The comedy troupe Broken Lizard met at Colgate back in 1989 and shot their first feature film, 1996’s barely released Puddle Cruiser, on the campus of that university. They’ve made more movies since then, including the 2001 cult hit Super Troopers and its 2018 sequel, but they’ve never spiritually left college. And thank God for that. Their work still feels like a bunch of amiable stoners from across the hall came up with a bunch of dumb, funny ideas to put into a movie and then filmed it all the following morning. The casualness is the point and the charm.
On the surface, their latest, Quasi, streaming now on Hulu, seems like a bit of a departure. It’s a period piece, for starters — an extremely loose riff on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It also has each Broken Lizard member playing multiple characters, à la Monty Python. But it’s still basically the same vibes-based silliness, a profane, let’s-put-on-a-show goof where the costumes and the accents and the period anachronisms are all just part of the joke. For those of us who’ve been following their career — and there are, I suspect, more of us than people realize — just watching them play medieval-France dress-up is entertaining enough. But anyone expecting a normal movie might be disappointed, perhaps even outraged.
The story is not actually anything like Victor Hugo’s classic novel, aside from the main character. Steve Lemme plays Quasimodo, who works in the local torture chamber alongside his best friend and hutmate, Duchamp (Kevin Heffernan). The torture chamber alone is ripe for Broken Lizard–style juvenilia, and they don’t skimp on that front. (“Hey! More fire ants in that guy’s dickhole!”) Quasi, as he’s known, has gained some notoriety in his profession for having invented the rack and for his willingness to agitate for workers’ rights. (Yes, the torturers have their own union.) But that still won’t keep bystanders from throwing leaf vegetables and feces at him for being a hunchback. “Why don’t you duck when they throw stuff at you?” Duchamp asks. “What do you mean? I’m already ducked,” Quasi replies. If that makes you chuckle, you’ll probably enjoy the movie.
Our hero’s lot in life starts to change when Pope Cornelius (Paul Soter) comes to town for a visit and Quasi wins a lottery (in honor of “Pope Week”) to confess to the grand pontiff himself. Before he can do that, however, the perpetually bored King Guy (Jay Chandrasekhar) enlists Quasi to kill the Pope. Then the scheming pope enlists Quasi to kill the king. The new queen (Adrianne Palicki), however, knows that the king intends eventually to do away with her, too, and she takes a shine to Quasi; also, she seems drawn to the torture devices he works with. (“It’s been a pleasure, Quasi. I very much enjoyed your rack.” “And I yours.”)
So there are double and triple-crosses going around, and one can easily imagine a version of this movie where the plot was handled with urgency, authenticity, and suspense. But then, what would you be left with? Cumbersome studio slop, most likely. The Broken Lizard guys understand that their brand of handmade, good-natured humor doesn’t really work with tighter storytelling or sharper acting, and they’ve honed their approach well over the years. They’re always winking at us because they know that theirs is a fundamentally participatory style of comedy; the process is part of the joke. So much so that in the year of our lord 2023, when CGI can regularly create entire universes for us, Broken Lizard can still eke out laughs from the spectacle of the king’s attendant, Henri-Francoise, played by Kevin Heffernan, ordering his soldiers to torture Duchamp, also played by Kevin Heffernan.
This is low-stakes sketch comedy, but it has its place, and there’s almost a healing quality to the unadorned simplicity of a bunch of guys acting out on a stage. Those of us who like to think of ourselves as sophisticates admire cleverness and timing in humor — the sense that a gag has been practiced and perfected before being brought to us. Broken Lizard goes in the opposite direction. They’re not slick or studied. They’re not improv comedians, but it does feel sometimes like they’re coming up with a bit before our very eyes, workshopping it in front of their rolling cameras. Many of the jokes don’t land. It might even be tragic if they did. The flaws are part of the overall effect — spontaneous and human. The reason Broken Lizard seems to keep making cult movies is because when you watch them, you feel like you were there when they made it. Broken Lizard is all of us.
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