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.