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Arts and Culture
'Tim & Eric': Cult Comedians Boldly Go Gonzo
Originally published on Thu March 1, 2012 5:54 pm
Picture in your mind John C. Reilly, dressed in a filthy shirt that is five sizes too small, rainbow suspenders holding up his shorts, facing off with a wolf he has lured out of hiding by duct-taping slices of pepperoni pizza to his torso.
Then imagine a 90-minute film in which that's one of the least bizarre images to pass before your eyes. Now you have a fairly accurate sense of what to expect of the first feature film from the creators of the cult-hit sketch-comedy program Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
On TV, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's show consists of 11-minute collections of barely controlled insanity, using public-access production values and surreal, confrontational humor to satirize the inherent weirdness of the stranger corners of the small-screen universe. It's an acquired taste, the sort of left-field absurdity that thrives in the anything-goes environment of Cartoon Network's after-dark Adult Swim programming.
In making the leap from the rapid-fire small servings of the series to the big screen, Tim and Eric wisely ditch the sketch format. Those things are designed for the sprint; in the endurance race of a feature, the whole thing would collapse in a heap in the first half-hour. So for their Billion Dollar Movie, Tim and Eric go for a single, long-form story, starting with the premise that their unbridled basic cable success has inspired the fictional Schlaaang corporation to pony up a billion dollars for them to make their first movie — a massive failure that results in their needing to repay the full billion.
The spray-tanned, Hollywood-ized Tim and Eric, after one last spectacularly debaucherous night of drug use, limb amputation and graphic genital piercing, see an advertisement promising a billion dollars in profits for anyone willing to take on the task of revitalizing a flagging suburban shopping mall. They ditch the trappings of fame, trade in their satin shirts for khaki pants, and head out to earn the money to repay their debt.
You can take the comedy out of its sketch format, but it's difficult to take the format out of the comedy. Even with the more traditional story arc, Tim and Eric's style still favors short bursts of surrealism and self-contained set pieces, and the film is full of those, from a bizarre commercial for the mall's new-age healing center, to a promotional video for Tim and Eric's mall-revitalization campaign, to an occasional fourth-wall break for an "Understanding Your Movie" instructional video. There's an inevitable sag in the film's middle as the strain of keeping things wacky begins to show.
Given the freedom of an R rating, the pair also tests the limits of their already boundary-pushing humor with self-consciously transgressive segments that stretch out single jokes until they're no longer funny, hoping that continually hammering the anti-jokes will eventually cycle them back around into humor. Whether that point is reached during the film's gross-out centerpiece — which cross-cuts between scenes of one character in a bathtub being defecated on by children while another engages in graphic sex-toy games — will vary according to your own tastes.
If these experiments in shock comedy don't always work, there's a certain courageousness in the way Tim and Eric refuse to back down from them, as well as the gusto with which guest stars like Reilly, Robert Loggia, Will Ferrell, and Jeff Goldblum throw themselves into the film's gonzo aesthetic. They could have toned things down in an attempt to draw a larger, less cultish audience, but instead they've created a movie specifically designed to offend a certain percentage of any unsuspecting cinema audience.
That kind of daring makes the film's lulls easier to bear, especially when there's so much great material spread liberally throughout the movie. Even with a measly $3 million price tag, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie feels like the work of comedic outlaws getting away with something. Watching it is like being an accessory after the fact, the thrill of being a co-conspirator blended with a twinge of red-faced guilt.