For many it remains a defining moment for the once inventive Music Television channel. Desperate to replicate the success of original programming like The Real World, the former cable location of rock videos took a pitch from a local NYU sketch comedy troupe and crafted an overnight spoof sensation that seemed to speak directly to its increasingly disaffected demographic. Entitled The State, it went on to become a well received (and remembered) cult creation. Now, over a decade later, the members of the formidable act have made their way into the mainstream. From writing screenplays for major Hollywood hits (Night at the Museum) to producing more TV treats (Reno: 911), the imprint on the industry remains strong. Now comes The Ten, the work of writer/director David Wain and writer/star Ken Marino. This indie comedy takes on those ever-present Commandments, using an anthology approach to bring a Decalogue of delirium to the silver screen.
We are first introduced to Jeff Reigert, a married man whose wife is cold and calculated. He sets up the stories, beginning with the tale of a skydiving accident victim who becomes a media God. Then we see a doctor inadvertently kill a patient, witness a young woman fall in love with the second coming of Christ, and marvel as two men engage in an all out war to see who can own the most Computerized Axial Tomography devices. Along the way, a mother must tell her teen boys about their biological father, a young woman becomes sexually obsessed with a puppet, a group of heroin addicts discuss a legendary lying animal, and prison sex gets the retro rom-com treatment. In the end, a group of naked non-church going men redefine the Sabbath, all in the name of highlighting the pros and cons of obeying and keeping said dogmatic laws.
Without a doubt, there is some excellent work being done here. It’s great to see Winona Ryder back and working, and she is the only reason why the weirdo ventriloquist love fixation sketch works. Her performance is so honest and real that, for a moment, you forget this young girl is horny for a hunk of carved wood. Equally effective is Liev Schrieber as a by the book cop who ends up in a CAT scan intensive battle with his neighbor over who can have the most medical equipment. Oliver Platt appears as an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator trying to help two black teens adjust to the loss of their stepfather, and Adam Brody is dead on as an unlucky skydiver who uses his unusual post-jump plight to manage a meteoric 15 minutes of fame. Scattered throughout are several recognizable members of the State/Stella crew, each one bringing a bright note to what is occasionally mannered material.
On the down side are the usually reliable Paul Rudd and Famke Janssen. As the bickering bookend material, this fictional harried husband and shrewish spouse are just not that funny. They’re not ever inventive, instead relying on standard married people problems to link up the various stories. Granted, there is a single silly moment where Rudd phones new wife Diane Wiest (unseen) to break up with her, but overall, the framing device is dull and uninspired. Additionally, Marino’s material, centering on a doctor who believes every bad things he does is merely “a goof”, also overstays its welcome. While the curse word hurling judge and the formidable, face slapping convict break up the one note monotony, this remains the weakest outing of the bunch. When you compare it to the animated adventures of a lying rhinoceros, or the nimble nuclear crisis sequence, the unevenness is apparent.
In fact, calling The Ten hit or miss would be more than appropriate. It’s almost impossible to take ten random ideas and successfully tie them together, let alone make each one solid and smart. Part of the problem with performers like Rudd is that, after the amazing year of Knocked Up and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, seeing him burdened by uninspired dialogue and lame comedic context is painful. Even worse, Wain is not brave enough to take his targets to their logical conclusions. The last act all male strip down, complete with interpretive dancing to Roberta Flack (?) lacks the kind of meat and two veg edge to really bring down the homoerotic house. Granted, the last minute inclusion of a song by Dave Yazbeck (meant to act as a callback to all the tales) works wonderfully, especially given the participation of everyone in the cast. But there are definitely times here when opportunities are missed and possibilities are left unexplored.
On DVD, we at least get to learn the backstory of such a complicated project. A full length audio commentary (supplemented by a jaunty jazz combo, of all things) gives producer Rudd a chance to ruminate on the trials and tribulations of bringing a project like this to life. Wain and Marino are also present, and when the former’s parents call in to criticize the film, you quickly recognize the voice of reason stepping in. We also get an hour of deleted and extended material, stuff that symbolizes the amount of improvisation and adlibbing that went on in each scene. Finally, a pair of Behind the Scenes featurettes highlights the MTV minion to cinematic stalwart status for all involved. It’s important to note that most of the material here is as cheeky and surreal as the stories offered.
With a promised DVD release of the entire run of the original sketch series in the making, and more scripted wonders from members on the horizon, the former funny business known as The State shows no signs of slowing down. Perhaps their next solo outing will be more quantitatively successful than The Ten. While cutting and very odd in parts, it fails to fully come together as a complete comic gem. We know the cast has such a Stella-r spoof in them. Here’s hoping this effort cleared out some of the cobwebs along the way to such a mirth masterwork.