The following is a reprint of our review from Sundance.
The comedy style that Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have perfected over five years on their completely bizarre Cartoon Network sketch comedy series “Tim and Eric, Awesome Show Great Job!” goes something like this: they dress up in funny outfits, get a bunch of celebrities (including Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis) to do the same, layer on screechy or slurpy sound effects, liberally punctuate with lots of screaming or crying, round out the cast with actors that look like they’re either homeless or have been rescued from an insane asylum, and edit the entire thing like it’s from some psychedelic version of a 1980s cable access channel. One of the assets of the show was that the episodes were only fifteen minutes long, so if you were disturbed, by, say, Will Ferrell playing a man named Donald Mahanahan who owns a Child Clown Outlet (“I’m a clown breeder, it’s in my blood, it’s in my balls!”), you at the very least knew it would be over soon. With “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” a feature-length continuation of the television series, there is no escape. Make no mistake, it’s endlessly weird (occasionally to an off-putting degree), but its adherence to some narrative conventions, coupled with its gentle surrealism, especially on a larger scale, allows it to come across as oddly charming.
One of the stranger aspects of “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” which is saying something, is how closely it resembles, at least in the loosest plot sense, the rejected Frank Oz Muppets movie, “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever.” In that film, our favorite Jim Henson characters make a hugely expensive title sequence and then run out of money to finish the rest of the movie, making it on the fly, stealing locations and whatnot. In ‘Billion Dollar Movie,’ Tim and Eric are given a billion dollars by an evil industrialist (Robert Loggia, looking so old you wonder if he even knows what movie he’s in) and then they blow it on one scene involving a Johnny Depp lookalike, a suit made of diamonds, and an extensive personal make-over, which leaves them looking like castoffs from the “Jersey Shore” audition process.
Owing their financier (played by the slimy William Atherton) a billion dollars, Tim and Eric are desperate and depressed. Inspiration strikes (drunkenly) when they watch a commercial that is playing above a men’s room urinal. In the commercial, a seedy developer (played, with considerable gusto, by Will Ferrell, who also produced the film through his Funny Or Die shingle) promises a billion dollars to whoever can successfully take over operations at the squalid S’wallow Valley Mall. This strikes Tim and Eric as the perfect plan and so they’re off, to rejuvenate the ailing mall and make back what they owe.
Once they get to the mall, they’re introduced to Ferrell, who makes them watch “Top Gun” repeatedly, before introducing them to his son, Taquito (John C. Reilly, in a fairly substantial role), who’s a kind of mongoloid man-child who lives in the destitute mall and keeps watch for the mall’s most dangerous resident: a wolf. Ferrell takes off, leaving Tim and Eric in charge of the S’wallow Valley Mall. And that’s pretty much all the plot there is, which is already considerably more plot than ever appeared on the television show.
The format of the television series allowed the comedians to indulge in all manner of comedic schizophrenia, with bits ranging from a local morning talk show to an ad for an unconventional acting coach to a synth-pop song celebrating men “sitting down to pee” to something involving Paul Rudd watching a computer-programmed version of himself dancing. It was scattershot but often brilliant, and in a more refined, structured setting, the boys can’t rely on their usual bag of tricks to the extent that they once did.
Instead, they work on establishing characters within the mall, like Will Forte‘s unhinged sword salesman Allen Bishopman, as well as developing a love triangle with another vendor (Twink Caplan) and, of course, looking for that damn wolf. While they have restrained their style somewhat, they still manage to cut away occasionally to slyly subversive segments where a pair of actors (again: they look like they’re fresh from the men’s shelter) explain what is happening, thematically, in the movie. There’s also a New Age gift shop in the mall run by Leland Palmer himself, Ray Wise, which promises spiritual enlightenment through something called “Shrim” that is too good (and gross) to give away here. And prior to the movie actually starting, we’re given a good five minutes of phony ads and a cameo by Jeff Goldblum, explaining the kind of newfangled torture chair you’ll be sitting in to enjoy “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.” They might have frontloaded the movie with that stuff to weed out the wimps who couldn’t handle this level of profound weirdness. But if you can stick it out, you’ll be happy you did.
“Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie,” like the series that preceded it, was written and directed by Tim and Eric. What you come to realize through the course of the movie is that their humor is as singularly distinct, authorial and identifiable as anything Mel Brooks or Woody Allen have produced. It’s just that, because Tim and Eric are so damn silly, with such stratospheric absurdity, no one will ever take them all that seriously or really dare make that comparison. But it’s true: look at five minutes of this movie and you can tell who it came from (they’re very, very sick). The seemingly slapdash editing is something that undoubtedly took hours to perfect; it’s a sharp multimedia ribbing, evocative of our current YouTube-y, channel-flipping, multiple-windows-open culture. What’s more is that, at some point, you stop feeling awkward and start caring about Tim and Eric’s plight – will they get the mall back in working order? Can they outsmart Robert Loggia? What about that wolf? The fact that in the end none of this really matters only enhances the fun. The movie might be exponentially longer than the television series, but it’s not any weightier. “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie” is a toss-off, a trifle, a doodle; but, with their bouillabaisse approach and emphasis on editorial gamesmanship, it might just be the next phase of American comedy. [A]