Happily (2021)

There’s a certain kind of low-budget indie comedy that’s packed with the hippest, funniest comedians you know . . . who just sorta sit around with nothing to do.  They’re not so much hangout films as they are grotesque wastes of talent.  What’s frustrating about the recent “dark romantic comedy” Happily is that starts as something conceptually, visually exciting in its first act, only to devolve into one of those comedy-scene talent wasters as it quickly runs out of ideas.  Happily opens with a wicked black humor and a heightened visual style that recalls what everyone was drooling over with Game Night back in 2018.  Unfortunately, it leads with all its best gags & ideas, so after a while you’re just kinda hanging out with hip L.A. comedians in a nice house – which isn’t so bad but also isn’t so great.

Joel McHale & Kerry Bishé star as a couple whose persistent happiness and mutual lust—as if they were still newlyweds after 14 years of marriage—crazes everyone around them.  Their cutesy PDA and ease with conflict resolution is first presented as a mild annoyance to their more realistically jaded, coupled friends.  Then, Stephen Root appears at their doorstep like the mysterious G-Man in Richard Kelly’s The Box, explaining that their lovey-dovey behavior is supernaturally deranged, a cosmic defect he needs to fix with an injectable fluorescent serum.  That Twilight Zone intrusion on the otherwise formulaic plot feels like it should be the start to a wild, twisty ride.  Instead, it abruptly halts the movie’s momentum, forcing it to retreat to a low-key couple’s getaway weekend in a bland Californian mansion with its tail tucked between its legs.

In its first half-hour, Happily is incredibly stylish for such an obviously cheap production.  Red color gels, eerie dreams, disco beats, and an infinite sea of repeating office cubicles overwhelm the familiarity of the film’s genre trappings, underlining the absurdity of its main couple’s commitment to their “happily ever after” romance.  Once it gets derailed into couples’ getaway weekend limbo, all that visual style and cosmic horror just evaporates.  The talented cast of welcome faces—Paul Scheer, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Natalie Morales, Charlyne Yi, Jon Daly, Breckin Meyer, etc.—becomes the main draw instead of the dark Twilight Zone surrealism, which is a real shame.  There are plenty of other films where you could watch hipster comedians act like cruel, bitter assholes in a lavish locale.  The early style and humor of Happily promised something much more conceptually and aesthetically unique.

And since there isn’t much more to say about the toothless hangout comedy that Happily unfortunately devolves into, I’ll just point to a few recent titles on its budget level that are much more emphatically committed to the biting dark humor of their high-concept, anti-romantic premises: Cheap Thrills, The One I Love, and It’s a Disaster.  Those are good movies, and this is almost one too.

-Brandon Ledet

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)

I love the 1996 sci-fi comedy film Space Jam, by which I mean I was 10 years old in 1996.  Even as an adult, I find the movie fascinating as a corporate cashgrab mash-em-up of two disparate but popular brands—Looney Tunes & Michael Jordan—that accidently stumbled into sublimely silly post-modern absurdism.  The contortions Space Jam forces itself into to highlight both a post-baseball, career-reflective Michael Jordan and a hyperviolent, physics-defying cartoon bunny are incredible to watch, both from a place of ironic detachment and as in-the-moment entertainment.  Of course, it’s impossible for me to claim that Space Jam is objectively good, considering that anyone who was not a child in the mid-90s seems to despise it as a cultural scourge rather than just a middling, studio-made kids’ film.  I just want to confess up-front that I’m a Space Jam apologist; I even prefer it to the Joe Dante Looney Tunes film that supposedly fixed all its faults (according to more respectable tastemakers).  That way I can I credibly say I went into Space Jam: A New Legacy genuinely hopeful that I would enjoy the experience.  I did not watch this long-delayed sequel just to lazily dunk on it or call it out as the death knell of modern cinema.  I thought it might be fun.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is devoid of fun.  It succeeds neither as intentional comedy nor as accidental absurdism.  It lacks the shameless commitment to its own crass commercialism that the pushed the original Space Jam to the point of post-modern delirium.  Like the worst cash-grab sequels, it does its best to retrace the steps of its predecessor while suppressing all its strangest, most exciting ideas to the margins.  A New Legacy simply subs out Michael Jordan for his modern-day equivalent in LeBron James, then hangs up the towel.  James teams up with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters to win a cosmic game of basketball so he can get back to his family . . . except this time the game is staged in a computer server instead of outer space.  That venue change allows the new Space Jam to rope in as many background characters as it can from the full library of Warner Bros. Entertainment IP including blasphemous “cameos” from “cinematic universes” like The Matrix, The Devils, Casablanca, A Clockwork Orange, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  That’s the kind of naked corporate-synergy flexing that has professional critics decrying the film as “an abomination”, “an apocalyptic horror movie”, and a “swirling CGI garbage tornado.”  Those layup hit-pieces were preloaded before the movie was actually screened for critics, though.  What really holds A New Legacy back is that it keeps its only new, exciting idea—that intrusion of characters from classic films outside the Looney Tunes brand—relegated to the background.  King Kong, The Penguin, and Baby Jane Hudson should have been shooting hoops alongside LeBron James and Bugs Bunny, not cheering them on from the sidelines in blurred-out crowd shots.

