Extra Ordinary (2020)

It was only a matter of time before Taika Waititi’s brand of sweet, understated humor started registering as a direct influence on other comedic media. I already felt that influence last year on the minor Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers (which was produced by Waititi and featured several of his regular collaborators), but this year’s Extra Ordinary feels like evidence that it’s now reaching out even further into the ether. Borrowing a humble, reserved approach to the horror comedy genre that Waititi previously explored in What We Do in the Shadows, Extra Ordinary is an absurdly polite, underplayed farce about ghost hunters in small-town Ireland. It’s not quite as comedically successful as Waititi’s modern-day vampire comedy (nor the What We Do in the Shadows TV show, nor its closest competitor Los Espookys), but it does nail the lowkey charm that made it such a success. This is an adorably sweet, character-driven comedy about relatable people dealing with a seemingly insurmountable crisis they don’t deserve to suffer; that crisis just happens to involve demons, ghosts, and other supernatural phenomena.

A meek, reclusive driving instructor with a past as a paranormal medium (Maeve Higgins) is drawn out of her shell to help stop a washed-up rock star (Will Forte) from completing a Satanic sacrifice that would revive his career. The ghosts she encounters along the way are mostly pretty mundane, taking the shape of animated electrical appliances, squawking birds, and a domestically abusive, chain-smoking housewife. She reluctantly gets back into the rhythm of interacting with these apparitions for the sake of saving her nemesis’s intended virgin sacrifice. That sounds like a heroic cause in the abstract, but the process mostly involves making her equally shy love interest vomit up a semen-like ectoplasm after briefly engaging each ghost in a polite chat. Even the Satanic ritual at the climax is undercut from achieving anything genuinely Cool or Horrific by mundane interruptions like minor traffic accidents, bickering couples, and Chinese food delivery. It’s an extremely silly, absurd movie when considered in totality, but in the moment everything is so aggressively pleasant that its cartoonish qualities don’t immediately register.

It takes a minute for Extra Ordinary’s sense of humor to fully heat up, by which I mean that it takes the audience a minute to adjust to its characters’ peculiarly muted wavelengths. The film is plenty funny once it builds that momentum, though, and it eventually stages a hugely satisfying farcical payoff in its final Satanic showdown that makes everything that preceded feel like a movie-long setup to a remarkably solid punchline. It traffics in grotesque, horrific scenarios involving demonic possessions, domestic abuse, and paranormal sex fluids, but the characters who navigate them are so quietly sweet that you hardly notice how harsh or over-the-top the whole thing feels from afar. It’s close enough to the Waititi formula that you recognize the influence, but specific enough in its own characterizations that it succeeds at being its own distinct thing. It’s also the kind of comedy that likely rewards repeat viewings, since it centers remarkably sweet characters you can’t help but want to spend more time with once you get to know them.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Boys (2019)

I laughed at least once for every minute of Good Boys, which I don’t know that I can say about any other mainstream comedy in recent memory. Even other coming-of-age sex comedies like Blockers, Booksmart, and The To Do List can’t compete with this film’s joke-to-laugh ratio, despite being objectively Better films on the whole. Of course, humor is subjective, especially considering the specificity of this film’s POV in its suburban teen boy sexuality, so I can’t claim that every filmgoer will have the same high success rate with Good Boys‘s many, many gags as I did. I do feel confident in saying that the film is far more endearing & well-written than its initial “Superbad except with cussing tweens” reputation prepared me for, though. This is not a one-joke movie about how funny it is to watch children do a cuss; it’s got a lot on its mind about innocence, the pain of outgrowing relationships, and what distinguishes the earnest generation of radically wholesome kids growing up beneath us from our own meaner, amoral tween-years follies. These are very good boys.

A major aspect of this film’s success is that it acknowledges its own limitations from the outset. Its story of young tween boys’ friendships struggling to survive the social perils of sixth grade is about as low-stakes as any narrative that’s ever reached the big screen. A couple larger comedic set pieces within the film (including drug trafficking, an interstate pile-up, and a frat house brawl) distract from the plot’s total lack of meaningful consequences, but for the most part the film keeps its conflicts intimate & small. The pint-sized trio at its center want to attend their first “kissing party” at the coolest kid in sixth grade’s house. In order to achieve that modest goal, they have to avoid getting grounded, dodge teen girl bullies, try their first sips of (room temperature) beer, and maintain their solidarity as a unit even though they’re clearly outgrowing the friendship that binds them. The details of the obstacles that stand in their way can be outrageously broad, leaning into the tweens-confronted-with-sex-drugs-and-violence humor promised in the ads. Their goals & circumstances remain aggressively minor, however, and much of the humor reflects how the least meaningful bullshit imaginable means everything to you at that age, because the world you occupy is so small & inconsequential.

