Imagine Mystery Science Theater 3000, the show that finds two smartass robots and their human sidekick cracking wise while watching some of the worst films ever made. Swap the sci-fi theme for a gay one, and you have Screening Party, the new book by Dennis Hensley, author of the novel Misadventures in the (213). For his latest, Hensley and a pack of his L.A. friends share their scathing cattiness about a slew of famous films for your reading pleasure.
The notion was hatched as a column Hensley was writing for British Premiere magazine. Hensley's friends -- Tony, Marcus, Ross, Lauren, and Dr. Beaverman -- would watch a film, he would tape their comments, and voila, a day's work is done. Being a pretty creative guy, however, Hensley was apparently not satisfied with reality -- he estimates that about 75 percent of the book is non-fiction.
One might wonder what difference this makes. After all, this is just a book of bitchy comments. It's either funny or it isn't.
Screening Party is definitely funny. It's bust-a-gut funny. Any reader with a sense of irony or even the merest hint of an evil alter ego will laugh out loud while reading Hensley and crew comments on 17 films ranging from Jaws to Glitter. Pretty Woman elicits some of the gang's best venom, including Dr. Beaverman's re-write of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song: "Come and listen to a story about a whore named Viv..."
It's not all so sophomoric, but most of it is. It's still hilarious.
While the humor coming from the cast of Screening Party is genuine, the cast themselves are not. Hensley is pictured on the Vanity Fair-esque book cover with five others who seem to be his friends from the book. Back cover, far left: that must be Dr. Beaverman, the 40-something psychiatrist with the mail-order credentials. But Dr. Beaverman is fictitious.
Well, somebody has to deliver these bon mots, so does it matter? It matters only in that Hensley also asks his readers to take an interest in his friends' personal lives. Hensley's friend Marcus is HIV-positive, he's had a broken heart, etc. We care about Marcus. Then again, there is no Marcus. One can guess from the acknowledgements page that Marcus is a bit like Hensley's friend Mark Salzberg. Both tell rambling stories from obscure moments of their lives, and both supply baked treats for Hensley's screening parties. And while Marcus seems to be a character based on a true story, he does offer cooking tips on Hensley's Web site.
This blurry line is the book's weak point. Apparently, Hensley's friends cannot stand on their own when it comes to selling a book. So, Hensley has created characters out of his friends, giving them personal lives his readers should care about.
Writing about his sentimental interactions with these characters is a bit tedious. Not because we doubt that Hensely's friends are worthwhile people, but because a reader cannot invest the same emotion in characters as he would in people. Instead of trying to sort fact from fiction, readers will want to stick to film criticism.
That said, Screening Party remains a riotous read. Try this, from the chapter dedicated to The Sound of Music: "I want there to be a shot of [the Baroness] putting on brass knuckles and saying, ‘I know how to solve a problem like Maria.'"