The SmarK DVD Rant – Paleo-Humor?

So yeah, kind of a weird trend emerged this past summer, as we got counter-programming against the big action movies in the form of new zany comedies about pre-history. You could probably even throw Night at the Museum 2 into that as well, but that DVD isn’t out yet so I have to take my tenuous connections where I can get them.

For now, we explore the great question that has baffled moviemakers since the beginnings of film: Are cavemen and dinosaurs funny?

Um, no.

Land of the Lost_DVD

Land of the Lost

I’ve seen this movie twice now (once in theaters, once on DVD) and I still have no earthly idea who this thing is supposed to be appealing to. Like, I know studio executives are hard-up enough for ideas that they’ll remake any TV show in search of a buck at this point, but Land of the Lost? It’s not like the original show was such a classic that cranking up the budget and adding Will Ferrell was going to guarantee box-office dynamite. And yet that seems to be exactly what was thought by the people who produced it.

Ferrell stars as Rick Marshall, author of books about time-warps and parallel universes, famous only for a disastrous appearance on the Today Show before falling into Subway-fueled obscurity again. And yet there apparently really is another dimension (or universe, I’m not really sure and I don’t think the writers were either) that can be accessed with a "tachyon emitter". To show you how limited the material here is, the big gag is that it’s basically a piece of junk powered by an iPod, which in turn plays showtunes. Really? Out of the millions of jokes that they could have gone for, it’s a lazy showtunes joke? But Holly (Anna Friel, who has amazing comic timing on Pushing Daisies but is forced to play it straight here) believes in him enough to go with him to a gift shop in the middle of nowhere for reasons that are never adequately explained. The important thing is that they meet Will (Danny McBride, as usual stealing the movie out from under whoever is unlucky enough to cross his path) and accidentally journey to The Land of the Lost.

And hey, it wouldn’t be a Land of the Lost movie without slavish devotion to Sleestaks and Chaka and the alien dudes, would it? Well actually, it would, because no one remembers the original show enough to give a shit! I’m all for nerdish preservation of the original ideals if it’s a piece of pop culture that people actually care about, like Star Trek or the James Bond movies, but the presumed audience for this movie is 22-year-old stoners, not anyone who actually grew up watching the show. The annoying monkey boy sidekick holds no nostalgia value for me and just becomes a drag on the actual comedy.

Anyway, the other main problem with the movie, as a movie and not just as a nostalgia piece, is that it never seems to gain any momentum or direction. Marshall’s ongoing war of wits with Grumpy the T-Rex kind of hints at the sort of absurdist humor that might have worked well with a better movie, but just never goes anywhere substantial here. Sometimes Grumpy is a super-intelligent dinosaur, sometimes he’s a dumb beast acting out aggression because of stomach pains. Ferrell and McBride show promise every time they’re allowed to just take a situation and make up their own dialogue, but the movie keeps forcing them (and us) back into contrived plot situations working under the mistaken assumption that anyone really gives a crap about the plot. Basically they want it both ways: We’re supposed to laugh at the antics of the two lead actors playing off the cheap nostalgia pieces, but we’re also supposed to somehow buy into "Enik the Altrusian" and his horde of guys in lizard costumes as a serious threat to the universe. Really? Can’t we just have given Ferrell and McBride the basic story beats and let them make up the rest as they went along?

Did I laugh? A few times, yeah. The mosquito gag is pretty funny, Marshall’s battles with Grumpy hold some comic potential, and Matt Lauer steals the movie. But when Matt Lauer is the funniest thing in the movie, you’ve done something horribly wrong. There’s a pair of 10 minute sketches with Danny McBride, one featuring a "behind the scenes" look at the life of a big actor and the other a fake tour of the shop in the movie, which are both funnier than anything in the entire movie. In fact, Will Ferrell being a jerk to McBride in the makeup trailer and the director deciding to digitally replace him rather than spend another week working with him is HILARIOUS. They should have done a movie about those two making this piece of crap. It would have been much funnier. I think the saddest thing is the commentary from director Brad Silberling, as he seems to be genuinely a fan of the original show and also under the strange impression that he has made a good and worthwhile piece of cinema. I’m all for taking pride in your work, but he’s discussing his "extended director’s cut" that will apparently be released soon (in the same alternate universe as the movie takes place in, I’d guess) and everything we can look forward to therein. I’m thinking that particular DVD ends up in the Land of the Lost, too.

