Summer 2006 solidified the dominance of the group in U.S. film comedy. Look no further than failed vehicles for solo comic actors Owen Wilson (You, Me and Dupree) and Luke Wilson (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), compared to the more successful (critically and financially) Talladega Nights, which employed about a dozen funny actors to support star Will Ferrell.
Perhaps the most “democratic” comedy group currently working is Broken Lizard, who made the cult hit Super Troopers and the less beloved Club Dread. While official writing credit for Talladega Nights is assigned to Ferrell and director Adam McKay, Broken Lizard—a college-brewed troupe, unlike the Ferrell crew—collectively authors their screenplays, all of which divvy up gags among the five members.
Their new film, Beerfest, employs this strategy. Its story starts with Jan (Paul Soter) and Todd Wolfhouse (Erik Stolhanske) dispatched to scatter their grandfather’s (Donald Sutherland) ashes in Munich during Oktoberfest. The brothers aren’t really “leads,” so much as excuses for the film’s plot—walking, talking McGuffins. Once they discover an underground beer-drinking competition, get their asses kicked by the Germans, and vow to return with a full team, the movie goes into team-building-and-training mode.
The other three Lizard dudes are recruited, and, not coincidentally, the movie takes off, with dialogue and sight gags becoming goofier and looser (a Broken Lizard specialty). It’s not that any of the new team members—competitive eater Landfill (Kevin Heffernan), drinking-game champ/male prostitute Barry (Jay Chandrasekhar), and lab tech Steve Finkelstein (Steve Lemme)—is particularly memorable. In fact, Broken Lizard’s strength in numbers is literal: they stick together, throwing out jokes in quick shifts. When the team members drink a newly brewed beer hyped as the world’s finest, they proceed to praise it with joyful non-sequiturs (“I wish it was winter so we could freeze it into ice and skate on it… and then melt it in the springtime and drink it!”), each member clearly trying to top each other.
But despite this sort of round-robin (and unlike, say, Canada’s Kids in the Hall), Broken Lizard doesn’t feature distinct comic styles. Two members stand out physically, Heffernan, because he’s large, and Chandrasekhar, because he’s the only non-white member (Indian), and also the nominal guy in charge (between troupe movies, he directed episodes of Undeclared and Arrested Development, as well as last year’s awful Dukes of Hazzard movie). The other three are harder to recognize and none of them, four films in, have developed a strong individual personality.
Refusing clear comic personas has its freedom. While some comedians are forever shackled to their most popular shtick, the Lizard boys don’t have to return to the same types of characters or even ethnicities; Soter played a Latino in Club Dread, while Fink, in Beerfest, is clearly Jewish. This kind of shift represents a rejection of the dreaded comic ego—Soter would rather play a character than indulge in his own shtick. On the other hand, Broken Lizard characters aren’t particularly memorable; in most cases, the performers might as well draw their roles out of a hat.
The result is a troupe without a specific comic point of view—not that one is required of a movie called Beerfest. The closest they come is positioning doofus stunts as a spoof of underdog sports movies; the film ribs the way the American can-do spirit borders on insanity (though in a manner less clear-eyed than Talladega Nights, which covers similar territory). But the Lizards are both too idiosyncratic and lazy for a straight sports parody. In some scenes, they come up with digressions that fit no formula (such as a brief montage of various locations where the teammates wake up after their first night of heavy drinking, which made me laugh as hard as I have at a movie all year). In others, exposition is rudimentary to the point of resembling a home video skit, as the players seem to be prompting each other to perform.
This won’t be a surprise to the small but appreciative Broken Lizard cult, as all Lizard films share this likable, slapdash approach. Beerfest is more consistent than Club Dread, but less fresh than Super Troopers. It also feels a touch less quirky than both, like someone was telling the guys to lean on the R-rated comedy angle and ratchet up the gross-outs (with plenty of breasts as chasers). Trend-chasing, however minor, might not be the right direction for Broken Lizard, who might benefit from actual characterizations. Their movies shift genres, but don’t really change gears, changes that can seem somewhat pointless. I’m guessing that the boys have too a good time together to notice. I almost do, too.