For nearly two decades, Adult Swim has provided the ultimate platform for edgy cartoons delivered in bite-sized packages, fusing a late night sensibility with the wacky tendencies of alternative animation. The production company Titmouse, Inc. has been especially adroit at the format, with rambunctiously silly programs ranging from “Superjail!” to “Metalocalypse” speeding through their inane plots like coked-out variants of their Cartoon Network brethren. Needless to say, Titmouse co-founder Chris Prynoski’s attempts to expand those tendencies into feature-length format with the raunchy buddy comedy “Nerdland” instead stretch them thin.
Prynoski’s contribution of the dream sequence in “Beavis ‘n’ Butthead Do America” was among that movie’s highlights. But while director Mike Judge (who tosses in some voiceover work for “Nerdland”) roots his characters in a wonderfully outrageous parody of Americana, Prynoski’s setting has a reductive quality. Slacker buddies Elliot (Patton Oswalt) and John (Paul Rudd) are struggling L.A. roommates who desperately want to get famous. Fired for the third time — on the same day — for similarly embarrassing reasons, they decide to the spend remaining daylight hours doing whatever it takes to wrestle control of the spotlight. Like getting beat up by the cops and capturing it on camera. Or murdering innocent people. Whatever.
Pitching into the absurd extremes of black comedy, “Nerdland” has a near-psychedelic look, filled jagged edges and bright colors that elaborate on Elliot and John’s crazed world. But it’s ultimately a pretty familiar place. These are basically exaggerated versions of the loquacious morons at the center of Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats,” except tat Smith actually had sympathy for his aimless protagonists. In “Nerdland,” Prynoski never hesitates to emphasize the gross, obnoxious qualities that define his wayward protagonists. More than once, John bends over and winds up tearing a hole in underpants, revealing his spiraling anus to baffled onlookers. That’s about as profound and funny as “Nerdland” gets, which is to say that it doesn’t get there much at all.
Part of the problem stems from the sheer familiarity that these anti-heroes convey. Wannabe screenwriter Elliot wastes his days imagining terrible plots (Rip Van Winkle at a nightclub, alien romances), while John dreams of being a movie star. Above all else, they hope to land the affections of ditzy mall staffers Sally (Kate Micucci) and Linda (Riki Lindhome), a pair of big-busted parodies with legs. Strangely, Prynoski portrays these objects of desire with the same grotesque male gaze that possesses his main characters, which creates the unsettling impression that “Nerdland” exists within the confines of their crass worldview.
Oswalt’s perfectly cast to portray the kind of obsessive loser, and Rudd’s a slightly less kooky variation on the same thing, but neither of them can give the characters much depth. Such tossed-off, ugly archetypes might function just fine in short form, but as “Nerdland” rolls along, they turn the material into a series of crude shenanigans in search of a punchline.
Which is not to say that “Nerdland” has no coherent targets. At its core, the movie focuses on the destructive potential of a viral-obsessed media culture, as Elliot and John admire the franchised online series “The Bloops” and make it their goal to achieve similar ubiquity. Eventually, the duo turn for advice to King (Hannibal Buress), a blue-faced, acne-riddled uber-geek whose ability to offer unique solutions for their oddball challenges is only hilarious in theory. As the pair careen through a series of misguided missions, the movie’s only saving grace is its wily visual style, which infuses even the less inspired bits some modicum of deranged inspiration.
But “Nerdland” is never funny or shocking enough to sustain the unruly vision it projects. Its R-rated qualities hardly give it much distinction simply for standing apart from the market standard. Premiering just a few months before the release of “Sausage Party,” Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s spectacularly ridiculous tale of talking grocery store items that engage in a graphic orgy, “Nerdland” plays like exactly the kind of thing that its wannabe stars hope to avoid — the same old routine.