Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie

2012, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim -- threatre

If you don't know Tim and Eric, this isn't the place to start.  Your best bet is to hit up youtube, check out a couple of sketches from their series Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job! and see how that catches your fancy.  The duo are single-handedly (double-handedly?) responsible for a whole new sub-genre of absurdist in comedy, largely based around editing room tricks and a retro-80's cable-access aesthetic.  They're experts in the lingering pause and reveling in, well, not precisely gross-out comedy but certainly the unattractive and freakish sides of their brain.  The results can make you laugh, feel unsettled, or nauseated, sometimes all at once.  I don't see a lot of middle ground in people's reactions to Tim and Eric.  They're either going to appreciate it or turn it off.

Awesome Show has impacted the comedy word rather dramatically, a Monty Python for its day without being anything like Monty Python, moving further and further inward from the fringes, and that influence will continue to grow and extend as the up-and-coming comedians start to wield more influence in the world of comedy.  It'll certainly be interesting to see what the average comedy film looks like in 20 years.  I imagine it won't look much like this, though. 

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie isn't quite what I was expecting, but then I guess it was my own fault for anticipating anything from the duo.  At this stage I can't even recall what it was I thought it would be.  Perhaps I was just expecting it to be dirtier, and not in a bawdy sense, just that it's far more polished and looks far better than their usual 80's shot-on-videotape aesthetic (though there is some of that too, it's just used sparingly).  Though they abandon the visual flourish, they hardly abandon the 80's motif as the basic premise of the film screams 80's comedy, where there's a ridiculous conceit (or two) to overcome in order to buy into the characters and their motivation.

In this case Tim and Eric were given a billion dollars to make a motion picture, and what they deliver is a 3-minute production starring a Johnny Depp lookalike strutting around in a suit made of diamonds.  The financiers (including Robert Loggia and William Atherton) obviously aren't all that pleased and they give the duo the opportunity to repay them their billion dollars or they will pay... with their lives.  The opportunity to redeem themselves arises in the form of a late-night infomercial promising a billion dollars to anyone who can resuscitate a direly dwindling shopping mall, seemingly abandoned (at least by shoppers) and overrun by the hobos and wolves.  This all leads to awkward relationships formed between Tim, Eric and the motley crew of renters in the mall, including the owner's nephew, a pasty, sickly, snot-nosed John C. Reilly, (the owner, by the way, played by Will Ferrell), a caustic sword store owner (Will Forte) and the kiosk owner whom Eric has a sever crush on.  It's, in 80's tradition, a setting where all sorts of comedic situations can arise and off-beat personalities can appear, which leads to much humour, more weirdness, and plenty of gross situations (there's a diarrhea bath sequence that is, yeah, perhaps even more disgusting than it sounds).

Sketch comedy doesn't have a great track record transitioning to the big screen.  Monty Python has a couple under their belt, Saturday Night Live has exponentially more failures than successes, even groundbreaking acts like Mr. Show, Tenacious D, and the Kids In The Hall couldn't pull out successful features (though Brain Candy has shown some longevity, while  Run Ronnie Run and The Pick of Destiny are best forgotten).  Where Monty Python and the Holy Grail has made (and continues to make) as many Monty Python fans (probably more) than their Flying Circus tv programme, few films have drawn new audiences to sketch comedy troupes.  Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie is yet another that plays to the converted.  It's certainly more accessible than Awesome Show, Great Job!,  but just barely.  The funniest parts (of which there are many) all play to the audience that is attuned to their type of humour.  At the same time there's a lot of comedy that dies on the table.  Unsuccessful jokes would be buried in the rapid fire pace of Awesome Show, but here they just kind of flop around awkwardly like a dying fish.  A cameo from Zach Galifianakis, in particular, reaps little comedy reward, despite really, really trying.

As you may surmise the film features a slew of Tim and Eric's high profile friends, but on the flip side much of the cast is filled out by amateur or cable access performers of the sort that you'd see frequently on their television show.  It's telling then that these unassuming, awkward performances yield more laughs than most of the major players.  In some respects it's the script versus the riff, and when Tim and Eric follow their instincts things work out somewhat better than when they let their friends cut loose.  But then there is the diarrhea bath, so, you know, maybe not.

I didn't hate the Billion Dollar Movie but I wasn't impressed, and more damningly, I wasn't surprised by it (at least not in the good way).  To be honest, I had a good time, but it's not one I felt an immediate desire to repeat.