[7 March 2012]
Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is likely to inspire strong feelings and even divide audiences. Those who know the titular Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker from their Adult Swim show, Awesome Show, Great Job!, will know what they’re in for—they might even find it rather tame. Any unsuspecting theatergoers should receive a courtesy disclaimer: there will be diarrhea, and it will be forceful and sustained, and the scene will continue much longer than you’ll find comfortable. Billion Dollar Movie goes for broke, and on its own deeply idiosyncratic terms, it largely succeeds.
Writer-directors Wareheim and Heidecker play “themselves,” here a pair of narcissists inexplicably hired to make a film for wealthy businessman Tommy Schlaaang (a particularly feral Robert Loggia). After blowing a billion dollars on personal makeovers and assistants, they deliver three minutes of footage starring a Johnny Depp impersonator in a diamond-encrusted suit. When Schlaaang demands his money back, they go on the run. An infomercial conveniently promises a billion dollar opportunity, leading them to an abandoned, post-apocalyptic mall owned by Damien Weebs (Will Farrell). After introducing his raised-by-wolves nephew, Taquito (John C. Reilly), Weebs vanishes, leaving the mall under Tim and Eric’s control.
The premise sets up several Hollywood conventions, which the film alternately skewers and follows. There’s the underdog story, where Tim and Eric would triumph over adversity, learning something profound about themselves in the process. But they’re deeply unlikable characters and their “success” leaves actual dead bodies in its wake. Or, leaving Hollywood, they could find a more comfortable vision of the United States—the mall is located among the “flyover states,” at the center of the country. But Tim and Eric’s self-absorption prevents them from learning much of anything. The mall, inhabited largely by misfits, is a far cry from Norman Rockwell. Another story might feature “the power of friendship,” but after the movie highlights an especially trite example, it demolishes it, as Tim and Eric turn on one another. There’s even a romantic subplot between Eric and a shopkeeper, Katie (Twink Caplan), that, needless to say, does not end happily ever after.
Even as it plays with conventions, Billion Dollar Movie relies on them. And so, rather than follow the TV show’s sketch format, the movie does tell a story, however loosely. Wareheim and Heidecker discount the possibility of a sketch movie, saying, “They don’t really work. We felt like they’re just… No one was asking for that.” Indeed, a coherent storyline makes the Tim and Eric aesthetic sustainable over 94 minutes.
Despite and perhaps because of its occasional abrasiveness, that aesthetic has become increasingly commonplace in American TV commercials. It’s an aesthetic of ineptitude, but not simply the “so bad it’s good” idea familiar from camp. Rather, it often draws attention to the technologies of production, the ways audio-visual material, particularly commercials, get made. Seeing that process fail makes viewers conscious of it. Often this aesthetic draws attention to its own artifice with, say, incongruous sound effects or poorly synched overdubbing. Jarring or repetitive cuts have a similar distancing effect, as do stilted acting and flubbed lines. Casting non-glamorous actors works from the other direction: it reminds viewers that in real life, people rarely look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie.
These elements come together in many low-budget commercials, a favorite target for Wareheim and Heidecker. Several times in Billion Dollar Movie, a shoddily produced video moves the action forward and also provides space in which to indulge the film’s more outré ideas. The commercials in the film evoke ads we’ve seen elsewhere, for a local car dealership, or more explicitly, 1980s-style corporate films. The comparatively archaic technology of that time also stands as a variety of ineptitude: the appearance of floppy disks, VHS cassettes, and a large, clanking computer signify unsophisticated users. They can’t fathom today’s digital technology.
All of which might make Billion Dollar Movie sound incredibly high-minded. But its formal and aesthetic arguments are subtle (especially next to the meth-fueled-cuisinart style of Awesome Show, Great Job!). They’re arguments set behind a foreground crowded with silliness and scatalogical humor. One shop at the mall, for example, is Reggie’s Used Toilet Paper Discount Warehouse, which the proprietor describes as “a gourmet operation.” It’s the first time a character comments on the smell of feces in the air, but not the last. The ridiculousness succeeds thanks to committed, energetic performances, especially Will Forte as a perpetually enraged sword salesman.
Neither the critical subtext nor the more overt humor will appeal to everyone, of course. Yet for a movie with such potential for insularity—a movie for fans only—it’s surprisingly accessible. Not everyone will get it, but not because Tim and Eric don’t want them to.