Jack Black. I feel like I never knew the guy. Sure, I thought I did when I saw him 10 years ago on Mr. Show, playing a singing farmer with “glory holes” in his barn’s wall. I even wax nostalgic for the times he helped Mulder find a mother ship on an early X-Files, all arched eyebrows, a manic scene-stealer. But these days, I see him nuzzling blondes, hair coiffed, all Mr. Rom-Com Sensitivity, or, worse, reduced to a flabby sight gag with a bad accent. And so I wonder, was Jack Black ever really funny?
Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny seems the appropriate test for Black. The original Tenacious D series certainly earned Black’s initial cult following, by showcasing his gifts for both vulgar physical comedy and flair as a musician. The series gave Black a straight man in Kyle Gass, and even a charming Laurel and Hardy style routine to close every episode. And as watchable as Tenacious D were, both as performers and a comedy duo, they never looked formulated for mass consumption. They remained offensive and weird.
But the film takes no such liberties. Neither does Black let loose the little, horny succubus within, the one stifled by the series’ six-episode run on HBO. Instead, Pick is a mock rock opera full of pot jokes, wherein Black appears to close my case against him. He embraces his own basic hyper-guy persona, one muddied by a string of studio films that aimed low and still missed (Consider: Nacho Libre, Envy or Saving Silverman). Mainstream or not, caricature just isn‘t funny enough for a whole film.
But Black‘s middling performance isn’t the only problem in Pick. It takes the very concept of cock rock to unfunny extremes, stripping the duo of what made them so endearing in the first place: their unfounded bravado. Instead, JB (Black) and KG (Gass) flail in the plot-driven mucky-muck without much of the moxie that made their original series so damned delightful.
Paying homage to classic hair-band videos, Pick begins with a 12-year-old JB (Troy Gentile) playing his music too loud for his oh-so-square Dad (Meat Loaf). The ensuing argument, performed as a sort of screaming duet, leaves Lil’ JB with no choice but to run away from home, guitar slung across his back, to seek acceptance in the form of rock stardom in Hollywood. There the grown-up JB comes across KG strumming his guitar on the boardwalk. Once JB begins adlibbing lyrics over KG’s acoustic rendition of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” (think: Barenaked Ladies), the two come together creatively and, thus, Tenacious D is more or less predictably born.
This predictability doesn’t at all serve the spirit of Tenacious D, even whose pre-HBO early shorts were always raunchy and strange (consider “Butt Baby,” where KG quite convincingly births an infant from his bum). As much as the film’s plot attempts to send up rise-to-fame sagas, KG and JB were funnier as pentagram-wielding suburban stoners trying to rock hard for the sake of rock. The superimposition of rock god mythology denies their banal commercialism (“Burrito Supreme, Cutlass Supreme”) and homoerotic innuendo (“You’re gonna gargle mayonnaise!”). Once the D’s context shifts into spoofing Behind the Music, the jokes just lose their bite.
To attempt a classic odyssey of sorts (complete with three acts), the movie has the D set forth on a tedious journey to steal the Pick of Destiny from a high-security Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum. The legend of the pick, told in clever low-budget animation, is that it was carved long ago from Satan’s tooth and gives its users the ability to rock with unequalled prowess (these include Eddie van Halen and AC/DC’s Angus Young). The D needs the pick’s powers if they are to win a cash prize at an Open Mic Night Contest at Al’s Bar. All this, so they can “pay the rent with rock.” It’s a ridiculous premise, and not in a good way. Our beloved Tenacious D would never, ever rock to pay the rent — they rock just to fucking rock.
The D encounter various characters who seek to make cameos — er, to derail their quest. A one-legged Russian misanthrope (Tim Robbins) threatens the two at knife point from 20 feet away. And JB reclaims the Daddy he left behind in the form of a Sasquatch (John C. Reilly) he encounters in the woods while on a mushroom trip. These turns, along with Ben Stiller’s by-the-numbers aging rocker performance, read like glaring attempts to pad the film’s sagging middle.
Watching JB and KG on this befuddling adventure is less compelling than watching them perform their music, and the film only lets Tenacious D on stage twice. Twice. Perhaps multiple rewrites and more than a year of distribution limbo explain the weakness. The movie acknowledges cult fans by relying on the series’ safest in-jokes, which here sound stale. Take the film’s final showdown with the Devil (Dave Grohl). It’s virtually identical to the popular “Tribute” video, almost inescapable during MTV’s heavy rotation of it in 2002.
Tenacious D’s signature preoccupations with fantasy, demons, and bongs offer possibilities for their refreshing hallmark moments. But director Liam Lynch and the D instead show fans what they already know and mass audiences what they’ve already rejected.