07 February 2008


For all that it is a supremely disposable bit of stoner anti-comedy, Strange Wilderness - the newest film from Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions - manages to make cinematic history, in a very limited sort of way: it is to my best knowledge the first film ever to feature both Ernest Borgnine and Joe Don Baker in its cast. And they never share a scene! This is an injustice along the scale of never actually witnessing Pacino and De Niro interact in Heat, except that it only really matters to very pathetic people who love horrible, paunchy actors.

The film is the directorial debut of Sandler hanger-on Fred Wolf, from a script he co-wrote with his buddy and Saturday Night Live comrade Peter Gaulke. It concerns the final adventure of an incompetent nature show host named Peter Gaulke (Steve Zahn) and his longtime collaborator, the incompetent sound recordist Fred Wolf (Sandler hanger-on Allen Covert). See what they did there? That's a big move. Also, a confusing and unjustified move. This isn't Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg naming the protagonists in Superbad Seth and Evan. This is more like Ingmar Bergman making a film about a port-a-john salesman named Ingmar Bergman. It has seemingly nothing to do with the creators' actual histories, and smacks of incredible self-esteem issues.

Anyhow, Peter is busy running Strange Wilderness, his late father's beloved public access animal program, into the ground, when word comes from the programming director (Jeff Garlin) at KPIP-TV that he has two weeks to do something major, or they're going to cancel his show and replace him with the charismatic Sky Pierce (Harry Hamlin). Bill Calhoun (Joe Don), an old friend of his dad, drops the bombshell that he knows where Bigfoot is living in Ecuador (sure, Ecuador! Why not?), and Peter begins to assemble the crack team that will help him film the world's most elusive animal: Fred, of course, and neophyte animal handler Whitaker (Kevin Heffernan), cute travel agent Cheryl (Ashley Scott), a couple people who don't seem to have much to do, Cooker (Jonah Hill) and Danny (Peter Dante), and pothead camera operator Junior (Justin Long), who takes over when his uncle Milas (Borgnine) decides that a trip to the jungle is for younger blood. The last component is the intense 'Nam vet Gus Hayden (Robert Patrick), who will serve as their tracker once they reach a suspiciously botanic-gardens-esque South America.

It's kind of incredible how much of the cast of this film is made up of people who have been good essentially just one time in their careers: Hill in Superbad; Hamlin in Veronica Mars*; Long in those Mac ads; Patrick in T2; Heffernan in Super Troopers; Borgnine in...something, obviously, or people wouldn't like him. (Of course, everything that Joe Don has been in is an impeccable masterpiece, but he's the exception that proves the rule). The saddest case is surely Zahn, who was last seen stealing Rescue Dawn from both Christian Bale and Werner Herzog. The point being that all of these names feel like they bring some major talent to the table, even though not a single one of them actually does so: we just have it in our heads that they must be good or we wouldn't like them.

But not a single one of those men (or woman) does much of anything collections of riffs that I hesitate to call "roles"; befitting the House That Adam Built, most of the performances consist of a silly accent that sounds like someone who many, many years ago had a lisp. Some of them are very good silly accents: Jonah Hill gets to try on a cod-Southern number that actually makes an honestly funny contrast to his appearance. Some of them are not very good silly accents: when Zahn launches into a cartoony Mexican parody, you can feel the immigration debate regressing by the decade.

Then, they take these varied accents and apply them to lines of dialogue which are sort of vaguely constructed as jokes, but mostly don't seem to have punch lines. I suppose they're supposed to be situationally funny. Since the situation typically involves marijuana, genital abuse, or very rarely both, I felt a tiny bit locked out: though there are pot jokes that are funny to sober people, it takes a special kind of genius to write them; ball-punching jokes can also be funny but typically only if the French are somehow involved. Perhaps I'm just on the wrong wavelength for this kind of humor, but let's go to the numbers: I was counting during the film, and in a theater holding five people, there were a grand total of eight laughs. None of them were from me, but I smiled a few times. There was never a point when more than one person laughed at any given time. One should not argue from anecdote, I realise, but I'd like to submit this as the basis for an argument that Strange Wilderness is empirically unfunny.

Not, frankly that anybody was actually going to see this movie, which had as near as I can tell a $7.00 marketing budget. Hell, I only reviewed it because there was nothing else in theaters.

Still, there is that one niggling fact, that Borgnine and Joe Don are together for the first and probably the last time (and Robert Patrick to boot! What a marvelous film for the b-movie scholar this is!). Which ought to be cause for celebration, but the movie even mucks up that seemingly unmissable proposition, and so does Strange Wilderness slink its way in and out of theaters without leaving any trace of its passage besides a distinct tang in the air of flop sweat and sorrow.


*Unless you like L.A. Law. I kid, of course; nobody likes L.A. Law.


Rebecca said...

Are you saying Steve Zahn was only good in Rescue Dawn?

Tim said...

No...I can't defend that. But he was at his career peak in Rescue Dawn.

Ellen said...

Tim, I cannot believe you were desperate enough to see a movie that you actually saw this movie.

As a severe TV addict, I can't believe I'm recommending this, but: Dude, go outside.

Cameron said...

i feel that you are severely underestimating steve zahn's contributions to both Happy, Texas and That Thing You Do!

Aja said...

To be completely honest, I only saw this movie for two reasons: One, the commercial with the shark-- which was really the only time I laughed in the entire film. Two, because of Ernest and Joe Don being in the same film. I actually was EXCITED to see Joe Don on the big screen after so many years! But yeah, this movie was HORRID. And the worst part? When I saw it, the theater was completely PACKED and people were laughing at the most random scenes. I convinced myself that they were only laughing to convince themselves they spent their $8 for a reason.

Tim said...

Ellen: I cannot disagree with the sense of your statement, and I recognise the incredibly urgency it bears coming from you.

Cameron: I have seen only one of the films you've named, and I didn't like it, but I don't really remember Zahn in it. I'm not saying which one.

Aja: I should perhaps clarify, just because my first paragraph could be read as sarcasm: I would cut off a finger to see a legitimate Joe Don/Borgnine pairing.