Since breaking out with the Sundance hit Super Troopers, the comedy troupe Broken Lizard has remained oddly unknown. Other sketch comedians have parlayed early-aughts promise into NBC Thursday night lineup appearances or a spot in the Ferrell/Stiller/Apatow axis, but the Lizards tend to keep to themselves. It seems that Super Troopers was less a jumping-off point than the peak of the crew’s popularity and possibility. Since then, they’ve produced a series of ramshackle, enjoyable, hit-and-miss comedies like Club Dread, Beerfest, and now, The Slammin’ Salmon.
Less ambitious than their last two films, Salmon takes place over a single night at a single location—an upscale (though also pretty tacky) Miami restaurant owned by Cleon Salmon (Michael Clarke Duncan), an unhinged boxing champ, and managed by Rich (Kevin Heffernan). Their relationship is premised on Rich’s fear of Salmon, who regularly makes hilariously insane threats of bodily harm. When Cleon gets into debt with the Yakuza, he orders the wait staff to sell $20,000 worth of overpriced seafood in one night, and offers a $10,000 prize to whoever makes the most.
This plot point indicates that, in addition to being a sketchy and amusing gag-delivery system, The Slammin’ Salmon is a look at the art of selling, its motivations and desperations. Among the staff in Cleon’s kitchen is Connor (Steve Lemme), who’s just returned to waiting tables after a short-lived stint on network TV and wants money for a reverse nose-job. Mia (April Bowlby) uses her good looks to coax customers into big-ticket items and accompanying tips—until a kitchen accident leaves her face a little worse for wear. And Nuts (Jay Chandrasekhar) becomes a superior waiter—a showman, really—when he goes off his mental-health meds.
These interlocked vignettes may not show a lot of comic discipline—Broken Lizard movies are more amiable strolls, with occasional bouts of lunacy, than well-calibrated comic sprints—or even much distinct personality, but they also speak to the troupe’s casual, journeymen strengths. Their films don’t make a big display of regular-guy schlubbiness à la Adam Sandler or, shudder to think, Larry the Cable Guy, but Troopers, Beerfest, and Salmon all speak to a certain degree of working-stiff averageness, showcasing the stupid, ridiculous ways that people will try to entertain themselves when faced with everyday drudgery.
That’s not to say that Slammin’ Salmon attempts to turn its night’s events into a life-changing experience like so many poor imitations of Clerks. In fact, it’s quite devoid of lessons more complex than “Hey, don’t be a dick.” And the troupe’s loose approach makes for an unusually even-handed, almost unionized performing style. The group may lack a breakout star, but it also avoids obvious show-offs; Heffernan, who also directs here, stole the show in Super Troopers but plays the straight man here, while the usually low-key (and previous director) Chandrasekhar has the chance to play crazy.
This easygoing camaraderie extends to the collectively authored screenplay, which gives many of the best lines to Duncan, a furious, malapropping delight as Cleon, and some of the best physical comedy to Bowlby as the increasingly bedraggled Mia. Not all the democratizing efforts work out: while several funny cameos ensure that even laggy moments are picked up quickly, Heffernan makes some needless attempts to jazz things up (or patch some editing holes) by fussing with camera speeds.
Occasionally, that pleasantly ramshackle vibe turns to outright laziness, as when restaurant rookie Donnie (Paul Soter) becomes the romantic hero about two-thirds of the way through the movie for no other reason other than it worked for the rookie cop in Super Troopers. The crew needn’t have bothered with the self-mimicry, though. Broken Lizard may not make a movie as ingratiating or laugh-out-loud funny as that one again, but they toss off this sort of silliness like natural slackers.