It’s most widely being compared to Spielberg’s post-apocalyptic VR thriller Ready Player One (which is much more critical of this kind of self-aggrandizing IP worship than it’s given credit for), but the basic premise of Space Jam: A New Legacy actually lands much closer to the underappreciated sci-fi bummer The Congress.  In a dystopian vision that only rings truer to out shithole reality every year, The Congress imagines a world where celebrities no longer physically perform in mass-distributed art, but instead are scanned-into a computer system that simulates their screen presence in AI emulations.  It’s the ultimate movie studio power grab, one we’ve seen echoed in real-life simulations of deceased performers in films like Rogue One (Peter Cushing), Furious 7 (Paul Walker) and, most recently, the ethically-shaky documentary Roadrunner (Anthony Bordain).  In Space Jam: A New Legacy, LeBron James is offered the same opportunity: being scanned into the Warner Bros. “serververse” so his likeness can be plugged into whatever intellectual property the mega-corporation can scoop up before Disney gets to it first.  A New Legacy even maintains some of the dystopian undercurrent of Ready Player One & The Congress, with human beings cheering on the Looney Tunes team on one side of the court, fictional-product characters cheering on the opposing team of villains, and Don Cheadle orchestrating the entire event from the center as an evil algorithm MC (the film’s only decent, fully committed performance).  No matter how much its pile-on of disparate IPs in a single locale is supposed to register as Fun! and Cool!, the Warner Bros. studio itself is clearly positioned as the main villain of the piece, in direct opposition to its human, terrified audience, which it literally holds captive. 

It’s a shame that idea wasn’t pushed further.  If the entire point of this movie was for Warner Bros. to show off its extensive collection of intellectual properties, it should have just flooded the screen with them to the point where the audience was crushed under their immensity. Instead, it just sweeps them to the background so LeBron James can cosplay as a late-career Michael Jordan by recreating the exact plot beats & character dynamics of the original Space Jam in a new locale.  At least doubling down on its grotesque display of corporate synergy could’ve been memorable. As is, there’s nothing offered here worth sitting through A New Legacy to see, which I’m saying even as the rare dumdum who loves the original Space Jam, The Congress and, to a lesser extent, Ready Player One.  There are technically jokes in this movie, but none of them are funny (save maybe a couple throwback Silent Cinema gags featuring Wile E. Coyote).  It’s a full half-hour longer than the original, sacrificing the breakneck pacing that makes it such a breezy watch.  LeBron James is too concerned with being lauded as both the greatest basketball player to have ever lived and the ultimate family man to do anything risky or interesting with the material.  Even with all those missteps, though, A New Legacy‘s greatest sin is that it doesn’t push its one deviation from the original Space Jam to its furthest possible extreme.  Humorless movie nerds were already going to be pissed about it dragging characters from beloved classics down to the level of a Space Jam sequel no matter what, so there’s no reason for the movie to be timid about its shameless Warner Bros. IP promotion.  Fuck it.  Show Pennywise spin-dunking in Immortan Joe’s face, then high-fiving Free Willy and planting a sloppy kiss on Lego Catwoman’s blocky lips.  If you’re going to be blasphemous, at least have fun with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Lapsis (2021)

The daily experience of working and living right now is exhausting on a cellular level.  I’m not even referring to the specific context of the ongoing global pandemic, which has only amplified problems that have been humming in the background of our lives & work over the past couple decades.  Everything is fake now.  Meaningful, tangible experiences have been distorted and “disrupted” beyond recognition by the most power-hungry dipshits among us – tech bro vampires who mistake their inherited wealth for personal genius.  Most jobs aren’t really jobs anymore; they’re one-off assigned tasks performed by “independent contractors” for mega-corporations with incredible talent for innovating new ways to avoid taking care of their own.  Most personal interactions have lost their intimacy; they’re abstracted and commodified for social media broadcast, creating a constant pressure to be “on” all the time that makes even our idle hobbies feel like a secondary mode of labor – paid out in likes.  The modern world is uniquely empty and cruel in a way that’s becoming increasingly difficult to satirize.  There’s no artistic parody that could truly match the exponential inanity of the real thing, at least not in a way that won’t be topped the very next week by some other cosmic Internet Age blunder.

