Exploiting our Archives: This Looks Terrible #1 Mad Families

What the hell is Charlie Sheen these days, other than a sad, paunchy, dead-eyed shadow of his equally vacuous and awful, but far more beautiful younger self? 

Sheen made an indelible impression as Martin Sheen’s impossibly beautiful male starlet of a son and Oliver Stone’s mid-1980s surrogate/leading man of choice in Platoon and Wall Street. Then he became as famous for his Marquis De Sade-like personal life and an appetite for cocaine and hookers unusual even for a movie star as his increasingly irrelevant, increasingly direct-to-video oeuvre. 

Sheen seemed doomed to a lifetime of forgettable thrillers before the astonishingly awful taste of the American public made his sitcom Two And A Half Men a depressingly monstrous hit whose dispiriting success made Sheen one of the highest paid actors in television history, taking home millions per episode to sleepwalk through awful scripts with a perpetual smirk on his face. 

The low-rent, low-ambition world of conventionally shot sitcoms saved Sheen’s career, and propelled him to a level of success, wealth and fame he did nothing to merit before the toxic ugliness of Sheen’s personality destroyed what should have been the easiest and most lucrative gig in the world. This kicked off the Manic Beatnik Hipster-Messiah stage of Sheen’s life and career, as he fled sitcom stardom to embark on a bizarre public nervous breakdown/manic episode that found him traveling the country with his non-act, jabbering about winning and tiger blood and “goddesses” until the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Sheen’s theatrical craziness went from “unquenchable” to “non-existent.” 

I caught part of the bitter end of Sheen’s “Look at me, I’m crazy! Buy my tee-shirt!” tour when he served as one of a series of celebrity hosts at the 2011 Gathering of the Juggalos. As I recount in my book You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, Sheen made a sorry spectacle of himself. To put his downfall in Trumpian terms, it was both sad, and a shame. 

This brings us to the present. Who is Charlie Sheen? Well, among other things, he’s the star of Mad Families, a Crackle original production that dares to ask the question, “What would a Happy Madison movie be like if it somehow had even less ambition and originality?”

Mad Families feels like it could have been adapted from a repurposed script for Grown Ups 3 that was rejected for not meeting the exacting standards of Rob Schneider. Like the Grown Ups movies, Bad Families captures the kinetic visceral excitement of watching middle-aged men sit in chairs and insult each other in a scenic location. These movies feel like vacations for the actors and punishment for the audience. 

Oh, you!

Oh, you!

Co-written by David Spade and director Fred Wolf, veterans of Saturday Night Live and many a shitty Happy Madison production, Mad Families amusingly miscasts Sheen as a David Foster Wallace-like cult novelist whose alcoholism is played for laughs, and then for earnest drama. Though the film insists on perpetrating the fiction that Sheen is both adorable and brilliant, and the kind of man who would have gorgeous women young enough to be his daughter throwing themselves at him, he looks terrible. 

Like Mel Gibson, Sheen’s internal ugliness seems to have manifested physically. Sheen’s neck is hypnotically, distractingly turkey-like, he has a beer belly only partly attributable to his character’s alcoholism and he looks only slightly younger than Chris Mulkey, who plays his hard-living, alcoholic father. Sheen plays a brilliant but self-destructive novelist but he comes off as someone barely able to read, let alone write masterfully.  

The plot of Mad Families finds three families all ending up with the same camping spot in the woods. Now there is a lot of plot in Mad Families. There’s way too much plot, actually, which is not a problem you’d imagine an off-brand Happy Madison comedy starring Charlie Sheen would have but everyone here inexplicably has an arc and a subplot, and they all receive way more time and attention than necessary. 

I came to Mad Families expecting a scatological joke-fest. Instead, I found a movie so oddly devoid of jokes that it felt like instead of punching up the script and adding jokes, someone punched down, eliminating jokes to facilitate more time for the film’s 19 dramatic subplots, one of the most prominent of which involves a successful lawyer played by Finesse Mitchell conspiring with his Hispanic girlfriend to trick their parents into thinking that a black man can date outside of his race in 2016 without destroying society or their families in the process. 

Yes, there are lots and lots of subplots in Mad Families but the film’s main plot involves three very different families, one black, one white and one hispanic, who descend upon the same camping plot July 4th weekend, and must compete in a series of contests and challenges to determine who gets to remain. 

These contests don’t fucking matter to the movie at all. You know what matters to the movie? Not a goddamn thing. I would describe the film’s style of comedy as “sedentary” more than anything else. This is an opportunity for a bunch of journeyman actors and actresses (including Leah Remini and Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite) to sit in chairs and sleepwalk their way through scenes and subplots no one will remember—not even them—and technically still have acted in a genuine motion picture. 

It’s not true, actually, that nothing matters to the movie. Mad Families is lazily apathetic but it does seem to believe intensely in the healing power of laughter. But not just any kind of laughter, mind you. No, Mad Families is an 89 minute valentine to the liberating, empowering, cathartic power of the kind of laughter that, in its mind at least, always greets racist jokes from the Big Book Of Bigoted Nonsense. 

Much of Mad Families is devoted to the families trading racist jokes like, “Did you hear about the Black guy and Mexican guy who opened a restaurant together? It’s called “Nacho Mama”, which are invariably met with explosions of uncontainable laughter. No matter how bad or racist a joke may be, it’s invariably greeted with hoots of joy and riotous guffaws. 

It’s often jarring when characters in a comedy crack up. Unless a filmmaker is very careful, it feels like the movie is patting itself on the back, giving itself a little makeshift laugh track and not so implicitly telling the audience, “Oh, this is funny, motherfucker. Our characters are laughing. What makes you so special that you should stay silent?” This is particularly true of Mad Families, where the massive gulf between jokes’ negligible quality and the ecstatic, overjoyed reception they receive is impossible to ignore.

Mad Families desperately wants us to believe that, despite what Liberal busybodies might think, nothing brings people of different races together quite like jokes trading on the kind of racist stereotypes that have historically been used to oppress minorities and justify institutionalized AND personal racism.

After all, if blacks and Mexicans could just laugh unselfconsciously and unashamedly at the kind of racist jokes about them being criminals and degenerates and sub-humans that make racist white people guffaw, then wouldn’t racism, which no longer exists anyway, disappear even more?


If co-writers Fred Wolf and David Spade had one wish, they’d give everyone in the world a racist joke to deliver so that mankind could finally transcend racism and achieve true enlightenment. With Mad Families, they give a bored and underwhelmed audience a whole bunch of racist jokes and the result is barely a movie, let alone an unlikely recipe for creating a utopia out of the unlikely tools of laziness and bigoted humor. 

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