More than a few reviews of (and interviews connected to) “Peep World’ have called out its basic similarities to the TV series “Arrested Development.” Just looking at the characters alone, which include easily aligned counterparts for most of the Bluth clan, not to mention a celeb narrator (Lewis Black), Peter Himmelstein’s screenplay feels like it was written while watching DVDs of the Mitch Hurwitz comedy. It’s almost enough to call it plagiarism. Only in this film’s universe, Buster is smarter, more independent, has written a revealing ‘novel’ about his own family, and he’s now presumably identifying with Woody Allen in “Deconstructing Harry.”
There are other obvious derivatives, mostly “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and I reached hard in hopes of something akin to a Christopher Guest movie. “Peep World” is also the name of the novel and subsequent film within the film, and it would have been so perfect for the Guest players to perfectly fill parts based on the ‘real’ characters. I had already, for a second, mistaken Ron Rifkin — as the real estate magnate father (unlike George Bluth, not in prison) — for Bob Balaban. And certainly Parker Posey would make a good match for Sarah Silverman (as the whiny drama queen sister — a dark-haired Lindsay Bluth). Actually, Silverman is the only family member whose film equivalent we see, and she’s played by Alicia Witt.
Other connections to “Arrested Development” include Judy Greer, here cast as the pregnant wife of Michael Bluth, I mean Jack Meyerowitz (Michael C. Hall), and a bouncy score so familiar sounding that I was shocked to discover composers Jeff Cardoni (“PW”) and David Schwartz (“AD”) are not the same person. Director Barry W. Blaustein (“The Ringer”) and cinematographer Tobias Datum (“Terri”) also shot “Peep World” to look like a cable sitcom pilot. Maybe not intentionally, but I could definitely see Comedy Central running this movie over and over on weekends (I bet you a million bucks this actually happens) and confusing a lot of viewers expecting this ‘show’ to keep going.
However, while “Peep World” is likely the closest we ever get to an “Arrested Development” movie, it’s really nothing at all like the series in terms of narrative depth and, most importantly, sense of humor. Think broader: boner jokes, mostly. But not only is the comedy slighter and maybe more accessible (the irony is that “Peep World” as a series probably would have lasted longer), it’s simply lacking over all, and most of the should-be-stellar ensemble is wasted. You’ll want Stephen Tobolowski to be more like David Cross, for Rainn Wilson to be more like Will Arnett and definitely for Kate Mara to be more like Liza Minelli. But mostly you’ll want them to be just more.
In a big way it’s unfair to compare “Peep World” to “Arrested Development” because it only sets everyone up for disappointment. Taken as merely a quickly paced (seriously, it was 89 minutes? It felt like 22) dysfunctional family comedy, unrelated to others that came before it, it might not seem so weak. Actually, that’s not a very good defense. A film should never be excused for not trying hard enough or achieving what others have. And the truth is, I doubt I laughed at all during “Peep World.” Still, I can praise Rifkin’s performance as the self-centered asshole of a patriarch. By the time the movie gets to its climactic dinner scene, in which the whole family is reunited for insults, confessions and dramatic confrontations, it’s been treading water for too long. Then Rifkin rescues it, and thanks to his characterization being nothing like that of Jeffrey Tambor, you’ll even forget about the “AD” parallels.
So, if you come across “Peep World” on Comedy Central sometime in the not-too-distant future, don’t turn it off, even if it seems to be going nowhere. Or flip the channel maybe, but come back for Rifkin’s scene. It’s the one thing worth watching this for. Whatever you do, don’t go in expecting this to satisfy your hunger for an “Arrested Development” movie. It’d be the equivalent of trying to satisfy your hunger for a “Lost” movie by watching “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.”
IFC releases “Peep World” to theaters and VOD this Friday.