Lapsis gets close.  A high-concept, low-budget satire about our near-future gig economy dystopia, it’s a bleak comedy but not a hopeless one.  The wonderfully-named Dean Imperial stars as an old-fashioned working class brute who struggles to adapt to the artificial gig work of the Internet Age.  Our befuddled, belly-scratching hero takes on a new job running cables in the woods as infrastructure for a new, so-called “Quantum” internet service.  His daily work is assigned through an app that gamifies grueling, daily hikes with a point system and a competitive social media component with fellow contract “employees”.  He struggles to comprehend the basic functions of the app, requiring constant assistance from younger hikers who find smartphone tech more familiar & intuitive.  Yet, he ignores their attempts to unionize, focusing instead on sending all his hard-earned digital money back to a younger brother suffering from a vaguely defined type of medical exhaustion with the world called “omnia”.  The app heavily regulates hikers’ rest, like Chaplin being chided for taking an extended bathroom break in Modern Times.  They compete for tasks with automated delivery robots that trek on in the hours when their human bodies need sleep.  Their wages are taxed into oblivion by small, daily expenses that should be funded by the mega-corporation that “employs” them.  It’s all eerily familiar to the inane, artificial world we occupy now, with just enough exaggeration to qualify as science fiction.

The only other modern labor-exploitation satire I can recall in the same league as Lapsis is 2018’s Sorry to Bother YouLapsis doesn’t aim for the laugh-a-minute absurdism of Boots Riley’s instant-cult comedy, but it’s maybe even more successful in pinpointing exactly how empty and draining it feels to live & work right now.  Visually, it makes the most out of its budget in its art instillation set pieces that juxtapose its hiking-in-the-woods nature setting with impossible tangles of internet cables and the imposing cube-shaped modems they link to.  Satirically, it’s most impressive for walking a tightrope between observational humor and moralistic allegory.  Despite all of the tangible, recognizable parodies of modern gig-work tech it lays out in its early stretch, the film is most commendable for its more abstract, big-picture metaphors about inherited wealth, capitalist exploitation, and soul-deep exhaustion with modern living – all of which play out within the absurdist specificity of its near-future premise.  I was especially delighted that it strives towards a hopeful solution for our fake-as-fuck hellscape instead of just dwelling on its compounding problems.  It dares to sketch out a hopeful vision for labor solidarity between young, very-online Leftists and more traditional working-class Joe Schmoes, where it could just as easily point out the specific ways things are fucked right now without bothering to offer an exit strategy.  We need that kind of hopeful vision right now, even while we acknowledge exactly what’s wrong with the world as-is.

-Brandon Ledet

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

I wonder if anyone’s ever put together a definitive list of The Most Floridian Films of All Time.  If so, I’d like to nominate Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar for inclusion in that canon.  While other recent Florida-as-Fuck movies like Magic Mike, The Beach Bum, and The Florida Project have understandably centered their stories on the beach state’s burnout locals, Barb and Star dares to explore its function as the nation’s largest tourist trap.  The hotel tiki bars, by-the-hour boat rentals, boardwalk souvenir shops, and Lisa Frank color palettes that overwhelm the screen are all hyperspecific to Floridian tourism.  The authenticity of that setting includes the characterization of the titular tourists as well: two clueless but sweet rubes from the Midwest with absurdly superficial notions of what a getaway vacation adventure should look like.  You could remake this entire film on a cruise ship without having to change many of its gags or locations, which is how you know it perfectly captures the tacky surrealism of the modern tourist industry.  This is the fantasy version of Florida presented in all-inclusive vacation package pamphlets, and it’s wonderfully bizarre to see actual human beings navigate those flamingo pink waters.

