Saturday, August 11, 2007

All Hail THE TEN

THE TEN Review:

Here's why it's so hard to trust critics when it comes to comedy - comedy is largely subjective, except that in a way, it's not. Determining what's funny is a lot like determining what's pornography - there may not be any strict definititions, but you know it when you see it. And that's the thing with a movie like The Ten that makes it so baffling to many critics - like The State and Wet Hot American Summer before it, The Ten is not trying to make a statement, not trying to satirize anything in particular ... it's simply trying to be funny. And it is. This movie doesn't tell a great story, it's not heartwarming, and it doesn't have three dimensional characters. And that's not what' it's about. At all. The Ten has one goal - to make you laugh. And laugh I did - I can say without hesitation that The Ten made me laugh more consistently than any movie I've seen in a theater, probably since Borat. The humor is not for everyone, and many people just don't or won't get it. And that's too bad, because what David Wain and Ken Marino and the rest of the crew from The State do here is its own special kind of twisted genius. It's theater of the absurd. Weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Randomness just because it's funny. If that doesn't appeal to you, then this isn't your movie. But if you like your comedy broad and abstract, if you hold Mike Myers' SNL stuff and Kids in the Hall and the Upright Citizens Brigade and Mr. Show and Stella and The State and Adult Swim in high regard - then The Ten is another little slice of comedy nirvana in the vein of the brilliant Wet Hot American Summer. So please, disregard any review that even mentions the possibility of this movie having some kind of religious message. It doesn't. Disregard any review that says this movie is satirizing anything in particular. It isn't. Trust me on this - I'm an OG fan of The State and I rank Wet Hot as one of the funniest movies ever made. If you are on that same wavelength, then by all means, run out and see The Ten, because while not as good as Wet Hot, it's still flat-out hilarious.

As a kid, I went to a small Jewish day school. By the time I was in middle school, our class size was only about 14 people big, with only 4 girls and the rest guys. So what happened was, when something caught on - a movie, a TV show, a videogame, etc, all of us usually got pretty into it. Around the time of sixth grade or so, THE show to watch was MTV's The State. It was one of those great, experimental shows from MTV's heyday in the mid-90's, alongside classics like The Maxx and Aeon Flux. The State at the time, along with The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy, was one of the shows that completely shaped my ideas about comedy and what was funny. I couldn't get enough of the absurdist humor, and I had practically committed the dialogue of sketches like "Porcupine Racetrack" to memory. A bunch of friends and I even did a class project, for Bible class no less, called "The Garden." It was a video we made about the Adam and Eve story that had recurring characters from The State, like Louie and Doug, as stand-ins for Adam, Eve, the Serpent, etc. Man, do I wish I had a copy of that one (I wish I had a copy of all of the videos we made for class projects back in the day - making videos was all the rage back then, to the point where our teacher banned them as an option for our "CP's", or Creative Projects). I even had a logo of The State prominently featured on my eighth-grade yearbook page alongside Playstation and The X-Files (yes, I was really cool in eighth grade, as you can see). Suffice to say, I loved The State and was gravely disappointed when it suddenly went off the air. Back then, before Google or Wikipedia, I remember all these rumors about the show going around. There was that one-shot CBS special that barely anyone saw. There was the "Skits and Stickers" VHS collection that is now an out-of-print collector's item. When Thomas Lennon and a few others went on to make Viva Variety, the rumor was that there was a lot of infighting among The State's members and that the group had disbanded. All I know is, I remember eagerly tuning in to Viva, hoping to relive some of that old State magic, and being bitterly disappointed at how decidely unfunny it was, and that was the bginning of a long draught of all things State.

Slowly but surely, over the next few years, I saw members of The State pop up in various things, but it was usually something depressingly lame, like Lennon appearing in all those Jello ads or whatever for a while. Finally, the other shoe dropped. When I was in college, I eagerly read up about a new movie being released called Wet Hot American Summer - written by Michael Showalter, directed by David Wain, and featuring many members of The State. I remember dragging some friends to go see it at the theater in the Copley Mall in Boston, back when it played more independent movies. I don't know if I've ever laughed so hard in a theater - this was it, this was basically like THE comedy movie I had always wanted to see. As soon as I saw the DVD appear at Newbury Comics, I snatched it up - one of the first DVD's I bought, and easily one of my most watched. It became a bit of a litmus test - have you seen Wet Hot American Summer? No? Then let's watch it now! That and The Big Lebowski - those are my two "have you seen this?" movies - both endlessly hilarious and rewatchable.

