“I noticed that you’re wearing a shirt. Is everything okay?” That’s one of the first questions Zach Galifianakis asks Matthew McConaughey in the opening scene of Between Two Ferns: The Movie, and it reminds you that this whole schtick, while pretty old by now, still works. Galifianakis’s Emmy-winning, cheapozoid online fake mini-interview series, in which he guilelessly asked famous guests all sorts of awkward questions — some pretend-ignorant, some pretend-cruel — had a nice, sporadic run, and doesn’t post much nowadays, but its comic spirit hasn’t dated. Those interviews still carry a charge, largely because the guests themselves are so game, playing along in half-sincere befuddlement and slow-burning resentment. But can the concept carry an entire feature film?
I’m not sure, and apparently, neither are Galifianakis and his partner in crime, Scott Aukerman (who co-wrote and directs), because they’ve fashioned Between Two Ferns: The Movie only partly around the interviews (though they’ve certainly gotten an impressive roster of guests to show up, including the likes of Keanu Reeves, Jon Hamm, and Benedict Cumberbatch). Instead, it’s structured as a kind of road movie, with Galifianakis and his small crew forced to drive across the country recording episodes after an impressively catastrophic plumbing mishap floods their studio and almost kills McConaughey. (Somewhere along the way, we also get a brief mockumentary précis about how the dimwitted Galifianakis started the show for a small North Carolina public-access station, before being discovered by a power-hungry, coke-snorting Will Ferrell, who is now sitting in the Funny or Die offices under a giant digital ticker, enjoying his earnings while counting the many trillions of hits as they come in. “I think it’s utterly fascinating that someone that grotesque can actually be watchable,” Ferrell observes.)
So, our heroes hit the road, visiting David Letterman (“You love fast cars. In what other way is your penis small?”), Paul Rudd, Tessa Thompson, and Peter Dinklage, with assorted, mildly interesting interstitial shenanigans along the way. It’s a half-assed premise, given a half-assed treatment that makes Wayne’s World look like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The performances are loose and self-aware, the filmmaking strictly at the level of sketch comedy, the jokes amiably predictable, and the story a mess. (We’re told early on that the camera crew is also shooting Beyond Two Ferns, a behind-the-scenes look at Between Two Ferns … but this movie is somehow not that movie?)
But I also ask you this: Would we have even wanted a full-assed treatment of this concept? It’s Between Two Ferns, for crying out loud. Shoddiness is built into its philosophy, and things like production value, sharp scripting, and delicate acting might only degrade the project. At the same time, however, the addition of narrative bits involving these celebrities somewhat undermines the project. Part of what made Between Two Ferns the show so special was its ability to make us wonder what various interview subjects were thinking, even though we understood on some basic level that they were in on the joke: Yes, of course Brad Pitt knew what he was getting into — but when he spat that piece of gum in Galifianakis’s face after being peppered with questions about his love life and his lack of acting skills, was it maybe, just possibly, coming from a real place? It’s hard to create that tension, however, when the interview subject is also participating in dopey narrative scenes, such as a whole bit in this movie where Galifanakis & Co. steal Peter Dinklage’s prized Fabergé eggs and his even-more-prized Fabergé egg carton. It’s funny enough, but you chuckle along as you also kind of die inside.
Beyond that, and more importantly, one misses the interviews themselves. It’s not that there aren’t that many here. There are, in fact, quite a few — but they’re presented in brief fragments that, while entertaining, make you long for the extended, awkward-silence-laden wallows in cringe comedy that the show perfected. That tension is what Between Two Ferns was all about; individual episodes are only a few minutes long, but the guests’ improvised discomfort and Galifianakis’s studied ignorance make them seem agonizingly interminable. When you lose that, you lose what made this whole concept so electrifying. Those bite-size online interviews were an ideal match of form, technology, and content. As a movie, it all seems so mundane and forgettable.