A periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
High Road (2011)
As a disciple of eccentric comedy guru Del Close and founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Matt Walsh has become an influential godfather to an entire school of improvisation. He’s uniquely well-suited to directing a wholly improvised comedy, but there’s good reason his directorial effort High Road played a few undiscriminating film festivals before washing up on home video in spite of a cast that includes Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, Joe Lo Truglio, Abby Elliott, Andy Daly, Rich Fulcher, Lizzy Caplan, Zach Woods, and Seth Morris.
High Road’s problems begin with its shiftless, mopey protagonist, a part-time drummer and full-time stoner (James Pumphrey) with a dad he hates, nothing in the way of direction, and the dubious notion that he’s just a dude who hooks his friends up with weed and not an actual drug dealer who carries around a backpack full of pot. Pumphrey is meandering sideways toward nowhere in particular after his band breaks up; then a series of events conspire to kickstart him out of his personal and professional rut. Pumphrey discovers that his oblivious girlfriend (Abby Elliott) is pregnant, nearly gets caught selling a huge bag of weed to a customer (Horatio Sanz), and heads out on the run with the 16-year-old son (Dylan O’Brien) of a rage-filled cop (Rob Riggle). Riggle and overly enthusiastic sidekick Lo Truglio set out in hot pursuit of Pumphrey and his teenaged passenger, while Pumphrey tries to sort out the mess that is his life and become the man Elliot and his unborn child deserve. Life lessons and intergenerational bonding ensue.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a wholly improvised comedy about marijuana is sorely lacking in plot, direction, focus, or characterization, but what is surprising is the film’s relative lack of laughs. Pumphrey acts as an apathetic pile of charisma-impaired goo at the film’s soft, squishy center. It’s never particularly apparent what would draw an attractive, ambitious character like Elliott to him, and a brief, weird montage chronicling their courtship merely highlights a problem it’s meant to solve. High Road ambles along unsurely, never connecting for more than a gag or two. The center simply doesn’t hold, though there are a few scattered chuckles to be had on the periphery, most notably in some clever riffs on Jerry Maguire and The White Stripes, as well as in an amusingly obnoxious performance by Zach Woods of The Office as a yuppie former bandmate of Pumphrey’s who claims that reggaeton is his “culture” because he once had a nanny from the Caribbean. Unlike superior pot comedies, High Road doesn’t just reward THC-induced patience and low standards; it demands them—or at least it would if it could rouse itself from its stoned stupor.
Just how bad is it? It’s not that bad, but it could and should be a whole lot better.
The Genesis Code (2010)
The mind-numbingly dull, 138-minute-long, C. Thomas Howell-directed, evangelical Christian drama The Genesis Code takes a bold stance against evolution in all its forms. It’s a perversely clumsy message movie about the compatibility of religion and science (as long as science is used to back up religion), but its mere existence stands as a convincing argument against creative and cultural evolution where evangelical Christian films are concerned. The budgets, ambition, and names associated with Christian films get bigger and bigger, but the films themselves never seem to get any better. If anything, they seem to be devolving rapidly: The Genesis Code only wishes it reached the giddy highs of Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, let alone the seminal 1970 Pat Boone/Erik Estrada Christsploitation cheapie The Cross And The Switchblade.
Kelsey Sanders of Gingerdead Man 2: The Passion Of The Crust fame stars as a scowling, dead-eyed, Christian paleontology student whose petulant-robot demeanor gives her an unmistakable Kristen Stewart quality, albeit with Stewart’s smoldering sexuality replaced by grating piety. (That’s right: The filmmakers managed to find a woman who’s exactly like Kristin Stewart, only somehow colder and less appealing.)
Sanders decides to write an article about the college’s star hockey player (Logan Bartholomew), a square-jawed jock and engineering student with a dead father and a mother on life support. Bartholomew lost his faith after his father’s death, yet inexplicably retains a preternatural patience for being lectured to by shrill, humorless Christians. Instead of partying or sleeping with the avalanche of nubile co-eds who throw themselves at him, Bartholomew decides to devote all of his free time to listening to the dogged and charmless Sanders try to convince him that his faith in science is not incompatible with a belief in a literal view of the Bible as absolute truth.
As the son of a pastor who shoots guns and lifts weights when not bringing souls to Jesus, Sanders is a second-generation proselytizer with a bright future ahead of her, as long as she is willing to abandon her faith and give in to the moral relativism of the godless ruling class. In the most hilariously didactic sequence in a film defined by its hilarious didacticism, Sanders’ academic advisor (Catherine Hicks) explains to Sanders that she can occupy a place of prominence in the Cultural Elite of the New World Order as long as she simply concedes that we inhabit a post-modern, post-enlightenment universe devoid of absolute biblical truth.
