In the specialized subgenre of movies blending fictional characters with hidden-camera pranks and stunts in the style of reality TV, the narrative framework connecting all those trailer-moment set pieces tends to be as rickety as comic conventions will allow. Even an immersive master of the form like Sacha Baron Cohen tends to tie his material together loosely, obviously preferring to expend his efforts on the logistical challenges of his biggest stunts. It makes sense not to sacrifice those buzzy moments for the sake of storytelling conventions. After all, is anyone’s favorite Jackass production Bad Grandpa?
The similarly titled Bad Trip, a showcase for comedian and Adult Swim fixture Eric André, isn’t exactly a miracle of intricate storytelling. But it does a surprisingly credible job replicating the arc of a studio buddy comedy, perhaps because its characters aren’t outsized, Borat-level personalities: Chris (André) is the impulsive and possibly deluded bumbler, while best friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) is the meeker, more cautious sidekick, cowed by his freakishly strong sister, Trina (Tiffany Haddish). When Chris has a chance meeting with his long-ago high school crush Maria (Michaela Conlin), he takes her polite invitation to look up her gallery in New York as reason enough to drive from his dead-end Florida town to the Big Apple. This involves Chris and Bud borrowing a bright pink car belonging to the incarcerated Trina—who promptly breaks out of prison, steals a cop car, and pursues the boys up I-95.
That André and his behind-the-scenes collaborators (many ported over from his self-titled Cartoon Network series) make this stuff feel kinda-sorta like a “real” movie might sound like a dubious achievement—finally, an anarchic prank comedy that hits a bunch of screenwriting-manual beats! Yet Bad Trip’s collection of go-to comic sequences—the accidental drug-ingestion scene, the large-scale slapstick, the boundary-pushing gross-out raunch—feeds into a larger meta-stunt. It’s funny to see André stumble through a night of overindulgence at a Georgia bar. It’s funnier to marvel at how director and co-writer Kitao Sakurai choreographs pratfalls and vomit streams in real environments, integrating real-life reaction shots and forcing improvisations. The labored artifice of mismatched buddies, road trips, and regularly timed set pieces becomes part of the joke.
Bad Trip may be winking at its own contrivances, but André and Howery are firmly committed to the task at hand, which involves being ridiculous enough to draw eyeballs without going too big, too soon (and also participating in an ongoing discussion about the real-world viability of the movie White Chicks—another meta-commentary about whether certain comic conceits would pass muster in the real world). Haddish is even bolder, sharing confrontational scenes with folks more likely to recognize her, the bona fide movie star in the cast. (In a hilarious touch, one poor guy meets up with both of the movie’s story threads, in seemingly different locations, interrogated by Haddish about the whereabouts of her quarry.)
There’s something sweetly generous, too, about the way these comic pros sometimes shift focus to non-actor supporting players without humiliating them. Bad Trip isn’t out to expose a seedy underbelly of the American road trip; though there are inevitably plenty of bystanders who film or gawk at potentially dangerous antics rather than assisting our hapless heroes, a few people in any given scene will emerge to offer help, advice, or good-natured commentary. This makes some of the pranks downright gentle, like an early moment where André seeks absurd romantic counsel from a friendly old-timer on a public bench. The warm feelings accumulate with the laughs. As the movie goes on, there’s also a subtle repositioning of “real America” optics, in that so many of the regular-folks faces belong to Black Americans. As if to counteract the bummer of watching a raucous comedy on Netflix rather than in a theatrical setting, Bad Trip comes equipped with its own crowd energy—a collective faith that there’s no idiotic stunt that can’t be pulled back from the brink of disaster.
Granted, that’s a lot of import to place on a movie where André simulates sexual violation with a man in a gorilla suit. Bad Trip isn’t quite as eye-opening as the best and most genuinely dangerous Borat stuff. Sometimes, the gags are fully secondhand—an impossibly stretchy prosthetic anatomy out of Bad Grandpa here, a singalong to the Golden Girls theme song there. And like nearly every prank comedy ever made, its rhythms get more predictable as it goes along. But it’s still remarkable how the filmmakers are able to shake off both the sourness and the strain of so many mainstream comedies, despite a production that must have been a genuine strain to actually coordinate. The scripted bits of Bad Trip purport to emphasize the healing power of friendship, and aren’t necessarily that convincing. The reality, though, is oddly comforting.