The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
T.S. Spivet is a messy, warm comedy about grief, family and imagination. It's also ironically about being seen and rarely heard.
"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is a lot like "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!." They're both experimental video art posing as sketch comedy. In them you can see DNA from Ernie Kovacs, John Waters, the Kuchar brothers, Robert Downey, Sr., Tom Rubnitz, early Beck music videos, Damon Packard, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (and every other Adult Swim psychotic episode) and Harmony Korine, to name just a random few. But it's likely that actor-writer-directors Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim took inspiration from none of these freaks.
The duo's work seems to flow directly from three sources: Bad corporate promotional and instructional videos, absurd local TV programming and assaultive blockbuster films. Their collages of chopped-and-screwed sounds with spastic motion graphics and sloppy green screen don't seem much different (in effect, if not production values) from what's on cable any given Sunday. It's just that they put unattractive, demented-seeming people in front of the green screen instead of the usual telegenic emoters. They spout nonsense where platitudes and corporate messages usually go. When celebrities appear on the show, they flub and stutter like robot hologram versions of themselves. It's as if the show's editor was a spam bot.
Whether any of it is funny is almost beside the point. The creeping surrealism often takes away your ability to blink, especially, I suspect, when, like me, you have no history with the show.
Not that these comedians are angry satirists. I don't get that vibe from their work. They're more like higher-IQ, unpredictably imaginative spins on "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, gifted at finding ways to tag-team mock and humiliate every possible demographic group. Tim and Eric don't seem concerned with pushing against some trite notion of political correctness so much as getting unsuspecting viewers seriously effed up on the dissonance.
So it's not about the "story" these jokers are trying to tell but the effects they are out to achieve, from shot to shot. Their best strength is getting the look and feel of fringe analog media circa 1985-1995 down pat, but "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is gunning for contemporary Hollywood proper. The opening sequence sends up the rotten present-day multiplex experience with an endless succession of pre-show trailers and directives. Once the actual "movie" comes on, starring, um, "Johnny Depp," the stage for constant nonsense has been set. Still, "Depp" gives the warmest, least mechanical performance of his career in the billion bollar movie, which lasts about three minutes. That's it. The end credits roll, and the lights come up on an outraged studio executive played by Robert Loggia. He wants his billion dollars back after seeing this "piece of shit."
Tim and Eric end up accepting an offer to clean up a failed desert mall that the outgoing manager (Will Ferrell) promises will yield a billion dollars if they succeed. This is where the movie goes limp. Or maybe it's just me. Comedy is the most subjective of genres, and nowadays, with dozens of sketch and improv troupes gaining fast popularity on YouTube and Funny or Die, subgenres are splintering every whichway. But the dominant style seems to be Upright Citizens Brigade-inspired absurdist improv. Basically, highly educated, often homely white kids doing broad, loud, gross jokes. On that score, non-homely SNL veteran Will Forte, as a mall sword shop proprietor, is the worst offender here -- pretty amazing, considering that this film has Zach Galifianakis, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly screaming, retching and mugging every time they appear. A lengthy sequence involving a VHS copy of "Top Gun" and Ferrell appearing to contemplate suicide is pretty hilarious, though.
It's the crazy video interludes that kept me from turning the damn thing off. (Well, that and the fact that I had to turn in some kind of review.) Heidecker and Wareheim are most inspired when creating mishaps, not mere "jokes." Their best actors are themselves, in various states of undress, wigs, makeup and Kmart business casual looks that show off their doughy physiques. But the greatest fit of convulsive genius is the already notorious "Shrim" commercial for a Scientology-like cult. I'll bet this clip was the last straw for those viewers at the Sundance Film Festival who reportedly walked out in droves long before the movie was over.
Or it might be the montage that dissolves drunkenly between the cult leader played by Twin Peaks loon Ray Wise directing his six sons to fill a bathtub with their "shrim" (it's a bodily fluid, normally a solid) while Eric sits in said tub, doped on tainted Spanish Fly... and Tim having freakazoid sex across the mall with Eric's woman. It's like the montage in Steven Spielberg's "Munich," except with floppy dildos and diarrhea. I spoil nothing by telling you that it all culminates in a shot of a wolf howling in front of a food court pizza shop.
"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" could have been worse, which is to say, better. In contrast to the Tim and Eric TV show's Lynchian eeriness and unpredictability (David Lynch is one influence they openly acknowledge), the film seems to strike a slight compromise with more timid sketch comedy fans, who love a good gross-out joke, sure, but probably aren't used to the kind of repetitions, pauses, tics, sonic disturbances and Dadaist travesties that make the show so mesmerizing. "About two-thirds of the audience remained by the time the credits rolled" at the Sundance screening, reported Entertainment Weekly. Given T&E's rep, the place should have been two-thirds empty.
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