2009 | Directors: “Land of the Lost” – Brad Silberling (“Casper,” “City of Angels”), “The Hangover” – Todd Phillips (“Starsky & Hutch,” “School for Scoundrels”)
As so many other comedic actors are known to do, Will Ferrell doesn’t really play individual characters in his films so much as he performs one continuous “Will Ferrell” impersonation. Thus, the “Will Ferrell” persona in “Anchorman” is essentially the same stunted, egotistical, man-child savant as in “Talladega Nights,” “Semi-Pro,” and the new Ferrell vehicle “Land of the Lost.” So it’s a little more than surprising that the latter is a decent film, replete with enough adventure and laughs from the rest of the cast to make for a pleasant evening at the cinema—provided one’s expectations are as bedrock-low as Ferrell’s own character-writing standards.
Based on the campy 1974 TV program of the same name by creepy-kid-show creators Sid and Marty Krofft, “Land” weaves a yarn about Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell), a stunted, egotistical, man-child savant whose scientific interest in the sci-fi oriented field of inter-dimensional time warps makes him the laughingstock of the world (and of Matt Lauer, host of “The Today Show”). But when Marshall is convinced by enthusiastic doctoral student Holly Cantrell (Anna Friel) that his crackpot theories have more factual basis to them than anticipated, he, Cantrell, and white-trash tour guide Will Stanton (Danny McBride) find themselves thrown through time and space only to arrive in the titular area, a cosmic dumping ground for the detritus of other dimensions.
Ferrell’s repetitive bleating aside, “Land” suffers from two distinct flaws: one being intermittent earnestness in certain moments when a more outright parody would have better served the lowbrow style of humor, and the other being the non-stop barrage of crassness running through a film so heavily marketed as children’s fare. As a simple question of taste such deception is unethical; but even worse is the ironic fact that the movie might have opened to a higher box office gross had it been advertised as the absurd gross-out comedy it really is.
Yet, however stale Ferrell’s act may now be, his interplay with the always-hilarious McBride (and the duo’s subsequent relationship with caveman Cha-Ka, played by an unrecognizable Jorma Taccone of SNL fame) is what buoys the film as a whole. Indeed, the slower moments of “Land,” when the characters are merely talking to each other, tend to be more exciting than the mediocre action bits. The filmmakers’ mistake of focusing heavily on plot and the aesthetics of physical chaos accidentally pays dividends in that, every ten minutes, time must be spent on exposition, where McBride’s biting deadpan playing off of Ferrell’s high-pitched yelps works to its greatest effect.
I realize it’s not a glowing recommendation, but at least “Land” possesses the talent to work through its problems and end up being an enjoyable time-waster, not to mention a film in which, trite as it sounds, childish people find stupid ways to be happy; on the other end of the spectrum is “The Hangover,” a spiteful work by Todd Phillips (“Old School”) that effectively suffocates any comedic genius lurking in the souls of Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms. It’s ugly, it’s offensive on levels far more important than content, and worst of all, it’s just not amusing.
Far from focusing on any one of its reprehensible characters, “The Hangover” follows friends Doug (Justin Bartha), Phil (Bradley Cooper, “Wedding Crashers”), Stu (Helms), and Alan (Galifianakis) on a bachelor party-tear through Las Vegas—that is, until the remaining three lose Doug after a particularly raucous night of partying, sending them searching frantically across Sin City for the missing groom-to-be.
But the gags you see in the trailers—a baby! a tiger! a missing tooth! the mush-mouthed corpse of Mike Tyson!—simply don’t play with any humor. Instead, save for a riotous performance from Ken Jeong and a decent reading here and there from Galifianakis, “The Hangover” brims with a particularly hateful brand of comedy, where filth and grime pass for color and profanity replaces wit or banter. The three friends slime their way from set-up to set-up, barking their lines without levity, and all the while a sickening sense that these characters are not people you’d ever want to know in real life pervades the experience. In a nutshell, it’s barely entertainment, but it’s never fun.
As a gentle diversions go, it’s hard to be disappointed by any decently-produced comedy; perhaps that’s why I found “Land” to be so much better than I had imagined a big-budget Will Ferrell bust could muster. But there’s no excusing away the grim “humor” presented by “The Hangover”—not as long as something so absurdly humanistic (if misguided) plays in the theater right across the hall.
Ratings: “Land of the Lost” – Three of Five Stars; “The Hangover” – One and a Half of Five Stars