Since then, there's been the success of Reno 911 - a show I find intermittently funny but I'm not a hardcore fan of per se. There was Stella, which I loved during it's all-too-brief run on Comedy Central. And a few great roles for people like Ken Marino, who had a nice turn as Vinnie Van Lowe on the late great Veronica Mars. But now, with The Ten, we have a second real State movie. At long last!

For the uninitiated - The Ten is a collection of ten short pieces, essentially elongated sketches, each themed after on of the Ten Commandments, and linked together by a series of segments featuring Paul Rudd as MC. It's almost like a State greatest hits album, in a way, but like some weird double-album where the second half is new material, or something ... Hmm, am I comparing this movie to Michael Jackson's HIStory album? Yikes.

Showalter, Wain, and Michael Ian Black all appear only in small cameos, but their distinct Stella brand of humor is still all over this one. Thomas Lennon and Kerri Kenney add their unique styles to the mix as well - Kenney especially is a scene stealer as the mother of two twins trying to figure out their true parentage. Ken Marino, who wrote the movie, is great as always. And the rest of The State cast each turns up and everyone at least gets ina good line or two. One standout though has to be Joe Lo Truglio, who I don't think I've seen in anything since his hilarious turn in Wet Hot. Seen here, as a hellbent on Keeping Up With the Joneses neighbor to a hilarious Liev Schreiber, he is funny as hell.

And Liev Schreiber is one of many great actors who contribute here with unexpectedly hilarious results. Winona Ryder is particularly awesome, totally game for some of the craziest $#@# you're likely to ever see in a comedy. You will love Winona if you don't already after seeing her in The Ten. Adam Brody of The OC has some great lines in this, and Gretchen Moll is also very good. Phoenix herself, Famke Janson, does a nice job of sparring with Paul Rudd as his ex-wife. And Jessica Alba even pops up for a bit of self-parody as Rudd's ditzy girlfriend. Also great is Rob Cordry, hilarious as Ken Marino's doting friend in prison. Jason Sudeikis from SNL and 30 Rock has some great moments as well.

All of these actors do great work, and it's cool to see so many familiar faces and big-names be so game to subject themselves to The State's oddball sensibilities. I mean, Winona Ryder plays a woman who leaves her boyfriend for another guy after a freak accident, then leaves THAT guy for a ... wooden puppet! And she gets it on with the puppet! Repeatedly!

But it's also great to see some of the actors who have become kind of unofficial State members return for The Ten. Janeane Garafolo is in there with one of the movie's funniest scenes to her credit. It's funny, I sometimes can't stand her when she's doing other types of movies or TV, but whenever she's with The State crew, Garafolo is comedic gold. A.D. Miles also pops up to great comedic effect as a nerdy librarian who later reveals a predilication for skipping church to hang out naked around his house on Sunday mornings. And Paul Rudd - well, he is awesome as always - delivering his lines with a pitch-perfect sense of comic timing, and possessing of the uncanny ability to play the Everyman, even in the midst of all kinds of surrealist craziness.

Now, as you can probably tell, the gags and jokes and attempts at oddball humor fly a mile a minute in The Ten. Luckily, most work. But, there are definitely lulls that kind of drag, fall flat, or just leave you scratching your head. Case in point: towards the end of the film, an animated segment involving a confabulation-prone Rhino lost me until its halfway point, when the segment finally started to come together. Some segments drag out too long, feeling like two or three minute sketches that got artifically stretched beyond their ideal length. And I have to admit, I really missed seeing Michael Showalter, David Wain, Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon, etc. throughout most of the movie, and it was too bad that in their first movie together in so long, so many of The State's members were relegated to bit parts. I mean, Showalter barely even got off a line of dialogue, which is really a shame since he's rarely been seen in movies or TV since the end of Stella.

But man, when this movie is working, it had me laughing nonstop. There's the Winona-Puppet romance. Liev Schreiber competing with his neighbor to see who can own the most Catscan machines. The raunchy Mexican narrator in Gretchen Mol's segment. Ken Marino's "it was only a goof" defense, and his subsequent quasi-prison-romance with Rob Cordry. Adam Brody as a guy stuck up to his ears in the ground in the middle of a field, who becomes a big celebrity because of and in spite of his freak condition. This one teenager who is pitching his idea for a reality show in the midst of a nuclear meltdown ... There is some classic stuff here, and I think this is a movie that's going to be rewatched and quoted endlessly by comedy afficianados for years to come. Comedy for people who are into comedy. Absurdist, surrealist, subversive, and just plain weird - The Ten isn't a total home run, but it's definitely something to be praised - a return to the crazy sensibilities of The State and one of the funniest movies of the year.

My Grade: A -

Alright, I'm out.

TOMMOROW: POISON, live and in concert!

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