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

Mangoshake (2018)

For the first half-hour of Mangoshake, I was convinced it was a potential cult classic, the kind of unfairly overlooked no-budget gem that falls through the cracks of festival circuit & self-publishing distribution when it should be making laps at midnight movie slots in every major city. I was sad to lose that excitement as the film continued. Mangoshake is a textbook case of “This should have been a short,” since it has no interest in changing up its methods or sense of purpose after its characters & setting are established in the first act. There comes a point in a lot of movies (especially comedies) where the excitement of entering a new world starts to dull and the story & dialogue need to actually earn every minute of the runtime that follows. Capping your film off at under 40 minutes is an easy way around that necessity, but the problem is that nobody really goes out of their way to watch shorts (unless they’re included as a pre-feature primer at a festival or your friend is the director and begs for clicks on their Vimeo). In that way, I’m glad Mangoshake pushes on to feature length long after it has anything meaningful left to do or say, because I likely never would have given it a chance otherwise and it really is an endearing vision of youthful chaos in its opening stretch.

To the film’s credit, its lack of purpose or narrative momentum registers as being intentional. It functions as a middle finger to the clichéd film fest circuit coming-of-age comedy as a genre, dedicated to “every person who watches a coming of age movie and feels worse after.” The premise is written-on-a-bar-napkin simple: a group of late-teens losers waste a summer hanging around a mango smoothie stand. That’s it. Some romantic jealousies and petty rivalries arise around this low-stakes set-up, but the movie is actively disinterested in pursuing them. In fact, it’s prideful to not explore any one thread that could complicate its central scenario with emotion or meaning, instead fully dedicating itself to evoking the sunbaked boredom of post-high school summers. When a love triangle threatens to form, the mango smoothie stand’s operator interrupts on a bullhorn to chide “This is not Degrassi!”, immediately cutting the tension. When the stand’s cofounder breaks off the friendship that inspired the mango smoothie business in the first place, he only goes as far to open a rival chow mein stand mere feet away from his ex-bestie, so that they’re practically still hanging out. It’s an aggressively purposeless, inert film, which is amusing until it isn’t.

Mangoshake almost gets away with its directionless slackerdom the way a lot of films do: it’s funny. Every character reads their mundane, petty dialogue about go-nowhere romances and subpar mango smoothies with explosively nervous energy, as if the crew’s acting coach was the Chester puppet from The Sifl and Ollie Show. There’s also a distinct Jackass-flavored pranksterism that occasionally cuts through their anxious mumbling, often with an eardrum-destroying spike in volume. It’s as if the film is actively making fun of its own existence, like it resents having to go through the motions of the coming-of-age comedy template just so it can tell some inside jokes. The charm of that bratty insolence can only carry it so far, though. I still laugh every time I watch Paul Rudd throw a sassy temper tantrum about having to clear his cafeteria tray in Wet Hot American Summer, but I doubt I’d ever revisit the film if that were the central gag in every scene. Mangoshake made me laugh quite a bit before my enthusiasm waned. After that point, I was just waiting for it to be over, like a sweaty summer where nothing interesting’s happening and all my friends are on their worst behavior.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Mangoshake as an overlooked gem. It’s the exact kind of no-budget D.I.Y. filmmaking I strive to champion. It’s a film that seemingly doesn’t want to be loved (or to even exist), though, and I have to respect that self-loathing thorniness for what it is. It likely could be edited down into a tidy little summertime prank comedy at half its length, but then it would no longer be its misanthropic, Indie Film-spoofing self and might lose some of its charm in the process. It’s probably best that it’s imperfect and overlong, then, even if that quality keeps the audience at an arm’s distance.

