Off the Cuffs
Reno 911!, Strangers with Candy, Stella, The Sarah Silverman Program, Viva Variety: Comedy Central has been fleshing out its programming with side projects by established writers and performers for years. The shows are low budget, rushed, tossed off, and wildly inconsistent. But they often radiate an “it doesn’t matter so let’s do what we want” insider chumminess and eccentricity that makes for enjoyably offbeat couch viewing.
These types of shows are also ripe for cult fandom, which leads to DVD sales, which leads to somebody thinking there’s enough financial windfall to justify a spin-off movie. But a show that is little more than a glorified sketch rarely makes for a good movie. The feature length running time of Reno 911!: Miami, like the Strangers With Candy (2005) movie from two summers ago, magnifies the show’s faults without offering clever plotting or unique situations to make up for it. On the big screen, for 10 bucks, the seeming apathy with which a storyline is stitched together loses its slacker charm.
On DVD, Reno reclaims some of the low-key appeal of the show while remaining a rather pointless exercise. It’s bolstered by two in-character commentary tracks, promotional clips, and media coverage of the casts’ Borat-style (2006) marketing blitz. The commentaries, stream-of-consciousness conversations covering everything from turtle sex to “monkey poop coffee” and the outdated name Twentieth Century Fox, are actually more inventive than the on-screen action.
After a Die Hard (1988) style opening sequence (says Deputy Travis Junior [Robert Ben Garant] on the commentary, “What I always wonder is, if this is a documentary, how do they document the dreams?”) and then proceeds in the fashion of a typical episode with the sheriff’s department assembled in their briefing room. The television crew follows them to a Miami police convention where, through a Homeland Security scare, they end up having to patrol the city, and get mixed up with a drug cartel run by a lousy Scarface impersonator played by Paul Rudd.
This plot is barely developed and the movie is mainly an excuse for the cast to walk their usual bumbling beat patrol in a new city. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite trying to develop more sustainable storylines, the show’s funniest moments usually occur during the obvious COPS spoof as situational improv that was its founding premise. The movie similarly finds most of its best moments working such set ups, as when Deputy Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui) and Deputy Jones (Cedric Yarbrough) come across an alligator in a swimming pool and when the cops try to wrangle a beached whale. Both the actors and the camera seem much more comfortable in the casual situations of the show.
Elsewhere, the film-style sequences are stiff and strained. A central set-up consists of one long crane shot, taken outside a motel, where the cops enter and exit their rooms, bumping into each other, only to end up masturbating in their rooms alone. The scene was surely a pain-in-the-ass to block, but is still a thudding homage to Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man. Mostly these scenes create a jarring and amateurish juxtaposition with the primary reality TV aesthetic.
This movie did not need to be brilliantly polished to succeed. The characters, shallow and stupid, can’t be expected to change (and shouldn’t). But screenwriters Garant and Thomas Lennon don’t give them enough to work with to keep us engaged. Most of the cameo characters, besides an appearance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, that normally enliven the comedy are thinly sketched and unmemorable. Being shallow doesn’t mean one-dimensional. Kenney has created endlessly unpredictable material with the lonely, put upon, racist, mean-spirited, married-to-an-incarcerated-serial-killer Trudy Wiegel. But Wendi McLendon-Covey’s Clementine Johnson is still playing the same blond tramp after four seasons. Rather than continue to play off their stock traits, the writers and cast should have used the new locale to reveal deeper abysses of their ineptitude and richer shadings of their hypocrisies.
Garant and Lennon are successful Hollywood screenwriters (Night at the Museum , Balls of Fury ) and could certainly have crafted a real story if they wanted. Yet they seem to be operating under the illusion that the Reno cast functions best when approaching material with the same competence as their characters. The bare structure of the episodes collapses at just 80 minutes and the free wheeling improv doesn’t hold it together.
This is a movie that practically dares you to care that it doesn’t. Why fault something that clearly doesn’t aspire to offer anything besides broad laughs? Individually it doesn’t matter, but Reno 911!: Miami is part and parcel of a comedy trend that’s been churning out crap by people who should know better. On the The Onion AV Club this week, in a discussion titled “Is Improvisation Ruining Film Comedy?” Nathan Rabin rightly bemoans the “endless parade of half-assed, kinda-okay movies with a smattering of good ideas and funny scenes that would benefit greatly from a few more drafts and a lot more discipline.”
The best improv-based television shows and movies, from This is Spinal Tap (1984) and other Christopher Guest movies to The Office, allow the comedians to ad lib within the confines of intricately developed characters and a tightly scripted plot that allow comedic situations to ripen and play off each other to an organic climax with thematic resolution. Though Reno 911!: Miami‘s similarity to Police Academy 5 was probably a deliberate tongue-in-cheek reference, does self-conscious mediocrity really make a movie any better?