The filmmakers stop just short of adding post-production horns to Hicks’ godless-liberal head to convey the depths of her evil. Undeterred, Hicks later goes to Sanders’ home to try to convince Sanders’ pastor father to allow his daughter to let go of this crazy “believing in God” thing so she can rocket to the top of the paleontology field and assume her rightful place as Satan’s favored concubine. (That’s clearly the future the evil Hicks has in mind for Sanders as soon as she joins the dark side and becomes a minion of the Dark Lord and his pro-evolution, pro-science, anti-Jesus agenda.) She does not succeed, which is surprising, because it just makes sense that a pastor would be only too happy to convince his daughter to stop being so devout and righteous and shit.
With the help of her movie-loving, seemingly autistic scientist brother, Sanders is ultimately able to convince Bartholomew that science totally backs up the notion of a world created in six days by God with a half-hour-long multimedia lecture that essentially boils down to science and creationism being compatible because, well, time is different for God than it is for us humans. Seriously. Convinced, Bartholomew has a change of heart and asks his teammates to pray for his mother’s recovery before his grandparents (slumming Oscar winners Ernest Borgnine and Louise Fletcher) can take her off life support. Wouldn’t you know it, it totally works! Mom snaps out of her coma, and everyone luxuriates in the peace of mind engendered by religion’s triumph in its seemingly never-ending war with science.
It would be tempting to argue that The Genesis Code’s momentum is killed by the half-hour lecture (at a planetarium) that, to follow the film’s reasoning, conclusively proves the biblical take on creation, but that would imply that it had any momentum to lose. Instead, it just lurches, zombie-like, from one shrill sermon to another. It’s a dishwater-gray sleeping pill of a movie committed to preaching to the converted. It’s impossible to imagine non-believers subjecting themselves to this punishing gauntlet of questionable arguments self-righteously and clumsily delivered, let alone being convinced by the film’s pseudoscience and amateurish storytelling. It’d take the patience and compassion of Christ to find anything of value, and that is the absolute truth, biblical or otherwise.
Just how bad is it? It’s unwatchable.
Men are pretty much better than women at everything, including being women. That seems to be the message, intentional or otherwise, of Demoted, an ugly, brutally unfunny workplace comedy about a pair of developmentally stunted bros (Michael Vartan and Sean Astin) who learn how to become men when their vengeful new boss (David Cross, in a feature-length assault on his perpetually battered dignity) subjects them to the ultimate humiliation: having to work jobs traditionally associated with women. Ewww! Can you even imagine anything more embarrassing?
Demoted opens with Astin and Vartan reigning as the preeminent bad boys of the tire company where they toil as hotshot salesmen. They’re obnoxious and condescending to secretaries, proudly sexist, and live for happy hour at a local strip club that seems to consume much of their time, money, and resources. Their uncomplicated life of reckless hedonism changes forever when their adoring and indulgent boss (Robert Klein with a thick Midwestern accent) dies following an epic night of debauchery and is inexplicably replaced by a smug, obnoxious, widely mocked geek played by Cross.
Astin and Vartan have made Cross’ life miserable for years, so in a fit of vengeance, he demotes the man-children from salesmen to secretaries. The gentlemen do not get off to a good start. Astin condescendingly mistakes his new female boss for a fellow secretary (cause, c’mon, whoever heard of a female boss in this day and age?), while Vartan is stuck working for a leering misogynist played by Ron White. The duo make the most of their time in secretarial hell, however, by fixing all of their fellow secretaries’ problems. They put an overweight co-worker on a fitness plan, get a promiscuous co-worker to stop fucking dudes indiscriminately, and when their jobs are threatened, form a union with themselves as the spokesmen and leaders.
Vartan and Astin even transform the office’s women’s softball team (named the Ladybugs) from a bunch of sub-amateurs who flail and lurch about as if they’re all simultaneously afflicted with epileptic seizures into champions. Demoted wants to tell an empowering story of misogynists who learn to appreciate women after living their lives, but the supremely misguided comedy doesn’t seem to realize that it undercuts its muddled good intentions at every turn by depicting women as wishy-washy, Bennigan’s-loving doormats who desperately need men to tell them how to behave. Demoted makes Cross so repellent that Vartan and Astin almost can’t help but emerge as sympathetic by default, but it doesn’t work: Vartan and Astin remain patronizing jackasses even after they’ve ostensibly been enlightened. In Demoted’s sour, ugly war between nerds and assholes, everyone loses.
Just How Bad Is It? It’s abysmal.