There’s an intelligently mapped-out relationship dynamic maintained between the three titular boys as their meaningless, go-nowhere adventure shakes their friendship to its core. Jacob Tremblay stars as the loverboy heartthrob of the group, the only one who has an active interest in reaching the kissing party destination. Keith L. Williams & Brady Noon co-star as the angel & devil on his shoulders, respectively, staging a constant moral-compass tug-of-war that steers his focus away from his girl-kissing objective with distractions like Doing the Right Thing and Searching for Beer. Of course, even the most wicked of the trio isn’t all that maliciously evil in the grand scheme of human morality. Not only are these children too young to get into too much trouble; they’re also from a nicer, more considerate generation that’s being raised with a less toxic model of a masculine norm. If we’re comparing this film to Superbad, it’s impossible to not notice how much sweeter, more vulnerable, and more aware of the value of Enthusiastic Consent these children are compared to the generations who preceded them. Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy friends who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future.

If you’re looking to Good Boys for broad jokes about children doing cusses and failing to differentiate what is and what is not a sex toy, the movie is more than happy to supply them. And those jokes are funny too! They’re just not all that’s going on. I won’t say this film is better constructed or more emotionally satisfying than its fellow 2019 Superbad revision Booksmart (with which it shares a Run the Jewels needle drop and a goofball-dad performance from Will Forte), but I do think it equally clarifies what makes the earnest generation of youngsters growing up right now so unique & promising while also garnering more guffaws-per-minute on a joke efficiency scale. As a pair, the two films work well in signaling that the kids are alright, a refreshing sentiment in a mainstream comedy landscape that likes to stigmatize Gen-Z as #triggered #snowflakes (while also often miscategorizing them as Millennials for some reason). It also proves that you can participate in that open-hearted earnestness without sacrificing the horned-up raunch and deliberately offensive edginess everyone pretends is disappearing from mainstream comedy in these supposed “safe space” times. You’re just no longer tolerated for being an inhumane dickhole while doing so. Be better. Be a good boy.

-Brandon Ledet

Don Verdean (2015)

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threehalfstar

I can’t blame everyone else for not caring, but I personally want the best for Jared & Jerusha Hess. The married couple/filmmaking partners started their career as something of a novelty act with the titles Napoleon Dynamite & Nacho Libre, but their third film, Gentlemen Broncos, is a personal pet favorite of me. It’s a nerdy, delightfully misshapen work that found the Hesses embracing their inner strange in a seemingly authentic way and I’ve made it something of a personal mission of mine to shepherd the too-easily discarded film into cult classic territory. The Hesses recently seemed poised to top that success with a pair of talent-stacked comedies going into wide release the same year. Unfortunately, their Zack Galifianakis/Kristen Wiig bank heist comedy Masterminds suffered a blow when its distribution company financially collapsed & its release was shelved indefinitely. The other movie, Don Verdean, made not even the smallest splash at the theaters and quietly slipped onto streaming on Netflix with no apparent fanfare. It seems the Hess heyday is still somewhere ahead of us (unless it began & ended with the “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt craze, which seems just as likely).

Again, I can’t exactly blame critics & audiences for not falling head over heel for Don Verdean. For a comedy this deeply strange & off-kilter it’s also oddly subdued, as if the Hesses were aiming to make a lowbrow version of a Coen Brothers film. Don Verdean is a screwball comedy about four snake oil-selling religious hucksters trying to make a dishonest buck in the faith industry: Sam Rockwell as the titular “archeologist” (read: artifact thief); Danny McBride as the living “miracle” Tony Lazarus (whom The Good Lord decided brought back to life so that he could marry the hooker he overdosed with & start a ministry); Will Forte as a competing minister/former High Priest of the Church of Satan; and Jemaine Clement as a con artist producer of religious artifacts both real & forged (in an unfortunate bit of Middle Eastern Jew racial caricature). All four of these dark souls are condemnable in their exploitation of religion as a racket, which may be an indication of the Mormon filmmakers Hesses’ disgust with certain, cynical factions of Evangelicals within the Christian community. The film never aims to be a satire about gigantic institutional shortcomings within organized religion’s opportunistic hucksters, however. It’s more of a character study of a small, oddly specific group of barely human weirdos who sometimes allow their thirst for financial gains & notoriety outstrip their faith in God.

