Following on from my review of “Coffee Town”, the first film from College Humor, comes the first from Splitsider. It’s an interesting time to be a comedy fan, as the cost of making a decent looking film comes way down and ways of directly marketing to your consumers open up. As well as allowing established comedy names to make their own projects, websites with huge numbers of visitors have a ready-made audience they can sell to. So, did Splitsider do well to pick this?
Exquisite Corpse, to any British readers who wouldn’t know (me included) is a parlour game where three people draw a body – one draws the head, one the body and the third the legs. None of them see what the others are drawing, so the results can be bizarre and, hopefully, funny. This film follows roughly the same principle, featuring the multiple members of comedy group Olde English.
Olde English were a sketch comedy group in the early days of internet video. A few of their videos were pretty big hits, getting mainstream airplay – my first exposure to them was this film, but I never tended to venture outside Funny or Die for internet comedy. The first thing I feel it’s important to say is…they’re not all that great. Their videos are a bit “okay, I see what you’re trying to do, but when does the funny stuff happen?”, even though their popularity would indicate I’m in the minority. They split up around 2008, it would seem (although there’s no announcement of such on their website or Wikipedia page), drifting apart as they were beginning to get more serious and make more money from comedy, although most of them seem to still be in the business in one way or another.
Founder Ben Popik decides to get the gang back together again – the core group and two of their regular collaborators / former members, for a project. Each will write 15 pages of a film script, and the person who writes the second section will only be able to see the last five pages of the previous script (including a cast list of the main people); and so on, down the line. Popik will direct but not write.
Some of the fun of the film is seeing the way one will set a little challenge for the next writer, and how he deals with it (or not), but the end results are, as should be expected, a mixed bag. Some people really go with the last five pages and spin it in interesting ways; others just go “nah, can’t be bothered” and end the “cliffhanger” almost immediately to tell a fairly different story. Each section is handily delineated by changes both subtle and massive – subtle- the way the characters dress and hold themselves; massive – lighting, film and editing style, and it all looks great (apart from the second section, which may have been shooting for some bright heightened reality, but ends up looking like washed out home movie footage.
For a film from a comedy website, marketed as a comedy, some of the sections just aren’t funny at all. The first, written by Chioke Nassor, is more a short story about the ups and downs of a relationship than it is a film opening, and the last, from Raphael Bob-Waksberg, is sort-of about a long-broken-up couple meeting again after many years (kind-of, ish) with a few surrealist touches.
But there’s lots to like about the middle, a story about a surprise picnic that turns into a sexy thriller that turns into a poisoning / snake ghost epic. Lots of laughs, and the writers seem to really gel with each other. Marc and Adayit are a young couple in trouble, then not in trouble, then not a couple at all, then maybe a couple again; Marc’s friend Todd introduces them to Stephanie, who becomes a stalker, then a sweet friend, then Marc’s girlfriend, then a snake demon, then forgotten; a guy briefly glimpsed in the first section as Hipster Moustache Guy becomes Marc’s brother and dies in the process of rescuing Adayit; and the boss of the Korean convenience store drops in and out of the story.
Mirroring this action is Popik interviewing the writers, and them talking about the writing process – described as having the special features for a DVD run alongside the feature. It’s a little over half film, and a little under half documentary, and the final interviewee makes text what had been subtext before, that this about a group of friends that came from all over, and then their working methods started to sync up, but then by the end they’re all in different places. Even though they all still seem to be friendly and comfortable with each other, the end of friendships is a big theme running through it.
Well, it’s a unique idea. I’d love to see a regular comedy show do something similar, with a regular cast of characters being taken through all sorts of twists and turns by a rotating group of writers (I’m sure this has already happened somewhere on the web, but it’s a decent idea for a mainstream show). The film sections work mostly, even if I thought the beginning and end were slow, but it’s the documentary sections that caused more of the problems. Popik seems to have an idea of this being a big get the band back together sort of thing, like Pixies reforming to make new material and go on tour. The problem is, they’re just not Pixies. It’s like that decent local band you sort-of liked disappearing off the radar because they were never going to make it, then deciding to record an album and then do a local tour a few years later before going off to get normal jobs. If it were a narrative film (and I’m absolutely positive there’s a layer of meta-something in there, with the writers playing up their parts and manufacturing differences for the film) then there’d be some reason you’d want to care about these characters getting together again to do what they do best. But because of their weird respect for the documentary format (or because I was completely wrong about the meta thing), the end result seems to be a group of friends, who maybe weren’t quite as close as they were but are still totally comfortable with each other, hanging out for a bit. Ultimately, the stakes of the documentary are so low that they should have probably got them to reshoot a few interviews, talk more about the creative process and less about their really rather trivial differences.
I’m glad I watched it, and I really hope Splitsider continue to do this. I could even stand them doing the same format with a different group of comedians – either a loosely linked bunch (something like the Childrens Hospital / NTSF:SD::SUV crew) or a comedy group that’s still a going concern, so we get less of the drama and more of the comedy. Overall, an interesting and flawed, but still decent fun, film.