David Wain's thrilling, maddening, hilariously funny, and brutally unfunny new movie The Ten—a collection of interlinked short films based very, very loosely on the Ten Commandments—echoes the general arc of Woody Allen's career, with early, funny triumphs eventually giving way to something resembling creative exhaustion. Like the comic masterpieces of Allen's '70s heyday, the first five short films represent a brilliant, laugh-out-loud combination of grad-school braininess and vaudeville goofiness, highbrow absurdity and lowbrow shtick. Then the laughter dies with two skits that sound funny on paper, but prove painful in execution. In the first momentum-killer, prison newbie Ken Marino enters a tender courtship with fellow convict Rob Corddry, who wants to gently, lovingly usher him into the world of prison rape. The next sequence finds Winona Ryder developing an intense psychosexual obsession with a ventriloquist's dummy that's creepy without being funny.
But The Ten gets off to a roaring start with hilarious, casually satirical short films. In one, Adam Brody becomes an unlikely pop icon/sitcom star after getting wedged in the ground after jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Another focuses on shy librarian Gretchen Mol, who's romanced by Jesus Christ during a glorious summer fling. In a third, a doctor (Marino) kills a patient "as a goof." Then there's a brilliant spoof of suburban competitiveness in which Liev Schreiber and his next-door neighbor outdo each other by buying seemingly unnecessary CAT-scan machines, and a wonderfully silly bit in which Oliver Platt's big-hearted Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator serves as a supremely strange father figure to a pair of black teenagers.
After the one-two punch of the prison-rape/ventriloquist-dummy-sex skits, the film rebounds with an animated sequence and a jaunty exploration of heterosexual group nudity among church-averse males. But by that point, the framing device involving the romantic travails of narrator Paul Rudd has grown stale. By the time, the cast reunites for a self-indulgent ending musical number, Wain's thin central conceit has worn out its welcome. But the early, explosively funny skits and a loose, engagingly adventurous spirit are enough to ensure this uneven but often delightful project the cult fame that accompanies pretty much everything associated with Stella mainstay Wain.