Trivia note: In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Will Ferrell played a character named Marshall Willenholly as Kevin Smith’s little tribute to the original show. They should have left it at that.

Year-One_DVD

Year One

This is another similar case as Land of the Lost. There’s a lot of funny ideas and a lot of talented people, but it just doesn’t add up to anything worthwhile. OK, let’s be more specific here, there’s a lot of funny ideas in the TRAILER and once you’ve seen that, you’ve pretty much got all the big laughs of the movie nailed down. The concept is funny, the actors are funny and the director/writer is funny, so what went wrong here?

Year One acts as kind of a throwback to ’80s comedies like History of the World Part One and Life of Brian, tracing the evolution of a pair of cavemen from the trees all the way to the dying days of Sodom, condensed into 97 minutes. Jack Black plays Jack Black and Michael Cera plays Michael Cera, so you basically know what you’re getting before you even see the movie. But while the idea of cavemen living through the biblical past (but using modern speech) might be funny, the execution suffers from heavyhanded editing and a total lack of payoff for any of the big gags. In fact, you could probably best describe it as a series of mid-level SNL skits with no punchlines. For instance, early in the movie Zed (Black) and Oh (Cera) discover the Tree of Knowledge, prompting Zed to eat the forbidden fruit and thus gain existential knowledge for the first time. Oh gets attacked by a giant snake while Zed ponders the numerous solutions available, and his death appears imminent, but they simply jump to the next scene without any of kind of resolution or joke there. It becomes a very frustrating pattern, as the movie sets up a series of gags with good potential, and then just leaves us hanging while moving onto the next half-baked idea. One of the best bits (that wasn’t in the trailer) sees the adventuring duo meeting feuding brothers Cain and Abel (played by David Cross and a totally wasted Paul Rudd). There’s a movie right there! Instead they go for the obvious joke (although to the credit of the screenplay, Cain gets a LOT of mileage out of his denial about his role in Abel’s death later on) and then it’s off to meet Abraham and his family, and then onto Sodom. Things slow down once we’re in Sodom, which is another problem, because now we’re expected to somehow care about the plot after 40 minutes of random set changes and wondering where the hell this thing is supposed to be going.

Even the stuff that could have been funny in a more subtle context gets sledgehammered over our heads. Zed is allowed to lay with Adam’s daughter Lilith, who rebukes his advances because she’s history’s first lesbian. But instead of just dropping the hint and letting Black do the heavy lifting by being clueless, the movie instead has her come right out and say it, several times, until it’s finally like "OK, we get it already!". That happens a lot with this movie. Most of them involve Oliver Pratt as a flamboyant high priest in Sodom who definitely enjoys the local culture. And we know this because he hits on Oh for about 30 minutes straight, including a brutally unfunny scene where Oh has to pour hot oil on Pratt’s "hilarious" hairy chest. Finally after 90 minutes of a plot that goes nowhere and bizarre subplot about Zed being the "chosen one" (you’d think having eaten the Forbidden Fruit they’d go somewhere with that character arc, but no) they tack on a big action ending to wrap everything up, and it’s like something out of a totally different movie.

Maybe if it was raunchier (as the Judd Apatow production credit seems to suggest it might originally been) or smarter it might have enough going for it to suggest a cult classic, but as it stands it’s the worst kind of bad comedy: A boring one.

The winner this time: I guess Year One because at least it knows that it’s a comedy and has a few more laughs than Land of the Lost (assuming you haven’t seen the trailer), but neither one is worth much more than a rental. I’d say watch Life of Brian instead of Year One if you have the option.

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