All of our favorite comedians phone it in for the paycheck once and a while. We can look the other way when Will Ferrell slums it up in loose, runny stool like Bewitched, so long as he's still writing and starring in great stuff like Talladega Nights. Sacha Baron Cohen made Borat: if he wants to pay for a new pool with a shitty cameo in Madagascar, who are we to judge?
But what happens when it's not a "phone it in" comedy? What if it's a labor of love? What if the comedian wrote, directed and starred in the thing? What if, essentially, it looked like everyone involved was trying to make a good movie, and it was stool anyway?
Well, then you get snarky no-talents like us picking apart your crappy movie in this article, apparently. Read on![subtitle]
THE PITCH: Scot Armstrong and Todd Phillips, the writer and director of Old School, reteam for this black comedy! Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder gets lessons in self-confidence from Bad Santa's Billy Bob Thornton... but they end up competing for the same girl!
THE PAYOFF: Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton aren't masters of improvisation. They need a fun, sharp script to play off of, and they don't get it here. In one scene early in the film, for instance, Heder's character gets ambushed by two thugs who threaten to kill him. They then shoot at him while he tries to escape, and rob him after he passes out from a panic attack. Scoundrels wants us to take from this that Heder is a big pussy with no self-confidence-but the scene's played so straight, who wouldn't be fucking terrified in that situation? Welcome to every scene in this movie: mean-spirited, played straight, and about as funny as a guy shooting at you.
THE PROBLEM: Scoundrels makes the mistake of thinking anybody watches a comedy for its plot, spending one dull scene after another spelling out who's doing what to who and why. When your comedy has talents like Ben Stiller, David Cross and Sarah Silverman standing around explaining characters' back stories like there's going to be a quiz when the movie's over, you might be overthinking things.
Was anyone who liked Old School on the edge of their seats over whether or not the stars would graduate? Scot "Shakespeare" Armstrong and Todd "Bergman" Phillips seem to think we were. Guys-comedies are retarded. When a character slips face-first into a pile of cow shit, we don't need to know which cow it came from.[subtitle]
THE PITCH: Dan Aykroyd writes, directs AND stars in a new comedy with John Candy and Chevy Chase! (This was back when then name "Dan Ackroyd" still meant "the guy who wrote Ghostbusters and Blues Brothers," not "that really fat guy playing Britney Spears' dad in Crossroads.")
THE PAYOFF: Either Aykroyd has a different sense of humor from other humans, or it's possible he just vastly miscalculated the hilarity that would ensue by having grotesque, freakish psychotics attempt to viciously murder people in a nightmarish premise involving transvestites, cannibals with detachable penises for noses and Demi Moore attempting to act. John Waters would have looked at this script and thought, "Wow, that's fucking insane."
THE PROBLEM: Aykroyd apparently based the concept of the film around a real-life incident where he was pulled over for speeding in the back woods, then taken in the middle of the night to the mayor's house to be terrorized by hicks. If you're thinking, "That actually sounds kind of unsettling and horrible, and not a good idea for a laugh-romp comedy," you probably would have come in handy patiently explaining this to Aykroyd before he filmed a joyless, Deliverance-like movie about people getting pulled over for speeding in the back woods, then taken in the middle of the night to the mayor's house to be terrorized by hicks.[subtitle]
THE PITCH: the Greatest Band of All Time roars to the big screen in a hilarious musical comedy where they fight The Devil with the awesome power of their rock! Watch for funny cameos from Ben Stiller and Tim Robbins!
THE PAYOFF: After an inspired opening musical number involving a young Jack Black, Ronnie James Dio and Meatloaf, you can almost hear Black and co-star Kyle Gass put on the brakes and think, "Shit, that was our only idea." Tenacious D's premise (two fat guys with acoustic guitars think they're heavy metal rock gods) is, while pretty damn funny in short sketches, a bit of a thin idea for a feature-length comedy. Black and Gass figure this out about a half hour in, resorting to tired Cheech and Chong stoner gags to pad out the running time.
THE PROBLEM: Nobody involved in the making of Pick of Destiny seems to have the first clue why people like Tenacious D. Fans loved Jack Black as a chubby, lovable loser with big metal dreams. Let's turn him into a dumbassed pothead! Fans loved Kyle Gass as the quiet, mopey yin to Jack Black's hyper yang. Let's make him an unlikable asshole for the first hour of the film! (Gass himself complains about this on the DVD commentary.) Fans really dug the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl in his cheesy Devil cameos. Let's bring him back for the movie, then bury him in so much make-up you can't even tell it's Grohl, and give him big stupid fake teeth he can't talk through! It feels like everyone making this turkey was too baked to pay attention. The only way to enjoy Pick would be to follow their lead.
THE PITCH: Steve Martin writes, directs AND stars! Eddie Murphy breaks out his patented "Playing multiple characters in the same movie" gag! It's the great taste of chocolate and peanut butter.. together for the first time!
THE PAYOFF: Bowfinger isn't a bad comedy. Its plot, which involves a team of down-on-their-luck filmmakers putting a Hollywood star in their movie without his knowledge, has some genuine laughs. The problem's in how mean-spirited a lot of it comes off. When an actor/director as successful and talented as Steve Martin writes a comedy about actors and directors with no success or talent, it feels like a fat guy showing off a photo album of all the buffets he's attended to a group of starving Ethiopians.
THE PROBLEM: When not laughing at people less successful than himself, Martin fills Bowfinger with obscure industry gags you'd have to be a Hollywood player to enjoy. I can't see too many audiences in Dubuque, Iowa pounding on their armrests and thinking, "It's so true! I hate it when Fedex doesn't arrive with my next batch of scripts to review!" or "You don't have to tell me what it's like to work with Scientologist actors!" Watching Bowfinger, you want to force Steve Martin to sit through a comedy about plumbers filled with chuckling references to spray foam insulation and flexible coated gas piping. "See? That's what it feels like!"
7Harlem Nights (1989)
THE PITCH: Eddie Murphy writes, directs AND stars! Comedy legends Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx join Murphy to present three generations of groundbreaking black comedians in one movie!
THE PAYOFF: Assuming you enjoy the word "fuck", Harlem Nights delivers beyond your wildest expectations. Assuming you were expecting comedy giants like Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy to have actual amusing things come out of their mouths, you might be disappointed. Nights feels like an excuse for Eddie and his friends to dick around on a set in 1930s period costumes, and it probably was, but even then you have to wonder: with that much talent in one room, wouldn't someone by accident have been funny once or twice while the camera was rolling?
THE PROBLEM: Harlem Nights was billed as a "comedy-drama", which is a lot like making a "romantic horror" movie or a "hardcore Christian porno," and sounds suspiciously like a term thought up by a Hollywood ad executive after watching the movie and realizing it was as hilarious as colon cancer. "Work with me on this. What if it wasn't funny... on purpose?"