Living Off-Color

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Oh poor, unsuspecting reader. Here you are, perusing a perfectly respectable magazine, and you dock at a story on Keenen Ivory Wayans, whom you may remember from the early-'90s groundbreaking sketch-comedy series In Living Color, and who has now directed a film called Scary Movie, which opens in Australia this week. But before we get to Wayans, we must familiarize you with the film, and there's the rub. Scary Movie had this writer giggling like Beavis on helium, yet it's a raunchy piece of work and not easily described in printable detail.

It has scenes like this: A guy in a men's room hears chortling in the next stall, so he puts his ear next to a hole in the wall and gets tickled by an enormous ...

Maybe not the best example for print.

There's the, uh, climactic scene in which a sex-starved teenage boy is finally taken to bed and ...

To tell you the truth, there's not much we can say about Scary Movie except that, frankly, Wayans (a father of three with a fourth on the way, no less) should be ashamed of himself.

"Ashamed and proud at the same time," he responds. "Ashamed we did it. Proud we got away with it." What he has got away with is a spoof in the tradition of the Airplane! and Naked Gun series-a send-up of such Hollywood darlings as the teen-horror genre (Scream), the teen-romance genre (Dawson's Creek) and some other nonsacred cows like The Blair Witch Project, The Usual Suspects and The Matrix. Wayans, along with his younger brothers Shawn and Marlon (who star in the film and share screenplay credit), also outgrosses the gross-out genre with two grotesque close-ups of male genitalia and a jaw-dropping ejaculation sight gag.

If this appeals to you, don't be ashamed, for you're apparently not alone. Thanks in part to a raucous trailer, Wayans' $19 million comedy generated rapid-fire word of mouth. The film's strong "tracking" (surveys that indicate audiences' desire to see an upcoming flick) inspired American distributor, Miramax's Dimension division, to step up its marketing blitz and increase its opening-day screens from 1,900 to about 3,000. So far it's paid off: in seven weeks of release, Scary Movie has grossed around $150 million at the U.S. box office.

Miramax's co-chairman, Bob Weinstein, should be commended for his sense of humor; he's released a movie that savages his own Scream franchise. On the other hand, the movie he's released features star Carmen Electra breaking wind. He should be ashamed of himself too. "I appreciate that," says Weinstein. "I'd do penance if I was that religion. Since I'm Jewish, I'll just feel guilty about it."

As guardians of good taste, we don't recommend Scary Movie to everyone. For one thing, it's uneven-a flaw even more glaring on second and third viewings. But we happily endorse Wayans' re-entry into the spotlight. By the time he left In Living Color in 1992, he had ascended from his humble roots as the second of 10 children in a family in the New York City projects into U.S. television history. He had also ascended to the galaxy of stars fated to spend the bulk of their careers overshadowed by their own TV excellence. (Coincidentally, these stars often have three names: Keenen Ivory Wayans, Mary Tyler Moore and, next up, Sarah Jessica Parker.)

In Living Color helped launch the careers of Jim Carrey, Jennifer Lopez and Rosie Perez, and introduced Wayans' siblings Marlon, 27, Shawn, 29, and Damon, 39, to the world. The troupe relentlessly poked fun at everyone-blacks, gays, homely women, firemen. As star and executive producer, Wayans, now 42, didn't ridicule stereotypes so much as embrace them and demystify the Other Guy. The flamboyantly gay movie critics Blaine and Antoine were so outrageously winning that their finger-snap ratings have entered the lexicon. "I always looked at In Living Color as a bridge," says Wayans. "The activist side of me knew it was healing."

After leaving the show over a monetary dispute with network Fox, Wayans employed his parody skills as writer-director-star of the 1994 Shaft take-off A Low Down Dirty Shame and as producer of Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. He even had his own talk show. None of these projects lived up to his series' success, but he had nothing to be ashamed of-not until his dramatic turn in the abysmally reviewed 1997 kill-the-First-Lady thriller Most Wanted. "That was a great lesson to me," Wayans recalls. "I said, ĆO.K., you're doing what you want to do, but that's not what the audience wants you to do.'"

His return to parody was facilitated by Shawn and Marlon, who co-starred for five seasons on the U.S. sitcom The Wayans Brothers. When they and their writing team took the horror spoof to Miramax's Dimension, Weinstein insisted that Keenen take control. "The list of directors who can do romances or action movies might be longer," explains Weinstein, "but when you [need] a director who can do a spoof, there are very few on that list."

Aiming for an audience beyond teens and Scream fans, Big Brother demanded more than a dozen additional drafts of the screenplay. "Keenen kicks ass," says Shawn. "He don't play."

The result contains some vintage Wayans moments, such as one reminiscent of In Living Color that can actually be described without dirty words: a black woman talks loudly and incessantly during a movie, inciting white audience members to shoot her dead. "I know it's gonna strike a chord," says Wayans, "because this is what white people have to put up with every time they go see a film." Nice to see he hasn't lost his edge. Even if he knows no shame.