Of course, the main concern of this absurdist buddy comedy is neither to capture the spirit of Floridian tourism nor to drum up tension in its superfluous sci-fi espionage plot.  It’s simply trying to make you laugh, and it ably succeeds.  Kristen Wiig and frequent collaborator Annie Mumolo co-lead as Barb & Star, a pair of middle-age, Midwest besties whose co-dependent life together has hit a spiritual rut.  In search of a “soul douche” meant to rediscover their inner “shimmer”, the gals head off to the gift shop-lined beaches of Florida.  There, they learn to have fun without hanging onto each other 24/7, thanks to the help of a sexy himbo staying in the same hotel (Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Jamie Dornan) and an exponentially out-of-place terrorist plot orchestrated by a James Bond villain (also played by Wiig).  It’s a delightful throwback to a very specific type of absurdist buddy comedy that rarely gets made anymore, where a pair of Good Buds bounce inane in-jokes off each other, unaware of the deadly-serious crisis that orbits around them.  I’m thinking of titles like Zoolander, A Night at the Roxbury, Dude Where’s My Car?, and Romy & Michelle’s High School Re-Union Like all those previous examples of its ilk, it’s destined to gradually build a cult audience, one that will likely outlast the cultural impact of Wiig & Mumolo’s previous, more commercially successful screenplay collaboration, Bridesmaids.

If I have one complaint about Barb and Star, it’s that it’s one song performance short of being a full-blown musical.  Why stop at two break-from-reality musical numbers?  A third one would have really rounded out the show, especially a grand musical blowout finale.  And no, Richard Cheese’s cameo as a boobies-obsessed lounge singer does not count.  Otherwise, it’s a perfect, traditional buddy comedy – one bolstered by its excessively Floridian set design, which strives to outdo The Birdcage‘s commitment to that pleasure realm aesthetic in every new locale.  This might even be the best vehicle yet for the normcore-parody comedic sensibilities Wiig honed on SNL, considering that most of her film work since that show has been focused on darkly funny indie dramas (give or take a MacGruber).  Any minor complaints about where it falls short in its musicality or narrative structure are entirely besides the point.  It’s simply fun.  Or, in the movie’s own words, it’s “a real tit-flapper”.

-Brandon Ledet

Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (1980)

If you’re a movie nerd of a certain age and sensibility, you’re already well aware that there’s a new Pedro Almodóvar short that recently premiered on HBO Max.  Filmed during the pandemic, it’s a cramped, minor production that essentially amounts to Tilda Swinton performing a one-woman play: Jean Cocteau’s 1930s actress showcase “The Human Voice.”  In the abstract, it’s surprising that the short is Almodóvar’s first collaboration with Swinton, since the two seem like a perfect pair.  In practice, it makes sense that he’d want to distance himself from that casting choice’s unavoidable association with the similarly idiosyncratic works of Derek Jarman, a contemporary.  The Human Voice feels like watching Almodóvar filter the basic components of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown through a Derek Jarman lens — complete with unadorned stage play theatrics & endless fascination with Tilda Swinton’s bone structure.  It’s a gorgeously wrapped, bitterly funny treat the way that Almodóvar always is at his best, but it’s more of a dispassionate, abstracted work than what he normally delivers.  That’s fine for a short-film experiment meant to fill in the schedule gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did have me yearning for the barely coherent chaos of Almodóvar’s previous extrapolation of this same story in Women on the Verge.  There’s just something about that earlier, messier draft’s manic screwball energy that speaks more directly to my garbage bin heart than this distilled Conceptual Art revision ever could.

Thankfully, the arrival of The Human Voice on HBO Max was accompanied by ten earlier works from Almodóvar’s back catalog, so it was extremely convenient to scratch that itch.  We already covered many of the titles included in that package on an episode of The Swampflix Podcast last year, but a few selections were completely new to me, including Almodóvar’s debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón.  Any of the chaotic Pee-wee’s Playhouse kitch-punk I was picking up on in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is amplified a thousand-fold in Pepi, Luci, Bom.  Filmed over two years’ worth of spare weekends in Almodóvar’s punk-youth days in the Movida Madrileña movement, Pepi, Luci, Bom is a total fucking mess – the exact spiritual opposite of the cold arthouse abstraction of The Human Voice.  It’s a grimy, post-John Waters comedy that’s more concerned with obnoxiously breaking every taboo imaginable than it is with purpose or coherence.  Late in its second act, its protagonist (Pepi, played by Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura) admits she has no idea how the fictional film’s she’s making is going to end, which feels like a desperate confession to the audience from the cash-strapped man behind the camera.  Like Pink Flamingos, its broad outline plotting is mostly an excuse to stage a series of barely connected, highly scatological stunts among its cast of subprofessional freaks & punks.  It’s a little obnoxious, glaringly imperfect, and I love it for all its many, many faults.

