Silver Screen: Movie Forty-three zero stars
There are particular perils to making a comedy, and chief among them is this: When a drama is bad enough, the unintentional absurdity warps it into a comedy, but when a comedy is bad, it doesn’t curdle into drama. In this sense, no movie is quite so terrible as a truly terrible comedy.
Consider too that comedy has a stated objective, which is to make you laugh. It’s binary, clear-cut, either/or. Drama is a more nebulous concept that can engage or fail to engage in a number of different ways. It’s much easier for viewers to lapse into passive disinterest in a drama, whereas bad comedy is almost confrontational.
This explains why Movie Forty-three is less than just not a good movie, but is actively a terrible one, an almost sadistically counterintuitive experience akin to sticking a burned hand into water only to find out the water’s boiling, or taking a thirsty pull from a canteen filled with hot dirt. You go into Movie Forty-three hoping for a laugh and leave with visibly deepened frown lines.
The premise is simple: a sketch-based movie in the style of raunchy underground classics like The Kentucky Fried Movie or Amazon Women on the Moon, but filmed with a bigger budget and A-list cast. The trouble is, despite ten movies’ worth of stars and the freedom to explore oddball ideas with no need for continuity, the collection of writers and directors mostly repeat the same three jokes, and none of those jokes are funny.
The suitably loose premise connecting the sketches in the American version-- the setup is reportedly different depending on what country you’re seeing the movie in-- is that an unhinged, failed screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) weasels his way into the office of a mid-level Hollywood exec (Greg Kinnear) and pitches him several ideas, each more deranged than the last.
The first bit sets the tone appropriately, if not well. It’s an easy romantic comedy parody with a hitch: The charming bachelor (Hugh Jackman) taking a skeptical single girl (Kate Winslet) out on a date is perfect, except that he has a set of testicles dangling from his chin that absolutely nobody else mentions. It’s a one-joke shock premise-- one already prominently featured in an old South Park episode-- that goes nowhere beyond balls.
Most of the sketches can be neatly divided into balls, poop, or the slightly more progressive (?) menstruation. A later sketch features yet another blind date, this one between generic characters played by Halle Berry and the very funny Stephen Merchant, in which the two strangers embark on an escalating game of Truth or Dare. As is repeatedly the case, the bit takes no left turns, just flogs the same idea with escalating punchlines until it wears itself out. In the case of this short piece, the nadir comes via a Snooki cameo.
Speaking of blind dates, there’s yet a third blind-date sketch, this one a speed-dating session between superheroes that veers toward every cliché as Batman (Jason Sudeikis) torments his young pal Robin (Justin Long) who is trying to woo Supergirl (Kristen Bell).
Despite a dozen credited directors (ranging from SIU alumnus Bob Odenkirk and James Gunn to Brett Ratner and Griffin Dunne) and nine writers, most of the sketches are written by Jeremy Sosenko and Rocky Russo, and nearly all have the same shrill, desperate tone.
A couple of sequences do manage to stand out: a nicely executed bit in which seemingly bland suburban parents (Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts) attempt to give their home-schooled son a full social experience by personally subjecting him to all the torments of adolescence, and another one-note sketch in which the coach (Terrence Howard) of an all-black basketball team in the Civil Rights era gives a blunt pep talk to his squad before the big game. Howard sells the hell out of it. Neither of these sketches are as edgy as the filmmakers seem to want them to be, but they’re at least mildly funny, while the endless series of poop shots and genitalia euphemisms fails to succeed at either task. Even ace comic performers like Chris Pratt, Anna Faris, and J.B. Smoove can’t wring laughs out of the limp material, although John Hodgman does sneak in a few funny lines as Batman’s nemesis, the Penguin.
When a few or more than a few of the sketches on Saturday Night Live fall flat, it’s worth remembering the writers and cast prepared an hour-and-a-half-long show in a week and they’ll do it again in seven days. They have a tight deadline to serve as an excuse when their batting average dips, but why would sketches in a feature film so frequently default to easy movie and commercial parodies? The commercial parodies don’t even make sense in the context of the frame story, a loose end the movie acknowledges in what’s supposed to pass for self-effacing wit. But when everything else about the movie is so lazily conceived and executed, acknowledging the fact feels more like a taunt than an admission.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.