Film Threat Review: Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

2012
Rated R
93 minutes

****

If I taught a film studies class, I would show “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” on the first day. This is a film that is worthy of study (inasmuch as any other film is, of course). Other than an identical cast, it has very little to do with the TV show that launched the careers of Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker. Instead, they embarked on a mission to reclaim the Genre Parody Film, a concept that was tarnished by endless “Scary Movie” sequels and their hideous offspring (“Date Movie”, et al). They took the concept, pioneered by such classics as “Airplane” and “Young Frankenstein,” and added a cerebral element akin to more sophisticated industry satires like “State and Main” and “The Player.”

The question is: Who will see this movie? Obviously pre-existing fans of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job” will. There may also be a few unsuspecting Will Farrell fans in the audience who will have their minds either scarred for life or completely blown. I hope that’s not all. There’s a very real possibility that you’ll think “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” is the worst thing you’ve ever watched and you’ll never trust my endorsements again. On the other hand, if you happen to see the film and like it, chances are you’re someone I would want to have a beer with.

Tim and Eric set the tone for their “Billion Dollar Movie” by having an announcer named Chef Goldblum (an ingeniously cast Jeff Goldblum) orient you with the Shlaaaang Superseat for the Ultimate Film Watching Seating Experience. Like many of Tim and Eric’s fake products, it’s a device that attaches to you in several invasive ways and likely does more harm than good. Obviously, there’s no Superseat, but the commercial is effective in bringing you into the Tim and Eric world. If you thought it was a good idea to eat mushrooms before the movie, it’s at this point that you will begin to regret it.

In the mildly Meta plot, Tim and Eric receive a billion dollars from the Schlaaang Corporation to make “Diamond Jim,” a film about a Euro man-about-town. But they foolishly squander the money on real diamond props and a phony Johnny Depp (Ronnie Rodriguez). Their investors are an evil multinational corporation headed by a chilling Robert Loggia, and they are justifiably furious at the results. They want their money back… or else. Serendipitously, Tim and Eric catch a television spot, which sort of promises the sum of their debt in exchange for running a dilapidated mall.

Before they can go out for the job, they must de-douche themselves and become “real businessmen”. Never missing an opportunity to bare their doughy white torsos, the makeover montage involves a sensuous sponge bath to remove their fake tans. This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in terms of boundary pushing. If you thought they got a little gross on “Awesome Show,” your gross-out bar is about to get a lot higher.

They take their new personae as the heads of Dobis P.R. (a company that is literally inspired by what they see in the stars) and head to the Swallow Valley Mall and Pizza Court, a post-apocalyptic colony of ill-conceived shop owners and wild animals. Will Ferrell effortlessly owns his scenes as the man who hires Tim and Eric under the false promise of a billion dollars in compensation. John C. Reilly brings his weirdo aptitude to the table as Taquito, the terminally ill man-child who was raised by wolves and now lives in the mall fending them off.

Tim and Eric aren’t the first guys to push the cinematic envelope. Eccentric actor Crispin Glover spent years and a lot of his own money to make a series of Hollywood-divergent films. He then toured them around the country, showing them to fans, unsuspecting and otherwise. He also brought along a soapbox on which to rant about the myth of independent film and the lamentable lack of truly counterculture cinema. He argued that David Lynch never would have been able to make “Blue Velvet” today, at least not with the blessing of any studio. I appreciated the message, but his films felt messy and pretentious. It was hard to side with him when I didn’t enjoy the movies he was complaining about having trouble making.

Tim and Eric have proven Glover wrong. “Billion Dollar Movie” isn’t a mainstream film, but it definitely has a much better shot at infiltrating the mainstream audience with its beyond-the-pale ideas. Underneath their experimental humor lies a sharp commentary about the film industry and society’s deluded love affair with the entrepreneurial spirit. Say what you will about these guys, but they will never condescend to their audience. Instead, they take each film cliché and turn it on its ear. A dramatic drowning incident is comically extended as Jim Joe, their distraught Personal Guru (Zach Galifianakis) keeps falling into their shallow indoor pool. A partying-to-excess montage escalates with outrageous one-upmanship until Tim is literally getting his “fucking arm cut off” and Eric is putting “a bunch of shit up [his] holes.”

Heidecker and Wareheim’s biting satire is all wrapped in a pleasing package of great character actors like Ray Wise, in-their-element comedians like Will Forte, the usual collection of oddball non-actors and numerous quotable lines. If you take nothing else from the film, I can at least guarantee you the Poop Joke to End All Poop Jokes, inter-cut with a disgustingly inspired love scene.

Also notable is the film’s running time at 93 minutes. Unlike a lot of other billion dollar movies these days, Tim and Eric’s film is exactly as long as it needs to be. The story is well paced throughout. When they spend too long in a scene, it’s only for comedic effect. This is a very carefully orchestrated film. There were several times when I felt like I could have been standing in an art gallery, looking at an installation. If you find that theory preposterous, bare in mind that the Louvre is rife with boners.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: The Muppets

2011
Rated PG
98 minutes

***

I can’t stress enough how badly I wanted to love “The Muppets.” Like many, I grew up watching “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” Over the years, I only found more reasons to love pretty much everything that came out of the astoundingly imaginative Jim Henson Studios. It seemed impossible not to. There was a Muppet for every personality. The positive messages of friendship, cooperation and determination were uplifting, without being saccharine. Disney bought Jim Henson Studios in 2004 and they are now attempting to reboot the franchise with “The Muppets.” This film, which marks the first time these characters have been on movie screens together in twelve years, poses the question, “Does the world still need the Muppets?” The answer is, “Yes… but not like this.”