Speaking of Derek Jarman, I don’t know that I’ve felt this at home with a cast & setting since I first stumbled onto JubileePepi, Luci, Bom is dragged by its hair trailing the story of a mousy housewife who’s seduced & corrupted by the local punks who despise her cop husband and conspire to ruin his life.  Unfortunately, like most Almodóvar films, it falls under the queasy genre umbrella of the Rape Revenge Comedy, which makes it difficult to blanketly recommend to the uninitiated.  Like in Waters’s early provocation pieces, the depictions of sexual assault are so flippant and grotesquely absurd that they’re difficult to take entirely seriously, but that transgression is still frequently repeated and frequently alienating all the same.  Like in Almodóvar’s later, more refined works, the women of Pepi, Luci, Bom refuse to be dismissed as victims, no matter how much violence the macho authority figures in their lives inflict on them.  The mousy housewife subverts the power imbalance suffered under her abusive cop husband’s thumb by incorporating her victimhood into her masochistic sexual kinks.  Likewise, the cop’s street-punk rape victim becomes sexually aroused while watching her scumbag friends kick him half to death in the street.  And just so you know not to take that vicious beating too seriously, it includes the bloodied cop shouting “Not my balls!” at his assailants as if it were a screwball comedy punchline.  It’s all in bad taste, and yet it’s all in good fun.

I can’t explain exactly why, but I found all of this film’s elaborate indulgences in piss play, stoner gags, fart jokes, and literal dick measuring contests to be oddly wholesome, despite the severity of its rape-revenge premise.  I was shocked, for instance, by how sweetly romantic I found Bom’s performance of her band Bonitoni’s love song “Murciana marrana”, written in ode to her maso-girlfriend Luci with the lyrics “I love you because you’re dirty, filthy, slutty, and servile.  You’re Murcia’s most obscene, and you’re all mine”.  Watching these three women and their knucklehead punk buddies thumb their nose at every possible taboo while modeling homemade clothing in shocking pinks & phlegmy yellows genuinely warmed my heart, even as the film’s nastier stunts turned my stomach.  The only thing that holds Pepi, Luci, Bom back from fully conveying Almodóvar’s chaotic genius is the limitations of its budget.  Not only did its scrappy weekend-to-weekend production derail any potential for narrative cohesion, but its 16mm to 35mm blow-up print also lacks the color saturation that makes later, better-funded works like Women on the Verge pop like a poisoned candy shop.  Still, despite all its ramshackle production details and juvenile pranksterism, it’s clear that Almodóvar was already fully himself here, complete with The Human Voice-worthy pontifications about how “Cinema isn’t life; cinema is fabricated.”  If anything, his usual sensibilities are just presented raw & unfiltered here, in a way that feels genuinely dangerous – a far cry from the controlled arthouse abstraction of his recent short.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Eating Raoul (1982)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss Paul Bartel’s swinger-culture sex comedy Eating Raoul (1982).

00:00 Welcome

03:40 Thoroughbreds (2017)
04:20 Free Fire (2016)
08:20 Crazy People (1990)
10:25 The Lost Boys (1987)
12:00 Little Joe (2019)
15:20 The Stuff (1985)

18:30 Eating Raoul (1982)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Gregory’s Girl (1980)

The opening scene of Bill Forsyth’s cult-classic teen comedy Gregory’s Girl sets audience expectations for something much crasser and more irritating than what’s ultimately delivered. A group of horny high school nerds spy on a nurse via telescope as she changes out of her uniform in a hospital window. They hoot & guffaw at the shared sight of naked breasts, as if it were the opening to a Scottish version of Porky’s. It’s incredible, then, that the film that follows is such an earnestly sweet, heartwarming examination of pubescent awkwardness, not a ribald romp about bouncing boobies & lost virginities. In fact, the main thrust of Gregory’s Girl is in reforming the social & sexual awkwardness of those boys instead of drooling over women’s bodies along with them. It’s less of a teen sex comedy than it is a romantic heist film, wherein a gang of small-town Scottish girls conspire to hijack & reform the sexual attentions of the neighborhood boys so they can walk away with more charming, better socialized dates than the drooling idiots we’re introduced to.

Like with most eccentric comedies of the era, the characters who populate Gregory’s Girl are each fixated on a singular personal obsession: photography, cooking, window washing, soccer, etc. The gangly teenager Gregory’s obsession just happens to be another human being, as he develops a major crush on a girl on his soccer team who’s a much better athlete (and much better socialized) than him. The conspiratorial heist portion of the film involves a group of fellow teens breaking Gregory out of his fixation on this girl, who’s way more interested in playing soccer than she is in his goofball ass. There’s often an all-or-nothing singular obsession to hormone-addled teenage crushes, and most of the film dwells on that period of horse-blinders fixation. Watching Gregory become deprogrammed from his own romantic self-brainwashing is a major relief from the dumbass teen-boy behavior of the first hour, and it’s outright miraculous a movie this small in scope & budget taps into an observation so sweetly profound.

