Somehow during our lengthy conversation surrounding our February Movie of the Month, the Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin swapped-twins comedy Big Business, I had foolishly overlooked who had actually directed the damned thing. Big Business‘s director, Jim Abrahams, is the “A” in the infamous comedic filmmaking team ZAZ. Along with brothers David & Jerry Zucker, Abrahams was responsible for popularizing the concept of the spoof comedy. As a collaborative trio ZAZ penned & directed Airplane!, Top Secret!, Hot Shots, Hot Shots Part Deux, and the Naked Gun trilogy, which pretty much covers the pillars of the medium. Flying solo, Abrahams also has screenwriting credits for Scary Movie 4, Kentucky Fried Movie, an some horrific-looking monster titled Jane Austen’s Mafia!. In isolation the name Jim Abrahams failed to ring any bells, but the team of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker was a force to be reckoned with, one that changed the comedy cinema landscape if not for the better than at least for the sillier.
Although I feel foolish that I didn’t recognize Abrahams’ hand in Big Business sooner, it totally makes sense in retrospect. The most crucial aspect of the film that stuck out to me was its dedicated homage to Old Hollywood comedies. Viewing the film with Abrahams in mind now, I see a much different sort of half-formed homage lurking in Big Business. It’s basically just one gentle push away from an Old Hollywood spoof. The film’s swapped-twins contrivance, grand hotel setting, borrowed gag from Duck Soup, endless line of eligible bachelors waiting to marry its protagonists, narrow-minded depictions of the difference between wealth & poverty, and over-the-top lengths to keep its mismatched twins from ending the ruse all once played like a love letter to a bygone era in studio system filmmaking. Now they feel like seeds to what could’ve been a fullblown Old Hollywood spoof after a couple of joke-heavy rewrites. The framework for a ZAZ-style spoof is lurking just under the surface of Big Business, waiting, begging for a sea of juvenile gags to fill in the blanks.
I think the major reason why Big Business didn’t take that direction is a question of timing. The film was released during a time frame where Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker were still a functioning unit, but the timing was off for an Old Hollywood spoof in terms of box office potential. If you look at the trio’s M.O., they generally stuck to spoofing film genres that were active in the era in which they worked. Airplane! spoofed the large-cast disaster film genre (specifically parodying Airport 1975 most heavily) at the tail end of the decade when they were A Thing. Top Secret! spoofed spy movies, a genre that never dies. The Hot Shots! series spoofed 80s & 90s action cinema in a time when that would’ve still been a relevant target, focusing heavily on Top Gun & Rambo for inspiration. Seeing as how it would’ve been impossible for Abrahams to create an Old Hollywood spoof in the Old Hollywood era, given that he was a child in its heyday, he would have had to achieved that distinction sometime in the 2000s or 2010s, long after the dissolution of the ZAZ partnership & well into his old age. Why so recently? Nostalgia has been kind to homages & parodies to the genre, which made room for wonderful comedies like Forgotten Silver & Hail, Caesar! to exist (though not flourish financially, unfortunately). In the 1988 an Old Hollywood spoof might’ve been hard to pitch to financiers, but in 2016 it’d have a much easier time making it to the cinema.
As is, Big Business has no interest in being an Old Hollywood parody. It is instead a loving homage to a bygone era in filmmaking. What Abrahams does instead is update the era’s comedic farce conventions for a 1980s sensibility, which was much less of a commercial gamble. That’s not to say that his history in genre parody did not inform his work in Big Business, though. If nothing else, Abrahams’ films display a consistent, innate understanding of genre tropes & how they can be made effective, whether for a genuine or a sarcastic effect. And if there’s any question to whether or not Big Business‘s toying with the idea of Old Hollywood parody was intentional, just look to Abrahams’ directorial cameo in the film. He plays a homeless drunk who rubs his eyes & tosses his liquor bottle aside when he keeps seeing the two sets of twins separately, a gag that’s about as old as comedy cinema itself (if not older). At the very beat before the end credits the film reveals that a second, well-dressed, far-from-homeless character was also portrayed by Abrahams, a reveal that’s meant to play as a huge prank. That moment feels like it easily could’ve been at home in the theoretical spoof version of Big Business that sadly doesn’t exist, not only because it feels so hokily old-fashioned, but also because its “Gotcha!” sarcasm is such a classic ZAZ-style tactic.