-Brandon Ledet

Toni Erdmann (2016)

The highly lauded German comedy Toni Erdmann has many hurdles to clear in winning over latecomers who didn’t catch it in its early festival & foreign market runs. First, selling anyone on a three hour-long foreign language comedy is a difficult task, which is largely the reason it personally took me over a year to see the film once it was available to stream at home. More importantly, though, the initial hype for Toni Erdmann’s greatness was feverishly enthusiastic. Before it was ever available for American audiences, the film already earned a spot on the BBC’s poll for the hundred greatest comedies of all time, an indication of just how in love the larger critical community is with the film. Still, despite the daunting nature of its massive runtime and the unfair expectation level set by its early critical hype, Toni Erdmann succeeds as a hilarious examination of loneliness & emotional fragility. Building its entire dramatic conflict around a single father-daughter relationship, its emotional beats are intimate in their specificity, but near-universal in their scope, especially relatable to anyone who has ever been driven mad by a barrage of dad jokes. I can’t quite match the depth of love many critics have already flooded the film’s reputation with, but it’s still very much an enjoyable, rewarding watch for anyone with enough free time to give it a chance.

The titular Toni Erdmann is a fictional persona created by a German father to prank his emotionally distant adult daughter. An aging music teacher mourning the recent loss of a pet, the father shows up unannounced for a vacation at the daughter’s work-abroad apartment in Bucharest, Romania. Stressed about an upcoming business proposal she’s preparing for her company’s contractor, she could not be less happy about the intrusion. In turn, he’s disappointed in her success as a business woman seemingly zapping the joy & adventure out of her life. Armed with hideous false dentures & a cheap wig, he creates the persona of Toni Erdmann to prank her out of her uptight doldrums, bringing his weaponized arsenal of lame dad jokes into her place of business, jeopardizing her reputation. They begin the film as opposing forces, the daughter asking her father, “Do you have ambitions in life that aren’t slipping fart cushions under people?” and the father asking her, “Are you really a human?” His pranks and the mounting pressure of her career trigger a mild nervous breakdown, releasing all the tension her emotional fragility builds throughout in a couple cathartic scenes that walk a thin border between hilarious & cruel. By the end of the film, both father & daughter are on the same page, but it’s not necessarily a happy place to be or an easy space to occupy.

As with a lot of classic comedies, the joy of Toni Erdmann is in watching traditional societal barriers break down to make room for chaos. The prankster father’s jokes aren’t especially amusing in and of themselves, but in the context of an uptight business world where any out-of-place gesture can mean loss of money or status they land with full comedic impact. The business world he’s subverting is worthy of the offense too; decisions made in fancy office buildings just outside Romanian slums are determining the future of untold families who have no power or input. The movie doesn’t dwell too much on the practical, devastating effects of unethical, exploitative business world that contrasts its titular buffoon, but that context is always lurking at the edge of the frame, informing the tension his actions disrupt. The most cathartic societal breakdowns are in more intimate social environments: a pair of climactic house parties that devolve into emotionally intense karaoke & sexual chaos. The politeness that builds the tension in those moments is superhuman, which makes its inevitable release more satisfying. The difference between Toni Erdmann & most comedies, though, is its dramatic honesty in detailing the emotional aftermath of those societal breakdowns, which helps explain why it’s so critically lauded.

There’s supposedly a planned remake of Toni Erdmann in the works starring Kristen Wiig & Jack Nicholson; this sounds like a phenomenally bad idea. Not only is the film such a critical darling that any slight changes to its formula will inevitably inspire umbrage, but its overall vibe is so inextricably European that an American context will dilute what makes it special. I’m not only talking about its international corporate culture either. The film’s casual approach to sexual transgression is likely to either be played for Farrelly Brothers-style gross-out humor or to be excised entirely, given the difference in American attitudes toward the subject. Toni Erdmann isn’t exactly Wetlands in terms of shock value sexuality, but it does treat casual nudity & out-of-context sperm-eating with a delicate comedic touch I doubt could be replicated in an American remake. I don’t exactly believe the film to be the infallible Holy Ground its critical reputation suggests; it’s too drawn out & ultimately too well-behaved to earn that distinction. However, I do think that trying to restage its very distinctive charms in another cultural context is a huge mistake, no matter how universal its father-daughter relationship themes might seem from the outside looking in. It really is a special, particular work, even if not the masterpiece suggested by its reputation.

-Brandon Ledet