It’s a testament to John Gordon Sinclair’s central performance that Gregory remains an adorable goof long before he’s deprogrammed. His awkwardness in his own acne-riddled skin and unwieldy noodle body is consistently hilarious from the start, even when he’s just failing to look comfortable & confident sitting in a chair or crossing a road. He plays the part with the same energetic juvenalia as a Pee-wee Herman or Mr. Bean performance. It’s an absolutely lovely caricature of pubescent awkwardness, perfectly capturing the adorable but embarrassing stretch where you don’t know what to do with your body or your heart. The low-key absurdist humor of the world he awkwardly navigates also reminded me a lot of Better Off Dead & Rock n Roll High School—two of my all-time favorite high school comedies—in the matter-of-fact inclusion of students smoking pipes & playing chess in the boys room or aimlessly wandering the halls in a penguin costume as if it were a standard matter of course. Those subtly absurdist delights are just as difficult to convey to the uninitiated as the romantic sleight-of-hand of the film’s heist climax, but it’s movie magic alchemy all the same – turning horny teen-boy awkwardness into pure Scottish charm.

-Brandon Ledet

Bad Trip (2021)

One of the more surprising narratives this Awards Season has been the glowing accolades for Borat 2 (aka Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), including multiple nominations for Academy Awards in pretty major categories.  Not only is the Borat sequel middling as a comedy loosely stuffed with hit-or-miss gags, but its staged-pranks format has gotten incredibly dusty in the decades since series like The Ali G Show, Jackass, and The Tom Green Show first premiered on television.  This is especially true of the Borat schtick in particular, since the popularization of platforms like Twitter & Fox News have made it so the modern ghoul no longer needs to be tricked into broadcasting their ghoulish beliefs in public.  They just do it openly & proudly now.  I left Borat 2 wondering if the post-Jackass prank movie had anywhere left to go that hadn’t already been seen dozens of times before.  I should have known that the much-delayed Eric Andre vehicle Bad Trip would have an answer for that, as his own modern mutation of the Ali G-era prank show has been pushing that medium to new, weird extremes in recent years.  What I didn’t expect is that Andre’s innovations within that format would be so glaringly Retro.

In Bad Trip, a stunted-adult loser (Eric Andre) travels up the East Coast with his best friend (Lil Rel Howery) in a car stolen from that bestie’s tough-as-nails sister (Tiffany Haddish) in order to profess his love to his childhood crush (Michaela Conlin).  Hijinks ensue along the way.  That absurdly simplistic premise is repeatedly derailed by one-off gags in which the three professional comedians at the film’s center interact with an unexpecting public through candid-camera pranks, crassly blending fact & fiction in an otherwise traditional road trip movie.  The pranks portions of Bad Trip are exactly what you’d expect from a candid-cam comedy starring Eric Andre: shocking absurdist gags, abrasive gross-outs, and a constant tension between chaos & artifice.  You can tell Andre grew up admiring shows like Jackass and revels in the opportunity to create one himself on such a large scale.  There’s nothing especially innovative or surprising there, outside maybe the shocks of individual gags.  The surprising thing about Bad Trip is how much Andre (along with frequent collaborator Kitao Sakurai in the director’s chair) taps into the other kinds of comedies he grew up watching in the film’s scripted portions.

The scripted connective tissue between Bad Trip‘s pranks oddly shares more DNA with mainstream 90s & 00s comedies than it does with Borat or Jackass.  The film is practically a parody of the gross-out humor that flooded Hollywood comedies after the Farrelly Brothers hit it big with There’s Something About Mary; it just happens to invite an unaware public into the grotesque mayhem of those films’ juvenile humor.  It even openly acknowledges its connection to that vintage comedic past by citing the Wayans Brothers comedy White Chicks as a specific touchstone, both in its scripted portions and in its in-the-wild pranks.  The film is effectively an act of post-modern scholarship, connecting the candid-cam pranks era to an even earlier wave of gross-out shock comedies – freshening up both formats through the juxtaposition.  That may seem like highfalutin praise for a film where Andre posits public streaking, puking, and urination as the height of modern comedy, but I really do believe there’s an academic thrust behind that retrograde buffoonery.

