If you were a fan of Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain’s uproariously bizarre send-up of ’80s-era summer camp comedies, you might have been, as I was, excited about The Ten. Wet Hot American Summer was so funny, so unpredictable, so gloriously low budget, and yet so astonishingly clever, that it made repeated viewing a profound pleasure. It was the very definition of the cult movie – relentlessly odd, hugely divisive, and probably even more awesome if you watch it stoned. There are things about that picture I’ll never forget – Molly Shannon falling in love with a precocious (and sexually manipulative) 8-year-old boy springs to mind – and which have stood for me as comedic benchmarks ever since.
But The Ten, Wain’s lackadaisical attempt to poke fun at biblical law, is disappointing. Far less cohesive than even Wet Hot American Summer, and certainly stranger than it is intellectual, The Ten takes a neutron bomb of a premise – ten vignettes, one on each of the Ten Commandments – and then sort of diffuses it. Perhaps that was part of the joke, to set us up for a clever attack on piety and social convention and then just not really do anything with it, but that’s far funnier to talk about than to sit through. Actually, that’s just about the best way I can think to describe this viewing experience: as I sit here now, some of the jokes that I stared at blank-faced on my TV are suddenly kind of amusing. A few are even hilarious.
But: is a comedy successful if it makes you laugh only later, upon reflection?
The Ten is basically a high-speed collision between Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog and Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex. Relying on a surprisingly celebrity-heavy group of actors (including Liev Schrieber, Adam Brody and Jessica Alba) to fill out the space around Wain mainstays Paul Rudd and Ken Marino (who co-wrote with Wain), part of the pleasure here lies in wondering how each particular commandment is going to be broken, and part of it lies in watching impossibly successful people do disgusting and insane things.
Rudd, for example, plays our Moses character. He occupies a darkened soundstage flanked by two stone tablets listing the Commandments. His wife, the absurdly beautiful Famke Janssen, bores him. His girlfriend, the bubbly and game Alba, excites him. As Rudd returns between each of the ten episodes to introduce the next, we watch a slight narrative wherein he leaves Janssen (moron!) and moves in with Alba, only to eventually discover that the grass isn’t always greener. This little conceit drives the action, and builds to a satisfyingly funny conclusion (which makes the most random reference to Diane Weist that has ever been made, ever). But, that storyline is merely here for glue.
The main action takes place in the brief, batshit episodes that purport to explore the foundations of Western morality and law. Without giving anything away (not that there’s a plot, per se, but many of these gags rely on surprise and, well, shock) you will see a young man embedded in the ground, Jesus Christ as a Cassanova, two neighbors competing over the size of their collections of CatScan machines, Oliver Platt playing an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Arsenio Hall impersonator, Winona Ryder as a puppet-obsessed sex-fiend, and a beyond-homoerotic love story between two prison inmates. Some of the casting is good for a laugh – guess which commandment klepto-Ryder stars in? – and the marriage play on Thou Shalt Not Covet thy Neighbour’s Wife is an inspired goof.
The real joy on this DVD is watching the film’s commentary, outtakes, and other special features. These are truly hilarious people, with quirky, borderline nuts-o sensibilities. Their perfectly amusing banter is mostly meaningless, but always entertaining. Plus, there’s soothing jazz and Wain’s parents. But, since nothing about the movie they’re commenting on seems to have been designed to add up to anything, since its purpose appears only to make us scratch our heads and turn to our companion in perplexed wonder, it’s all a little tough to evaluate.
The Ten is funny. It’s weird. And, it’s weirdly funny. But, it isn’t, after all, as funny as it is weird.