Guilty until proven innocent, direct-to-video movies–and those whose theatrical release has been neglible at best–arrive on shelves with two strikes against them. A strange sort of inverse logic says that the more impressive a direct-to-video movie sounds in theory, the worse it must play in practice. After all, if a movie with a big-name cast, an esteemed writer-director, and an intriguing premise can't even secure an arthouse run, it must be bad, right? Not necessarily. As box-office tallies confirm week after week, cinema is far from a meritocracy, and what gets released theatrically often has more to do with commerce than art. As marketing and production costs continue to escalate, more and more direct-to-video sleepers are threatening to give the DTV tag a good name–movies like Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers, Melvin Goes To Dinner, and now Teddy Bears' Picnic, a surprisingly sharp, funny satire of America's moneyed elite from actor, writer, and director Harry Shearer.
Reuniting several key members of Christopher Guest's repertory band of underrated comedy lifers (Shearer, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins), the film follows the participants on a weeklong retreat where the richest and most powerful men in the U.S. gather to drink excessively, have sex with prostitutes, dress in drag, and generally revert to their frat-boy selves. Attending the retreat alongside titans of industry and powerful political figures are various C-list celebrities, including Alan Thicke and Peter Marshall (both playing themselves).
Darting back and forth amid its large cast of wealthy vulgarians, Teddy Bears' Picnic seldom pauses to catch its breath. Its brisk 75-minute run time doesn't give viewers much time to process a joke before racing into another one, though some gags are especially resonant, like the inspired bit involving a waiter who goes to clown school just because he thinks it'll be useful to possess "clown skills." With its brevity and its gifted cast, Teddy Bears' Picnic doesn't have time to wear out its welcome, and it scores plenty of points in the process. George S. Kaufman famously observed that satire is what closes on Saturday night. In this instance, satire ends up going direct to video.