'Movie 43': On the End of a Non-Era

Even at its best, Movie 43 looks like a subgenre's dying gasp. Actors don't need raunchy comedies to prove they're good sports, and audiences don't need to visit movie theaters to watch five-minute comedy shorts.

Movie 43

Cast: Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry, Stephen Merchant, Emma Stone, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, Kieran Culkin, Richard Gere, Justin Long, Jason Sudiekis, Terrence Howard, Naomi Watts, Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, Gerard Butler, Liev Schreiber
Directors: Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Steve Carr, Rusty Cundieff, Griffin Dunne, Peter Farrelly, James Gunn, Brett Ratner
Rated: R
Studio: Relativity
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-01-25 (General release)
UK date: 2013-01-25 (General release)

The marketing of Movie 43 suggests one of those bastardized spoof movies of recent vintage, with movie stars replacing the cheap impersonators who usually appear in the likes of Date Movie or Disaster Movie. More specifically, it looks like a satire of satire, an idea pushed as well by the working-turned-actual-title. Veteran spoof purveyors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer seem to have given up on targeting genres and are now just taking on "movies."

But Movie 43 is rarer than a spoof movie: it is an anthology of comedy shorts, interconnected enough to suggest a debt to Kentucky Fried Movie (which has its own spoof connections, being written by Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker before they graduated to the masterful genre riffing of Airplane! and The Naked Gun). In the decades since Kentucky Fried Movie, which debuted the same year as Saturday Night Live, sketch comedy has mostly been confined to the small screen. But as the internet has given the mode greater visibility, bigger stars are increasingly game to give it a try, and look like a good sport in the process.

Movie 43, produced by one but not both of the Farrelly brothers (Peter), plays a bit like an anthology of those tossed-off web pieces, and sometimes like an experiment in how far an actor will go to look like a good sport. Hugh Jackman plays a man with a scrotum inexplicably dangling from his neck and Kate Winslet makes gagging faces as a woman on a blind date with him. Anna Faris, already one of the gamest comic actresses around, takes on a role that calls upon almost none of her actual talents and all of her willingness to be humiliated, in a sketch whose smirking grossness I don't care to describe.

Those are some of the worst moments of Movie 43. As with almost any anthology feature, it's uneven, though this one bombs out more often than most. Sifting through the rubble, we might divide the sketches into three categories. The Winslet and Faris bits occupy the most prominent one: stupid ideas, stupidly executed. This category also includes the movie's idiotic rough framing device, featuring Dennis Quaid as an unhinged screenwriter forcibly pitching his ideas to henpecked film executive Greg Kinnear. These recurring sequences are disasters in miniature, an unfunny series of limp escalations (Quaid has a gun! No, wait, he also has a grenade!) that feel like old-fashioned improvisation -- not the kind of improvisation that young comedians study at Upright Citizens Brigade or Second City, but the kind where a script is written on the same day as shooting, before the actors have a chance to change their minds and flee.

Several of the worst sketches are written by the team of Rocky Russo and Jeremy Sosenko, whose comic sensibility seems to be predicated on the feeling that one-joke Saturday Night Live bits would be improved immeasurably if only the show had carte blanche to be as disgusting as possible. Russo and Sosenko's work across so many sketches flattens out the potential eclecticism of the many stars and directors working on them, turning much of the movie into their self-indulgent variety hour.

The movie does not spend all of its time on these lowest points. Following the lead of SNL, Movie 43 has a separate category of clever sketch ideas with belabored execution or fizzled-out endings, like the segment with parents played by Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber whose homeschooling program for their teenage son includes all of the emotional torments of normal high school, or the scene about men panicking about a girl's first period. Cut down to two or three minutes on television, with the energy of live performance, these might have been hilarious.

Finally, there is the category of sketches that are actually funny. One, with Emma Stone and Kieran Culkin as estranged lovers reuniting in a creepy-looking grocery store, runs about five minutes, and is sold almost entirely on the actors' ability to deliver absurd dialogue with feeling. Another, with Justin Long as a frustrated Robin whose speed-dating experience is ruined by the intrusions of his boorish partner Batman (Jason Sudiekis), is a (relatively) more polished sequel to an online short from a few years ago, and in the context of Movie 43 as a whole, Brett Ratner's sketch about a violent, foul-mouthed leprechaun and the dopes who capture him also qualifies as a success.

This adds up to about 20, maybe 30 minutes of funny material, scattered around a wasteland of cheap ideas and indifferent, sometimes downright ugly execution. Even at its best, Movie 43 looks like a subgenre's dying gasp. Actors don't need raunchy comedies to prove they're good sports, and audiences don't need to visit movie theaters to watch five-minute comedy shorts, especially not those trading mostly on shock value. For all its empty provocations, Movie 43 renders itself obsolete.


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