I don’t think going small & narrowly focused is necessarily a problem for Don Verdean, but it’s definitely not a comedic style that’s going to grab much attention. Sam Rockwell’s quiet, oddly undignified portrayal of a past-his-prime archeologist seemingly plucked from a Chuck Norris promo VHS scrounged up by Everything Is Terrible isn’t flashy or over-the-top in any particular way. His quiet convictions, both religious & self-serving, are hilarious in their absurdity, however. His company Holy Land Investigations is in the business of searching for artifacts like the scissors that cut Samson’s hair, Lot’s wife’s salty remains, and Goliath’s rock-cracked skull and bringing them to the “USA where they belong” in order to prove that The Bible is “true”. He may not go full living cartoon at any particular moment in his performance, but there’s plenty of unreal amusement is his statements like “Finding treasure in the Earth is meaningless unless it helps someone get to Heaven who wouldn’t get there otherwise” & “What makes you think you can carbon date the wrath of the Almighty?”

Don Verdean may not be a far-reaching satire of Evangelical opportunism or an over-the-top riot of wild caricature, but I do think Jared & Jerusha Hess have a lot to say about outsized hubris and the divisions that arise between faith & financial gain in the more theatrical wings of Christianity. Their point is just quietly grounded in a muted character whose soul is just as grey-brown as the earth tone colors of his Chuck Norris cosplay. The movie only falters when it loses focus on this troubled antihero & instead follows the larger-than-life characters that color his outdated, insular world. They did a much better job of sticking to a grounded, focused POV in Gentlemen Broncos, which may help explain why that film was more artistically successful (to me anyway; neither movie was received especially well), but I still enjoyed most of what goes down here. My uncontrollable urge is to again recommend that you give Gentlemen Broncos a fighting chance, but if you already have & enjoyed what you saw, Don Verdean‘s not too shabby of a follow up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Masterminds plays out much the same way (if it ever sees the light of day in the first place). Here’s to hoping.

-Brandon Ledet

Apartment Troubles (2015)

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three star

Apartment Troubles is billed as a comedy, which makes sense in some ways. It certainly has a few cameos from comedians of note in it (specifically Jeffrey Tambor, Will Forte, and Megan Mullally). It’s got some typical indie comedy quirks, right down to the struggling artist profession of the protagonists & the CoCoRosie song on the soundtrack. It’s even got some great jokes from time to time, especially from Mullally, who is a hoot as a wealthy drunk who is really into gigantic wine glasses. On the other hand, it’s not an overwhelmingly funny movie, but more of a low-stakes drama that aims more for humorous melancholy than knee-slapping quips & gags. Apartment Troubles might be dressed up like a comedy, but it’s more quietly sad than anything.

The story begins with two NYC roommates confronted with eviction & the sudden death of a pet. As an aspiring actress & a visual artist with wealthy parents, the pair occupies a strange space between well-to-do & dead broke. These are people who can take a private jet to vacation in Los Angeles on a whim, but have to claim that they’re not eating because they’re “cleansing”, when the truth is they can’t afford food. While in LA, the two best friends start to bicker & rub each other the wrong way like an old married couple. At the beginning of the film they’re comfortable enough to ask for the shirt literally off each other’s backs (“Can I wear the shirt that you’re wearing?”), but by the end they’re sickened by each other’s mere presence (“If I feel your breath on my skin for one more minute, I’m going to vomit.”). It’s definitely easier to read this progression as a somber break-up story (between friends) than a riotous indie comedy.

In a void, Apartment Troubles is a pretty okay, low-key movie with some memorable performances in its fleeting Jeffrey Tambor, Will Forte, and Megan Mullally cameos. However it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to other emotionally-stunted NYC twentysomethings media that have been produced lately. If nothing else, I found myself wishing that I was watching Appropriate Behavior a second time instead. I realize this kind of direct comparison is completely unfair & it’s something I already said while reviewing the recent break-up drama X/Y, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Appropriate Behavior was something really special. Apartment Troubles is from the same funny-melancholy NYC break-up wheelhouse, but feels just okay at best. It’s the kind of film that’s pleasant, but destined for lazy afternoon Netflix viewing rather than the big accolades I’m hoping Appropriate Behavior garners.

-Brandon Ledet