Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” opens in limited release this Friday and is currently available on VOD.
Sketch comedy program “Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!” is even more absurd than it sounds. Each fleeting episode features show creators Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim inhabiting a cheesy, lo-fi studio and engaging in a series of strange antics and tangents that transfix the utterly stoned and occasionally amuse everyone else.
The duo’s commitment to crass, random humor comes loaded with blink-and-you’ll-miss it surrealism that benefits from the short form. That makes the prospects of “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” an energetic translation of the show to feature length, almost impossible to fathom as anything more than a string of disconnected gags. And for the first 15 minutes or so, that’s exactly what makes it click.
“Billion Dollar Movie” opens with a slew of abrupt transitions and goofy exchanges best described as stimuli rather than any more precise kind of humor. It’s only once Heidecker and Wareheim (also the movie’s directors) attempt to tell a story with their onscreen characters that their full aim becomes clear: “Billion Dollar Movie,” at its best, inherits the throne left vacant by “Dumb and Dumber.”
But there’s also the sense that Tim and Eric inhabit an entirely new world of comedy enabled by dwindling attention spans and the ability to get away with a combination of stupidity and… enlightened stupidity, a bizarre form of self-awareness that defines much of the unfathomably odd programming on Adult Swim.
All this means is that “Billion Dollar Movie” works terrifically so long as it stays away from the plot. The first “act,” if you can call it that, features a barrage of asides that continually hold the story back. (So far, so good.) A long series of title cards and faux commercials announce that the movie we’re watching was produced by one Schlaang Media Group, a fictional conglomerate in the serious business of dumb entertainment that would make it seem at home in Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy.” Jeff Goldblum makes a brief appearance (as “Chef Goldblum”) to promote an easy chair replete with a popcorn maker and an oxygen tube. Another mock ad aims even lower, imagining portable dispenser for bowel movements. And then the movie really begins!
Or not. Credits roll over an elaborately produced romance featuring a rather convincing Johnny Depp impersonator proposing to his lover with a ginormous ring as the music swells and the screen fades to black. We’re in a movie theater. Now the movie has started, right?
By this point, you’re either on the same plane as Tim and Eric or have lost interest entirely, but “Billion Dollar Movie” really does have a story to tell. As a voiceover explains, the duo landed a billion dollars to make a movie and abruptly wasted virtually all of it, leaving only enough budget to shoot a few minutes. Their employer, the cantankerous head of Schlaang, kicks them to the curb. Things are looking pretty shabby for Tim and Eric: They even must fire their longtime guru, Jim Joe Kelly (Zach Galifianakis), in a prolonged scene that finds the three of them continually tossing each other into a swimming pool. Don’t ask.
Dropping their Hollywood glamour, Tim and Eric relaunch themselves as a committed pair of marketers under the hilarious moniker of Dobis PR (an amalgam of “Doing Business”), responding to the first solicitation they come across: A televised plea from a strange mall manager (Will Ferrell, in a bit part; he also produced the film) asking for a replacement in exchange for a billion dollars that clearly don’t exist. A meeting with the enigmatic man leads to back-to-back viewings of “Top Gun” before he heads out the back door, leaving Tim and Eric with the task of putting the decrepit mall back together.
Actually, “decrepit” is putting it mildly. The mall amounts to an apocalyptic crack house: A wolf roams the premises and homeless miscreants lurk in the corners. John C. Reilly surfaces as a terminally ill janitor barely able to converse without hacking out his lungs. Store owners round out the cast: Will Forte plays a particularly angry businessman, while Ray Wise goes deadpan for an amusing turn as the master of a mysterious therapy known as Shrim, which leads to the movie’s most sophomoric (but also unquestionably, disgustingly memorable) moment. Meanwhile, Eric falls for an older member of the mall community (Twink Caplan) while Tim adopts the son of a toilet paper seller. Eventually, they get to work with a strategy for putting the mall back on track.
If your eyes are glazing over with all this plot synopsis, imagine sitting through it. “Billion Dollar Movie” rises and falls on the basis of its gags, but the overall experience is akin to a workout routine pushed far past its peak. When the comedy strains, the whole movie dissolves into mediocrity.
The experience raises the question of whether Heidecker and Wareheim should even have bothered to inject narrative into their routine, considering how well their comedy works when it simply oscillates between supreme irreverence and slapstick. Their transition into the feature-length format has more in common with “Kentucky Fried Movie” than “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” By virtue of its unevenness, “Billion Dollar Movie” makes a cogent argument for why some entertainment belongs in the short form. Tim and Eric don’t need structure; concision is their greatest coup, and the 90-minute length of “Billion Dollar Movie” undoes it.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Bound to please fans of low and crazy comedy as they have in the past, the duo’s feature-length debut is set to do solid business in limited theatrical release from Magnolia and will likely become a major hit on VOD, considering the sizable fan base that’s already anticipating it. Reviews won’t make a huge difference.