Unfortunately, not all of the ways in which Bad Trip is Ironically Retro are fun to watch.  Some of the films’ post-Farrelly Brothers humor did not sit right with me, especially the pranks on people just trying their best to get through their shifts at work and the extensive gag in which Andre is sexually assaulted by a gorilla.  They’re jokes that you would totally expect to see in a mainstream comedy twenty years ago, though, for whatever that’s worth.  It’s the juxtaposition of that grotesque humor with real-life participants that makes the film feel fresh & dangerous in the first place, a tonal clash exaggerated by its often-wholesome story about two adult men bonding on a haphazard road trip.  Even given some of its mood-killing misfires, Bad Trip is on the whole much funnier and much more excitingly innovative than the softball political jabs of Borat 2 – an Oscar-nominated mediocrity.  At the very least, it’s a film that’s aware that it’s participating in a dead, moldy genre, and it goes out of its way to acknowledge how its staged-pranks format is out of sync with modern comedic sensibilities.

-Brandon Ledet

Go Go Crazy (2011)

In my Is It Just Me? review, I talked about TLA, Breaking Glass, and their domination of the 2005ish-2016ish era of gay cinema. TLA Releasing, at least, managed to put out the occasional queer prestige piece (like Mysterious Skin and, to a lesser extent, Latter Days, both of which came out in 2004 and helped pave the way for TLA to reach a larger audience), but Breaking Glass can’t make the same claim. If you go to the IMDb list of their films, no matter how you organize it—user ratings, popularity, number of votes, box officeyou’ll be hard pressed to find a single release on the first page that you recognize, with the possible exceptions of Breaking Through and Cropsey (which isn’t even gay), and even then, I doubt it. As such, it should come as no surprise if you’ve never heard of Go Go Crazy, a mockumentary about five Pittsburgh go-go dancers who are competing for the top slot and a $1000 prize.

We’ve got Vinnie T (Nick Kenkel), who dreams of one day becoming a professional karaoke star and who has styled himself after the participants of Jersey Shore, which, as all of us in 2021 know, is a reference that has withstood the test of time. We’ve also got ex-Amish pretty boy Chase (Paul Cereghino), a fatphobic, unabashedly racist dillweed with a Travolta-in-Grease pomp; there’s Connor (Ryan Windish), a Speedo-stuffing straight bartender at the Trocadero, the bar where the competition is being held; Kiernon (Michael Cusumano), an Eastern European ballet dancer who dreams of creating a dance production out of a traumatic bear attack that he suffered; and finally there’s Broadway hopeful Ken (Eric Spear), who plays the Pollyanna of the group and has no other personality traits. Judging the competition are Weinsteinian bar owner Hank (Rick Crom), Celine Dion impersonator “embodier” Tina Perkins (Christina Bianco), and the previous year’s winner Blake Goldenrod (actual gay porn star Jake Steel); the event is hosted by green-wigged drag queen Hedda Lettuce (billed as herself), and rounding out the cast is stagehand Simon (Derek St. Pierre), who is “dating” (read: being taken advantage of by) Chase.

A go-go mockumentary isn’t a bad idea, especially given the time of the movie’s release. By 2011, The Office was in its sixth season and both Parks and Recreation and Modern Family were in their second or third; the format was reaching heights of popularity that were previously undreamt of. What the film is most clearly attempting (and failing) to imitate, however, is 2000’s Best in Show, or perhaps a lighter, softer version of 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous, as indicated by the outlandishness of the character types present in the former and the local competition setting of the latter. Both films were cult touchstones for young queer cinephiles, and their legacy (if not their quality) is on full display here. The problem is that there are no characters who are engaging. Sure, Kirstie Alley’s overzealous stage mom character in Gorgeous isn’t “likable” in the traditional sense, and there are a lot of bitchy queens popping off all over Show, but they’re fun. The characters in Go Go Crazy are neither. The LGBTQIA+ community has long been one that embraces wit and witticisms as a core part of the social space, but it’s also well-known that there are those for whom simply being mean is treated as a replacement for having a personality, especially among those who equate camp bitchiness with comedy but don’t really understand the artistry behind a well-crafted and delivered bon mot, as opposed to face value racism and unclever pettiness.

It’s a kind of mean streak without cleverness that is a throughline in Go Go Crazy. We’re clearly supposed to love to hate Chase, but in reality, we just hate him. That’s not to say that there isn’t the occasional joke that not only lands but works, but they are few and far between. The comedy of an American who doesn’t understand the difference between the state of Georgia and the nation of the same name (or who has never heard of the latter), from which Kiernon hails, is always good for a wry smile if nothing else. Too often, though, the film’s attempts to squeeze comedy out of the kind of pranks that were cliché in the 1980s, like putting itching powder in a competitor’s jock strap* or greasing up the pole before a rival’s dance to prevent them from finishing their routine, fall flat on their face. This is a relic of a film, a pseudo-raunchy sex comedy that’s actually fairly tame outside of its references to Hank’s sexual-predation-as-business-practice, which is itself treated glibly by the narrative in a way that is wouldn’t be now (and shouldn’t have been then). Go Go Crazy gets by solely on the physiques of its cast, which was already a weak draw in 2011 and is even less so now, when pornography has become widespread and available to just about everyone on a device that they keep in their pockets. Worse still, the version on Tubi has some really notable technical issues, including multiple instances of audio errors where it’s clear that the actor had micing problems, and where ADR should have been used if they weren’t going to do another take. I’m not sure if this is a Tubi problem or if it’s present in other releases (like the DVD), but it’s very noticeable and lends the production an amateurish feeling, which is shocking given that late director Fred M. Caruso’s previous film, The Big Gay Musical, had better, more professional production value.

