Minutes into the delightfully absurdist “Men & Chicken,” we’re already laughing at death. A bedridden man we never see on-screen uses his last breath to ask his son Gabriel (David Dencik) where his other son is. We know he’s snuffed it soon after thanks to Gabriel’s uncontrollable reaction to the smell, which wouldn’t be half as hilarious as it is were it not performed by the straight-faced Dencik, known for his solemn characters in pictures like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “A Royal Affair.” Not unlike a child stuffing GI Joes inside a house built of Legos, writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen toys with perceptions and expectations of Danish cinema throughout his film. Perhaps it’s limited to an outsider’s point of view, but the Danes are commonly thought of as a serious, surgical, and brooding bunch, expertly excavating through human nature’s dark corners. Jansen’s own screenplays, “A Second Chance” and Oscar-winner “In A Better World,” are as good recent examples as any. It’s a reputation that’s wonderfully pitted against everything that happens in “Men & Chicken.”
The plot gets a little lost and sluggish along the way, making the picture’s big picture wobble on an uneven keel, but the first act is absolutely brilliant. Following the opening incident in the hospital, Gabriel calls and interrupts his brother Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) to deliver the news of their father’s passing. The awkward, filterless, and testosterone-fueled Elias is on a date with a psychotherapist in a wheelchair — a point that’s turned into bragging rights in one of the more gut-busting lines of the entire film — but he cuts it short and rushes to be by Gabriel’s side. All the emotions squeezed out with one overlong hug, the death leads the boys to a tape recording their father left them, with instructions to view it after his death. On this (supremely funny) tape, their father makes a life-altering confession: Gabriel and Elias are, in fact, two adopted half-brothers, born from two different mothers, neither of whom are still alive. They’re real father is an Evelio Thanatos, and that’s as far as the tape gets before abruptly cutting off.
All of this makes perfect sense to Gabriel, who’s always been more repelled by then connected to Elias, and he becomes doggedly determined to find out everything about his origins. Unable to shake off the persistent Elias, the two embark on a journey to the island of Ork, population 41, where the legendary recluse Thanatos (now pushing 100) allegedly lives. Upon their arrival to the secluded mansion, they are greeted by three gnarly men — Franz (Soren Maling), Josef (Nicolas Bro), and Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas)—who don’t take kindly to strangers, and aren’t afraid to beat them with stuffed animals to show it. Turns out that all five poor sods are half-brothers, with the one-and-the-same father and different mothers. Believe it or not folks, things just get wickedly stranger from here.
The first act is filled with so much relentless entertainment, it ends up being a bit of blessing and a curse because most of what comes next hardly stacks up. Notable exceptions are found in a spontaneous badminton doubles match, and Mikkelsen’s envious rants over Isaac the Bull. With regards to its themes and messages, “Men & Chicken” ends up in an all-too-familiar place, but it’s very much the “how” – not the “why” – that fashions this film into such a delicious romp. Watching stoic Scandinavian thespians Dencik, Mikkelsen and Maling blurt out ridiculous dialogue and engage in brazenly bizarre actions — Mikkelsen’s addiction to masturbation, Maling’s leader snuggling up for story-time, Dencik’s increasing frustrations at the maddening world around him, etc. — is worth the price of admission alone. Whenever you’re not in stitches, it’s impossible not to at least crack a smile every single time Mikkelsen is on screen, and not just because of his award-worthy mustache and curly ‘fro either. He’s an actor most readily associated with drama and villainy, but this role proves his intangible range once and for all. And through all the absurdity, it’s easy to miss just how splendid Sebastian Blenkov‘s cinematography is; perhaps the only recognizable trait of Danish cinema “as we know it.”
That’s really the bottom line with “Men & Chicken” for me; Jensen’s rambunctious eradication of the familiar. And even while poking fun at his country’s cinematic traditions, from psychotherapy and government corruption to degenerate gene pools and disturbing psychosexual antics, he still finds room to entice us with moments of emotional brevity. Allowing the bond of half-brotherhood, so central to the thematic core, to effectively resonate beyond the end credits. Ultimately, though, it’s about escaping into a demented and crazed world without expecting intelligible answers to any questions you might have. Fooling around with themes seen before in Dogme films and notorious Lars Von Trier gems, “Men & Chicken” is all about spraying-not-saying its humor on convention with a manic laugh and a demented smile. Something that no doubt inspires its performers to even greater, more boisterous, heights. It’s a comedic glob of a film oozing around a Danish Petri dish, neither solid in structure nor even in flow, but when it’s having this much fun with itself, not playing along is practically impossible. [B]