Not shown to critics or I’d guess many others to keep the word from spreading like a cyanide cloud, the raunchy omnibus comedy Movie 43 arrives in theaters at a time when most mainstream films are polished and computer-tweaked and tested and reshot and reedited and polished again. It’s rare to see a piece of shit that actually looks and sounds like a piece of shit. It’s kind of exciting! The stars are unprotected, vulnerable in a way you don’t see them anymore, looking like porn actors who’ve wandered onto the set without their entourages or a clear idea of where their marks are or even how they came to be there speaking unspeakable lines crammed with “XXX”-rated words. Was someone holding Kate Winslet’s children hostage? Threatening to release compromising pictures of Emma Stone? Did Richard Gere or Hugh Jackman have gambling debts? It would have been fun in a sadistic way to put a camera on the actors as they watched the finished film for the first time and tremblingly called their agents.
I need to say at this point that I love everything about Movie 43 except the movie. I love scatological comedy — the squirmier the better — and I love the idea of big stars taking a day or two out of their busy schedules to work blue in a naughty revue. The framing sequences (directed by Peter Farrelly, one of the film’s instigators) give the movie all the structure it needs: Mad, crazy lunatic Dennis Quaid shows up in the office of Hollywood studio middleman Greg Kinnear and forces the increasingly appalled executive to listen to a series of demented pitches, all of which are bravely acted out by a cast that includes the stars named above as well as Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Anna Faris, Justin Long, Jason Sudeikis, Uma Thurman, Kristen Bell, Chloë Grace Moretz, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Duhamel, Gerard Butler, Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville, Halle Berry, and Terrence Howard. There are a dozen credited directors and many more writers and producers, and my guess is that none of them spent much time shaping the material. This is the sort of sketch comedy in which the premise has to do all the work. The first sequence sets the tone: Winslet goes on a blind date to a fancy restaurant with fabulously handsome bachelor Jackman, who has a pair of testicles hanging from his chin. Nobody seems to notice the swinging balls but her. But that’s all she notices. He spills a bit of soup on his balls and she gazes on in horror and motions to him and he licks —
Okay, I think that’s funny in a vomitous kinda way, but the sketch is just one joke over and over with no decent payoff. Much better is a high-concept sequence in which Watts and hubby Schreiber play a couple who home-school their son and replicate the social experience by taunting him, writing “fag” on his papers, etc. — but again, the punch line sucks. A sequence of superheroes (dressed in the tatty style of seventies TV) speed-dating has the feel of a Saturday Night Live sketch that refuses to catch fire. The central character, Robin the Boy Wonder, is played by Justin Long, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s Robin who’s frozen with embarrassment by Batman (Sudeikis) under his table offering running commentary on the sprawling cornfield-like bush of Bell’s Supergirl or Long who’s frozen with embarrassment at being in this horrid sketch in this horrid movie. Halle Berry’s “Truth or Dare” scene with Stephen Merchant starts down to Earth and fairly amusing, but the timing of the dares is off. Farrelly and his brother are two of my low-comedy heroes, but Movie 43 is amateur hour.
The god-awfulness could have worked on a meta-level — after all, these are supposed to be the god-awful scenarios of a madman. But not even a madman could justify the excruciatingly bad timing of a scene in which middle-school student Moretz gets her first period while making out with a boy and is humiliated by her boorish family. (Elizabeth Banks directed.) Faris, that ethereal gross-out queen, has finally met a script she can’t elevate. Emma Stone’s brainy delivery doesn’t work with brainless dialogue. A jealous cartoon cat whapping off to photos of his master isn’t funny, but I did enjoy the sketch in which foul-mouthed leprechauns get kidnapped and brutally murdered for their pot of gold. You take your pleasures where you can find them.
You will notice in the above a lot of “hated that,” “liked this,” “hated that.” The ratio of hits to misses is maybe nine to one — a low average but not so bad when you consider the sheer number of jokes in this thing. If a ticket to Movie 43 had cost $2.99 instead of the $13 I paid at a ridiculously cold Brooklyn theater, it might not have seemed like such an insult. And as I said, I love the idea. The worst thing about Movie 43 is that it guarantees there’ll be no Movie 44.