Sketch troupes are the future of comedy on film. The most promising, in recent years, spring from collectives established off-screen. This is like the multiple-screenwriter syndrome gone gloriously right, comedy with insurance against self-destructive ego. Sketch troupes know how to keep their ideas quick, clever, and/or weird.
Think of the Kids in the Hall (1996) and their hilarious, beloved-on-video Brain Candy, or Wet Hot American Summer (2001), spearheaded by former members of The State. Or maybe the unofficial troupe of Ben Stiller, Owen and Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Vince Vaughn, who seem to have made it their mission to enliven as many big studio comedies as possible, and make a decent sum of money doing so.
Less well known, and only slightly less promising, is Broken Lizard, first of the barely seen Puddle Cruiser (1998), then the more seen Super Troopers (2002), and now proudly sporting a possessive credit on Broken Lizard’s Club Dread, in which an island resort’s staff (mostly played by Broken Lizard, with Brittany Daniel and a few other girls) struggles in vain to suss out the mystery of a hooded serial killer. It’s a mash-up of comedy and… not horror, exactly, but slashing.
The confusion is a problem. Watching Club Dread, the phrase “future of comedy on film” may not rattle around your brain. The film is not bad; it has laughs and chuckles. But it doesn’t fulfill the promise of the charming and occasionally hilarious Super Troopers. A hedonistic island vacation run by washed-up Coconut Pete (Bill Paxton, apparently on holiday himself) sounds like a great place for any kind of mayhem, and some does ensue. Just not quite enough.
Super Troopers wasn’t heavy on mayhem either, but its laidback plot was premised on detour-heavy improv, and refreshingly even-handed improv, at that. Broken Lizard (founded, appropriately, on a college campus) is too democratic (and maybe, in its gaggle of alterna-frat dudes, a touch too generic) to have a breakout star, although Kevin Heffernan, the goodhearted masseur Lars here and the splendid jackass Farva in Troopers, comes close. But a general lack of showboating enhances the troupe’s clear willingness to trade up roles—Heffernan isn’t the only one who refuses to rehash his Troopers character. They also clearly relish the opportunity to fill their movie with strange details, such as the lovingly crafted songs and albums that make up sleazy Coconut Pete’s discography.
The decision to follow a cop comedy with a slasher film demonstrates the boys’ keen interest in resuscitating (or at least poking sticks at) moribund genres. What they don’t have, at least not yet, is a sense of pacing. Club Dread is, somehow, is held together with even more slack than its predecessor. Slasher movies depend on a certain amount of boilerplate narrative and characters’ drive to survive more than a half-hour or so, and uneven comedies can brew impatience in an audience. Unfortunately, Club Dread is repetitive and filled with stale fake-scare gags.
Or are they stale fake-scare scares? I couldn’t quite tell. The film is more sincere (and less smug) than a spoof. Parts of it resemble a comic gloss on a slasher, the way Evil Dead 2 is both gory and funny. But critical comic mass isn’t really reached until a dizzyingly, blessedly silly finale. By this point, some viewers may be frustrated with the waiting period between laughs (or gore), and abandon motorboat.
I remain hopeful, and convinced that Broken Lizard is a basically funny entity. Even this slapdash production is a lot funnier than most star-and-concept-driven comedies. Director Jay Chandrasekhar (sporting an amusingly phony British accent as tennis pro Putman) moonlights behind the scenes on Fox’s Arrested Development, which features fellow alternative comedian David Cross, co-creator of the brilliantly hit-and-miss Mr. Show series, and Jason Bateman, now appearing in the Stiller/Wilson Starsky & Hutch... the possibilities are endless. A slight misstep is forgivable if these first-rate comedians continue to keep it in the family.