We’re more than halfway through the six-episode Funny or Die / IFC miniseries The Spoils of Babylon, and unfortunately, the show hit a mid-season slump with last week’s episode, “Kicking the Habit,” and this week’s “The Rise of the Empire.” Were it not for a couple of highly entertaining guest turns by Haley Joel Osment and Michael Sheen, the “parody” of soap operas would have taken a step closer to becoming exactly what it set out to mock.
Even creator Eric Jonrosh’s (Will Ferrell) introduction of his ”masterpiece” is a little lackluster, at first promising viewers “the best half-hour of your life” before devolving into a rant about the script he was given, complaining that you can’t use the word “masterpiece” twice in the same sentence. While the sloppy edits and camera angles are still amusing, Jonrosh’s braggadocio is tempered, which serves as a foreshadowing for the rest of the episode.
Inexplicably, “The Rise of the Empire” fast-forwards nearly two decades from last week’s ending that left star-crossed brother-and-sister/lovers Devon (Tobey Maguire) and Cynthia (Kristen Wiig) struggling with their dead father’s condemnation of their affair. (In their defense, technically, Devon was adopted, and we all rooted for Josh (Paul Rudd) and Cher’s (Alicia Silverstone) coupling in Clueless, right?)
Though still bleeding from a gunshot, Devon continues to record his family’s tragic tale: We learn that Cynthia became the ruthless leader of the Morehouse oil conglomerate. She married a milquetoast named Chet (Sheen, with a fabulous Clark Gable-esque mustache) and gave birth “three-to-five months later” to Winston (Osment), who suspiciously looks nothing like his father.
Cynthia is as cutthroat in business as she is in love. When Chet suggests to Cynthia that they try for a second child, she ignores him. “Many couples make love…on a semi-regular basis,” he mumbles, futilely.
She’s visited by Seymore Lunts (Toby Huss), who’s delivering a water-powered carburetor prototype that gets 100-200 miles per gallon to Devon. She intercepts the package, knowing that the device could ruin the oil industry. Wiig has a great voiceover sequence in which her facial expressions convey the thoughts raging through her brain: “They saw a world without oil…the fools!” The musical cues and sound design throughout the entire exchange with Lunts complement the melodrama perfectly.
With the help of her military general friends (Val Kilmer and Steve Tom), Cynthia dispatches Lunts and anyone else he told about the carburetor. After the killings are completed, evil Cynthia looks directly into the camera and deadpans, “Seymore Lunts? More like See-less Lunts.” Yes, it’s completely cornball, but somehow Wiig makes it work.
Meanwhile, Devon’s living in Big Sur with his daughter Marianne (who’s no longer a doll, but actress Jelly Howie). He’s doing his best to channel Jack Kerouac and Steve Zissou, too, as he runs an oceanographic center with partner and researcher Dixie Melonworth (Jessica Alba). The underwater lab along with a number of the sets in the latter part of the episode borrow heavily from almost any Wes Anderson film we can think of, keeping the audience fairly entertained visually, even when the plot sputters.
Devon’s lab is being shut down because Cynthia is cutting the Morehouse funding to spite him. The scenes that highlight Devon’s environmentalist-beat poet escapades are low key and pale in comparison to Wiig and her onscreen family’s over-the-top antics.
It’s Osment’s turn as the ruthless 15-year-old vice president of Public Affairs at Morehouse that’s the most revelatory. Who knew he was such a ham? Osment keeps pace with Wiig every step of the way, delivering lines like, “My uncle would have ruined this company with his research…and forward thinking,” with great comedic timing. He chain-smokes in most of his scenes, too, using a long cigarette holder, complete with an affected pinkie stretch. Osment is fun to watch.
The episode’s denouement sets up a showdown between the siblings, but there’s no emotional build-up or anticipation for what may be the battle for Morehouse Conglomerated. With only two episodes left, we can only hope that The Spoils of Babylon turns things around before it goes from epic to epic failure faster than Devon’s marriage to Lady Anne (the mannequin voiced by Carey Mulligan).