Saturday, February 02, 2008

Strange Wilderness


Films by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison production company have a shambling, improvised quality about them. Sandler comes across as a regular guy making movies with his friends and for them (and those with similar senses of humor). STRANGE WILDERNESS, the latest release under the Happy Madison shingle, also possesses the shaggy vibe of buddies getting together with a movie camera and several kegs and goofing around until they have a finished product.

The two main characters in STRANGE WILDERNESS are named after the co-screenwriters, one of whom sits in the director's chair as well. The loose familiarity comes through loud and clear in the final shot. The actors break character and bust out laughing as though they can't believe their luck to be having so much fun making a film. Their good time doesn't include those paying to watch the half-assed effort they cobble together, though.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Peter Gaulke (Steve Zahn) hosts the wildlife TV show Strange Wilderness. Peter and his dimwitted pals, including sound man Fred Wolf (Allen Covert), assemble scientifically dubious programs banished to the 3 a.m. broadcast wasteland. Questionable content--topless blondes from Long Beach standing in for African natives, an alligator mauling a man--and declining ratings force station manager Ed Lawson (Jeff Garlin) to pull the plug.

The Strange Wilderness team needs a miracle to get back on the air. Old friend Bill Calhoun (Joe Don Baker) may be the desperate, paranoid angel who can provide one. He has photographs of Bigfoot in Ecuador and a map to the creature's habitat that can be purchased for the low, low price of one thousand dollars. If Peter can't pony up the money, Bill will sell to Sky Pierson (Harry Hamlin), a rival nature show host with a bigger budget.

Hoping to shoot several episodes on the way, everyone piles into the motor home for the trip south. Along for the ride is travel agent Cheryl (Ashley Scott), who is there for no other reason than the film needing a female.

Instantly forgettable and proudly lazy, STRANGE WILDERNESS feels like it's being made up on the spot. Internal story consistency is not valued. Potential subplots that might have given shape to the film--an ANCHORMAN-like competitiveness between Peter and Sky's crews, for instance--are scrapped for stoner humor in short attention span chunks. It's the sort of movie you can imagine a dorm rat finding hilarious when he's blotto and wondering what's so funny when he's straight.

Zahn makes a likable protagonist even if he struggles mightily to create laughter. Getting his penis gobbled by a turkey isn't as funny or outrageous as it sounds, but he and Covert have an amusing scene while waiting to see a dentist to fix their knocked out front teeth. STRANGE WILDERNESS does better with sight gags than one-liners. (Jonah Hill, reduced to a weird voice, whiffs on all the weak ones that come his way.) Eyes drawn on the eyelids, an old standby for the inappropriately dozing, are good for a few chuckles. The manner in which the guys try to make the best of their interaction with Bigfoot rounds up some stray laughs too.

Unlike some other Happy Madison productions, STRANGE WILDERNESS is oddly watchable despite how awful it might sound. The jokes are lightweight and inoffensive but connect infrequently enough to keep one awake. The cast, which includes Broken Lizard member Kevin Heffernan, Justin Long, Robert Patrick, and Ernest Borgnine, is up for anything but let down because of the material's flimsiness. There is no evidence of anyone breaking a sweat to make this movie. But hey, whatever, man.

Grade: C-

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