Even as a piece of queer cinema history, it’s not that valuable. Like a TLA release, the eye-candy cast of this one is, unsurprisingly, made up of cast members that lack a headshot on IMDb. Even if you feel like taking a trip back through time, this is one to avoid.

*Bizarrely, this was also a plot point in Is It Just Me?, as a petty revenge ploy by Blaine against Cameron when he thought Cameron had hooked up with Xander, just in case you forgot that Blaine is a terrible person.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Baby’s Day Out (1994)

When I was a kid, we had a Baby’s Day Out promotional beach towel in the house, a glaring outlier among our more generic poolside laundry. I have no idea how we acquired such a precious pop-art object, but it did its job as an advertisement. In fact, it over-achieved. Long after the novelty of this box office bomb had been forgotten to time by the majority of 1990s America, Baby’s Day Out remained a household name within our family – all thanks to a sun-faded, increasingly ratty beach towel. I was not shocked, then, to recently find a DVD copy of the film lurking in my family’s physical media giveaway pile without having encountered it any other context in the decades since. I was a little shocked by the actual content of the film, though, which is just as much hyperviolent torture porn as it is wholesome Family Entertainment. We might as well have had a cutesy beach towel commemorating the release of The Silence of the Lambs.

The truth is Baby’s Day Out doesn’t deserve to be remembered, as it’s essentially just the reheated leftovers of much more successful, beloved films. In this Frankenstein experiment, producer John Hughes shamelessly attempts to recreate his past Home Alone & Ferris Bueller successes by setting a tiny infant baby loose in downtown Chicago with accident-prone gangsters on its tail. The gangsters desperately want to hold the heroic Baby Bink hostage for a ransom-money payoff from his rich-asshole parents. Meanwhile, Baby Bink continually escapes their grasp to visit the various locations of his favorite bedtime storybook: the bus stop, the zoo, the park, the construction site, etc. Each set piece is introduced with a serene storybook illustration, then offers various life-threatening perils for the Home Alone-knockoff gangsters to stumble directly into as they watch their Big Score crawl away totally unharmed.

The plot-necessary connective tissue between the film’s set pieces is a chore, but the Looney Tunes chase scenes are hilariously over-the-top in their bone-crunching hyperviolence when considered in isolation. Baby’s Day Out is a cutesy tour of Chicago for Baby Bink, but it’s a hellish endurance contest for the boneheaded mobster villains who seek to exploit him. They take sledgehammers to their skulls. They fall off rooftops and smash their genitals against the AC window units below. Their bones are shattered by animatronic gorillas at the zoo. The finale transforms an everyday construction site into a towering medieval torture chamber. At one point, the movie even abandons the conceit that Baby Bink is blissfully unaware of all this hideous, cosmic-justice pain when he deliberately lights Joe Mantegna’s genitals on fire so he can gleefully crawl off to the next stop on his Chicagoan tourist itinerary. So, he’s either a ruthless infant vigilante or just a fucked up little hedonist with no regard for the trail of dead he leaves on his selfish sightseeing daytrip – no in-between.

There was obviously a lot of naïve hope that Baby’s Day Out would be a major hit. Everything from its canceled tie-in video game to its teased Baby’s Trip to China sequel hints at a sad, misguided Movie Studio optimism. Instead, it lives on as a disturbing novelty, remembered only by the 90s Kids™ whose homes were cursed with its promotional beach towels & bargain-bin DVDs. When scanning Google Image Search for said beach towel, I could only find these nightmarish auction lots of props worn & operated by Vern Troyer as the baby’s stunt double (his first job in the entertainment industry, poor guy). That shock is a perfect encapsulation of what revisiting this film as an adult feels like. You expect something cute & harmless, but instead find a hard stare into the pitch-black abyss of human cruelty & folly. It’s just as deeply unsettling as it is delightfully inane.

-Brandon Ledet