David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer (2001) was a film ahead of its time. Grossing less than $300,000 in theaters six years ago, the parody of/homage to ’80s summer camp comedies became a cult hit on home video and cable. And its spontaneous-seeming, sketch-based comedy has since found mainstream success in the Will Ferrell-Adam McKay comedies, as well as Judd Apatow’s improv-heavy projects.
The Ten, Wain’s belated follow-up, expands on the first film’s stylistic roots. Like Monty Python and the Meaning of Life, it is a series of overlapping vignettes with a vague thematic thrust, in this case the 10 Commandments, one sketch for each Thou Shalt Not. Paul Rudd introduces the segments and stars in one of his own, torn between his tense marriage to Gretchen (Famke Janssen) and his affair with Liz (Jessica Alba).
The other segments are essentially more ambitious versions of what you might find on The State or Kids in the Hall. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” has a doctor (co-writer Ken Marino) leaving surgical scissors inside a patient intentionally, “as a goof,” an explanation he offers repeatedly. The doctor later turns up in prison for his crimes, where he becomes the new “wife” for his cellie and object of desire for less thuggish fellow inmate Duane (Rob Corddry).
All the segments are at least amusing, though most of their executions dance on the line between logical escalation and needless elaboration. The doctor bit makes some sense, for example, while the eventual prison rape scene is overkill. The recurrence of certain characters, phrases, and themes imitates the feel of long-form improvisation, where performers use call-backs to tie new scenes into earlier ones, but this scripted compilation’s rhythm lacks spontaneity.
The result isn’t exactly uninspired. The movie is fun to watch (though it hardly begs for a second viewing) and apparently fun to make, judging by the sprawling, game cast. Like Wet Hot, The Ten mixes cult comedy figures with well-known actors, with mostly encouraging results. Liev Schreiber’s furrowed intensity is perfect for a suburban father who becomes obsessed with one-upping his neighbor’s CAT scan machine purchases; Gretchen Mol plays a 35-year-old virginal librarian whose sexual awakening, initiated during her Mexican vacation, is inspired by Jesus Christ himself (a serenely understated Justin Theroux).
Despite their admirably ridiculous performances, the cast doesn’t come together as a comic force (despite a musical finale featuring the entire company). The sketches’ tangential connections to the Commandments feel increasingly flimsy. Wain and Marino offer cursory “religious” or even spiritual moments, like Jesus walking on water, or the sequence in which dozens of men skip church to hang out naked and listen to Roberta Flack, but most attempts at offense or controversy are strictly secular excuses for the filmmakers’ preferred brand of absurdism.
Wet Hot American Summer, too, seemed at first like an excuse for deadpan riffs, but the ’80s teen movie structure was perfect for developing comic characters and situations. The Ten appears to have a can’t-miss structure — what provides richer comic material than forbidden vices? — but despite all of the sight gags, recurring characters, amusing references (at least one sketch ending mimics Woody Allen, while another goes for left-field Shakespeare), and genuine chuckles it elicits, it’s more exercise than tour de force. The attention to detail in Wet Hot American Summer made that film feel like a labor of love. The Ten just feels like a goof.