James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords,” “Da Ali G Show”) directs the reverent script by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. Essentially a big-budget fan film (which Segel wrote himself into), it uses a new puppet, named Walter (Peter Linz), to introduce the Muppets to a new generation and to reminisce about them with the old one.

“The Muppets” is actually two movies. One, as you might have guessed, follows the Muppets as they put on one last show in order to save the Muppet Theatre as well as the Muppet name. The other is about a super nice, but somewhat clueless, small town boy named Gary (Segel), who is in a “poop-or-get-off-the-potty” situation with his equally chaste girlfriend of ten years (Amy Adams).

The Muppet movies always had human supporting characters but support was all they were there for. They didn’t need a story of their own because the Muppets were the draw. But if the humans must have their own subplot, the writers could at least make it interesting. After creating some very well realized characters in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” I’m profoundly disappointed in Segel for writing a plot that has all the depth of an Archie comic. Clueless boy is clueless. Long-suffering girl suffers because she doesn’t have a ring on that finger and is feeling neglected. Other than that, everything is peachy keen. It’s boring as hell when it’s not perpetuating gender stereotypes.

The element that connects these two stories is Walter, Gary’s felt brother from (presumably) the same mother. Gary and Walter are both Muppet Super Fans. But Walter feels a particular kinship with them. Thus, Gary invites Walter to tag along on his and Mary’s anniversary trip to Hollywood, so that Walter can make a pilgrimage to Muppet Studios and maybe find himself in the process. Meanwhile, Mary feels like the third wheel in her own relationship.

Gary and Mary’s story has very little to do with the familiar fuzzy faces that Walter, and the audience, have come to see. It’s Walter who discovers the evil plot to demolish Muppet Studios to get at the oil that flows underneath it. Walter is the one who suggests tracking down Kermit. And it is Walter who ultimately convinces Kermit to get the band back together. After they remodel the Muppet Theatre, Kermit rightly tells Walter that none of this would have happened without him. Gary and Mary barely do anything significant other than offer words of encouragement that could have come from anyone. The movie doesn’t need them, and neither does Walter.

Perhaps the filmmakers tip their hand in the form of the TV exec (Rashida Jones) that agrees to air the Muppet Telethon. Concerned that the Muppet name is no longer “market relevant,” she stipulates that they attach a star to the project. There must have been a real executive who made similar demands because there are probably more famous humans in the movie than there are Muppets. Every Muppet film has cameos, but they managed to fit the encounters neatly into the plot without feeling gimmicky. Here, they shotgun cameos like it’s Rush Week. Even in a movie called, “The Muppets,” they don’t trust the titular puppets to be the main attraction.

The music is another of the film’s many problems. With Bret McKenzie (“Flight of the Conchords”) behind them, the musical numbers should have been a high point. He manages to encapsulate contemplative Kermit with “Pictures in My Head,” and “Muppet or Man” recalls some of the best Conchords songs. However, McKenzie falls flat with the Mary and Piggy duet “Me Party,” which pegs the female leads as two-dimensional women who don’t know how to enjoy themselves without a boyfriend. While the opening number, “Life is a Happy Song,” has the catchiness of an instant classic, as an introduction to the film’s characters, it doesn’t tell us anything that we can’t glean from the poster.

The most cringe-worthy moments in the film belong to a character that is integral to the Muppet plot. An over-the-top villain can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, as oil baron Tex Richman, Chris Cooper chews the scenery like it’s a pouch of Big League. One of his more annoying qualities is to say “maniacal laugh” in place of laughing maniacally. It was probably in the script, but because of this little character quirk, Cooper is completely upstaged by his puppet henchmen (Uncle Deadly and Bobo the Bear). Nearly every moment he is on screen is excruciating.

Particularly painful is Tex Richman’s solo number, “Let’s Talk About Me,” which makes Brian Doyle Murphy’s “Noah’s Arcade” rap in “Wayne’s World” sound like “Straight Outta Compton.” It’s embarrassing to watch in a “my dad is trying to look hip” kind of way. Chris Cooper, take note: Just because you’re in a Muppet movie does not mean you have to act like a Muppet. There’s something to be said for playing it straight in an insane world. Just ask Dabney Coleman.

But, as I said, “The Muppets” is really two movies. And one of those movies is quite good, albeit awfully similar to previous films. If you’re going to rehash a Muppet plot, it might as well be “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” Among the familiar elements: Kermit rallies the troops and goes against the odds to put on a show, whilst clumsily navigating his relationship with Miss Piggy. Fozzie tells endearingly bad jokes. Animal struggles with his violence issues. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem rock the roof off the joint. Statler and Waldorf complain about everything. The ensemble tear-jerks their way through “The Rainbow Connection.” The gang even stack themselves into a Muppet Man suit to con their way past an ironclad reception desk, for old-time’s sake. They may not be original, but these moments are a lot of fun.

On the other hand, it was always so disappointing when a TV show would pass off a clip show as a new episode by stringing them together with a flimsy through-line. Sure, they were compiling some of the best scenes of the series, but they were way better in their original context. When it was time to play the music and light the lights, I got chills. But, at the end of the day, it was just a clip show.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).