Review: ‘Movie 43’ Strains For Laughs With Uninspired Collection Of Comedy Shorts

Review: 'Movie 43' Strains For Laughs With Uninspired Collection Of Comedy Shorts
Review: 'Movie 43' Strains Laughs With Uninspired Collection Of Comedy Shorts

What is there to say, analytically, about “Movie 43”? Not released in theaters as much as inexplicably materializing in front of our very eyes, “Movie 43” has no moral, no overarching story, and no point other than the opportunity for Hollywood stars to play silly for a short while. Some of them relish this – a few of the performers are a natural at studied wackiness. Some aren’t as comfortable. Others just seem like they’re passing the time. The filmmakers who collaborated on this anthology film, however, mostly fit that last description. Despite the title, this… thing…is barely a movie.

“Movie 43” begins with a narrative that plays as the wraparound story, involving a faded star (Dennis Quaid, dressed like Justin Bieber for no apparent reason) accosting a movie executive and begging him to make his dream film, which turns out to be a series of unconnected shorts mostly obsessed with genitals. As this story continues, characters begin to react in increasingly inexplicable ways as the narrative falls away, walking in and out of the short without rhyme or reason, until a fourth-wall breakdown in the narrative, a tactic that feels less like a comedy skit, and more like a distant, dopey relative of Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie.”

The goal was to recruit top-flight comedic talent for this massive omnibus comedy epic, and while the stars showed up, the production was left with the behind-the-camera likes of Steve Carr (“Daddy Day Care”) and Brett Ratner (“Your Shrimp Nightmares”). Most bits have only one joke and seem determined to force it right into the ground: the first one sets the tone, with distracted single Kate Winslet on a blind date with a man who is revealed to have a scrotum dangling from his gullet. Variations of a gag involving his neck rubbing up against various people proceed for an interminable five minutes. Credit where credit’s due: Hugh Jackman maintains a startling amount of dignity as balls swing back and forth underneath his chin.

Others proceed with all sorts of scatological concerns: Carr’s bit, involving a couple (Chris Pratt, Anna Faris) wanting to experiment with scat misjudges the amount of laughs that can come from splattered waste. Others, like a Griffin Dunne-directed supermarket seduction between Emma Stone and Kieran Culkin, conversely carry the sort of Dadaist inspiration of the best of ten-to-one “Saturday Night Live” sketches. Unfortunate that the segment, which features Stone giving the most committed performance in the entire film, fails to land on a sufficient punchline, as each short seems like it’s in a hurry to get to the next.

Most of these don’t even resolve in a reasonable manner, puttering out and ending as good jokes, but bad shorts. Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts are amusing in a segment where they try to simulate the high school experience for their home-schooled son in increasingly uncomfortable ways. But the execution is poor, relying on one final sight gag that simply doesn’t land, due to the budget being spent on Greg Kinnear but leaving nothing left for the props department. A particularly garish vignette sees Stephen Merchant and Halle Berry on a date that dissolves into a game of Truth Or Dare that goes from outlandishly naughty into the realm of perverse body modification – clearly it’s a slightly tweaked concept from a horror anthology, even if the normally-self-serious Berry is absolutely game.

The worst sketches seem to revel in unfortunate biases from their makers. Elizabeth Banks helms a short bit where young Chloe Moretz has her period, leading to father Matt Walsh, boyfriend Jimmy Bennett, his big brother Christopher Mintz-Plasse and an always-welcome Patrick Warburton to ickily ostracize her and misinterpret her basic biology, a gag that is neither incisive nor funny. Ratner’s sketch, involving Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville fighting off a foul-mouthed leprechaun (Gerard Butler), involves callous, gratuitous bloodshed, ending with the prospect of a fairy prostitute promising fellatio. Ratner has received criticism that has been undeservedly harsh over the years, but his views towards broad comedy and sexuality remain consistently below-juvenile.

In the spirit of “Kentucky Fried Movie” there are a couple of short ads, though none feature any salient parody, even if they refuse to overstay their welcome. The best involves a slow-motion black-and-white PSA dedicated towards children who work inside ATM and soda machines, toiling away in the darkness to the frustrated screams of displeased customers. Another cheekily advertises an iBabe, an MP3 device designed specifically like a naked woman. That punchline later gets abused in a short that finds company CEO Richard Gere flummoxed that customers are fiddling with the dangerous fan located in the iBabe’s genital region. Many of these ideas have been tackled better and funnier in sketch shows like “Mr. Show” or even “MADtv” – some in complete form, like a short about Robin on a date consistently interrupted by an obnoxious Batman. The original segment, which has been online for years, features little more than Sam Rockwell’s Batman torturing Justin Long’s insecure Boy Wonder. This one stretches on longer, seemingly to accommodate additional cameos at the level of a weaker Funny Or Die segment. And forgive us, Jason Sudeikis, but you’re no replacement for Rockwell.

“Movie 43” isn’t a total failure, in that fans of lowbrow gross-out comedy will have plenty of options during the film’s runtime, the magic of an anthology picture being that you must only wait a little while until a particularly joyless segment will end. But as far as getting a taste of the voices of American comedy, it falls way short. The only entry to capture a particularly idiosyncratic voice is the final installment from former Troma hand James Gunn, who reveals that, despite the mainstream recognition that’s about to come from directing Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” his mind remains affectionately deranged. Gunn’s short combines the tacky plastic sweetness of a sitcom about a pushy cat interrupting the love affair between a normal couple (Josh Duhamel, Elizabeth Banks) with the extreme bad taste of his earlier work, taking the idea of a particularly perverted feline to its likely conclusion, and then even farther. Gunn’s short, inexplicably banished to the middle of the end credits, is the only sketch here with an actual ending, reflecting, for once, an actual comedic vision, however diseased. Sadly, it plays at the moment where it’s likely that most audience-goers will have had their fill of the arbitrary chaos of “Movie 43,” an oddity recommended for only the most fervent, undemanding comedy junkies. [C]

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