regardless.
Created by former Saturday Night Live writers Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele, Babylon is an overlong and overscaled historical soap, essentially a cut-rate East of Eden, about a foundling dubbed Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire) who is adopted by a wannabe-oilman, Jonas (Tim Robbins), whose daughter (Kristen Wiig) has a powerful attraction to her new brother that can’t be consummated because — well, okay, it could be consummated, if you want to get technical about it, but there’s a certain ick factor. When Devon flees the Old Testament temptation zone of his childhood and comes home with a new bride, things get really complicated, mainly because his bride is a mannequin (voiced by Carey Mulligan).
Ferrell plays the creator of this supposedly epic miniseries, Eric Jonrosh, the sort of best-selling author whose paperbacks trumpet his name in embossed letters as big as the title, and whose cover art typically features a mansion, a boat, a cluster of troubled faces, or all of the above. The bookending sequences in which a fat, big-bearded, and obviously soused Jonrosh introduces the evening’s installment are a high point. Channeling late-period Orson Welles, Ferrell is in unhinged riffer mode, huffing and puffing, making surreal juxtapositions, and repeatedly letting Jonrosh tumble into the abyss of his own ego. The behind-the-scenes story that Jonrosh lays out for us is, alas, more amusing, even sight-unseen, than anything in the story proper. Apparently Jonrosh self-financed and directed the program you’re about to see, a legendarily cursed 22-hour production that started shooting “at some juncture” in 1976 and was aborted “suddenly” in 1979 “for reasons that I refuse to make clear.” (I love the “suddenly.”) At one point during Jonrosh’s yammering, the sequence cuts from the novelist grunting as he struggles to reach a glass of red wine across the table to Jonrosh continuing his tale of woe from a different camera angle. We may infer from this that Jonrosh’s exertions on behalf of his vino had to be edited for time.
Despite the I-married-a-mannequin thing, and the obviously miniature cars and houses and landscapes in the miniseries’ long shots, nothing in Spoils of Babylon itself is as satisfyingly bizarre as the My Dinner with Jonrosh stuff. I wouldn’t have minded if the show were only a half-hour of watching Jonrosh recount his doomed love affair with the program’s leading lady (Wiig) — who now lives “in Arizona with a man who owns a chain of sporting goods stores” — with occasional moments of Jonrosh digressing to describe a labor-of-love miniseries that we’re never actually allowed to see.
What we do see is curiously tone-deaf and rarely pays off as you hope it will. The program is trapped in some sort of creative limbo between surreal send-up and deadpan re-creation; it needed to be a lot more aggressively weird or much subtler and quieter. As is, it keeps lurching toward the kind of breathless, tacky “sincerity” that it presumably wishes to mock. Weirder still, Babylon’s visuals, editing, and music are almost too tasteful to accurately evoke the precise qualities of the genre the show is spoofing — much of it is pretty, in a modern way, rather than period-cruddy, and a few of the dynamically composed wide shots seem to have been modeled on such genuinely good films as Giant and There Will be Blood. More damaging are the many scenes that start promisingly only to peter out. You know that awkward, frozen near-smile you have when you really want to laugh, but the show won’t earn it? That was my expression throughout much of parts one and two of Babylon.
As the hero, Maguire is close to a zero. He’s marvelous at playing earnest strivers like Nick in The Great Gatsby (and oddballs like the young novelist in Wonder Boys), but this parody probably needed somebody who could play it deadpan-straight yet unnervingly intense: a performer like Robert Hays in Airplane! or maybe Val Kilmer in Top Secret! I don’t know which of today’s younger actors could have pulled that off — Paul Rudd, maybe? — but it’s not Maguire, who seems to be neither in on the joke nor able to understand what the joke is so that he can ignore it. (Kilmer has a supporting role as an army general in Babylon, incidentally, and he’s note-perfect.)
Wiig somehow bears the brunt of the show’s failure of vision, because she clearly has so much to give. No one in current popular culture is better at ridiculing ham actor intensity while being authentically intense. She’s got that Peter Sellers sweet-scary quality; if Babylon had modeled itself after her somehow, it might have been some kind of unstable classic. There are a few lively moments and endearingly odd declarations (“Onions and squirrels,” the young heroine grouses to her father in their pre-striking-oil days. “It’s all we ever eat! I want … cake!”), but many more that leave you stranded, waiting for laughs that never come.
Spoils of Babylon is a product of Ferrell and Adam McKay’s digital media company Funny or Die!, which cranks out online comedy shorts, some of which are quite good. It’s easy to imagine Babylon as one of the site’s fake trailers. Being shown a few bits of a nonexistent white elephant might have tickled our imaginations without subjecting us to the disappointment of realizing that a great notion is sometimes better left a notion.