Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: Strange Wilderness just hit theaters earlier this year, and it's already been forgotten by history. The teaser-trailer was the first sign of a disaster: It was just 30 seconds of a weird-looking shark, with a stoned voice laughing over it. "Yes," this movie seemed to scream, "I am looking only for the lucrative stoner market!" As for reviews, Strange was slaughtered: It's got an amazing ZERO percent on Rottentomatoes.com (meaning no published review could be called "positive" in any way), and a 12 percent on Metacritic. That's isn't a good sign. Our own Steven Hyden gave it a C-, but he did concede that it offered a few laughs.
Curiosity factor: Not super-high, to be honest. (Get it?) This is one of those I Watched This On Purpose movies that I was pretty sure was going to be as bad as the world seems to think it is, which is actually part of the fun of this ongoing psychological experiment. (How many purposeful bad-movie-watching experiences does it take to put us off trying? It's more than a hundred!) Then again, I found plenty to laugh at while watching Grandma's Boy, and I went into that with a certain sense of dread. The cast here looks pretty good, with one-time indie golden boy Steve Zahn at the forefront, and support from Jonah Hill, Jeff Garlin, and even Ernest Borgnine. Also: Director Fred Wolf co-wrote Dirty Work, starring Norm MacDonald! Oh, and it's rated R. If this thing were PG-13, I don't think I'd go near it. I have to get at least few laughs from spending 90 minutes with those zany nuts, don't I?
The viewing experience: Or do I? I can't really remember many laughs at this point, because I'm overwhelmed by the malaise that Strange Wilderness inspired. Rarely does a movie with any sort of budget succeed so thoroughly at looking like nobody was trying very hard to do anything at all. Imagine that group of actors "riffing" for 85 minutes, and you'd probably come up with something funnier and more entertaining than this movie, which was presumably written beforehand. (It's tough to tell.)
Before I continue ranting, I should say—in case it isn't clear above—that I don't have anything against stupid comedies, stoner comedies, or stupid stoner comedies. Though I don't partake myself, I realize the comedy potential of pot. The scene in the first Harold & Kumar movie where Kal Penn imagines spending the rest of his life with a giant anthropomorphic bag of weed—amazing. Next Friday? I like it plenty. But this… This wasn't a pot comedy. Everybody involved may have been smoking, but there was no one around to tell them to shut the fuck up, so they just kept rolling (joints and reels).
The plot, such as it is: Steve Zahn's dad used to host a nature show, but he died, so Zahn and his stoner buddies took it over. Since they're a bunch of idiots, the show is basically a bunch of idiots filming wild animals, then making up stupid "facts" about them to read in voiceover. If this were a real show, it would be wildly popular, wouldn't it? But in this fantasyland, the show is on at 3 a.m. and has low ratings, especially compared to its rival show, hosted by Harry Hamlin. In order to save their show (it's called Strange Wilderness) from being cancelled, Zahn and his crew—sound guy Allen Covert, gopher Jonah Hill, cameraman Justin "Mac commercial" Long, and a token hottie tour guide—set out to Ecuador, where their friend Joe Don Baker has spotted Bigfoot. They figure, rightfully so, that their show won't be cancelled if they can get some footage of this mythical monster.
Oh, I almost forgot Peter Dante, a.k.a. "that guy who can't get any acting work except in movies starring or produced by his pal Adam Sandler." Dante has a horrible tan, and his only acting mode is stupefied/incredulous, but he actually gave me my first chuckle in Strange Wilderness.
Sure, it's cheap and easy, but after nearly eight minutes without a laugh in what promised to be a wacky screwball comedy, I'll take what I can get.
So after a tedious run-through of some of the show's exploits, it's off to Ecuador in a big-ass RV. There are a couple of distractions as our team needs to get money, in some gags that fall horribly, horribly flat. In one five-minute sequence, Zahn and Covert mess with some Latino gangsters, who knock out their teeth with a hydraulic-assisted car. Then they go to the dentist. No one laughs. Which leads me to this thought: Throughout this movie, when things get horribly slow, there's yelling or fighting. I'm no expert in comedy writing, but I think that might be a sign that you're out of ideas. Take this scene, in which Zahn and Covert are auditioning animal handlers. Clearly they thought they were in for some hysterical reactions from moviegoers. I challenge you to laugh.
Looks like a bad Budweiser commercial, doesn't it? Yes it does.
Anyway, back to the road trip: Our crew shoots some action along the way (in order to somehow finance the trip? It makes no sense), but all of the action leads to one scene that clearly writers Fred Wolf and Peter Gaulke—also the names of the two lead characters, in a brave display of not giving a fuck—built this whole miserable movie around. Zahn is taking a piss in the woods, and he's attacked by a wild turkey, which attaches itself to his penis. He runs screaming toward the camera with the super-fake-looking turkey attached to his dick. (There's a whole making-of on the DVD—I wish I were kidding.) This leads to a scene in a hospital in which a sexy nurse must try to remove the turkey from Zahn's erect penis by massaging the turkey's neck. (Of course.) I will admit to a couple of giggles during this scene, and though it wasn't hilarious, I found myself thinking that if the whole movie had taken this ridiculous tone, it might've fared a little better.
Beyond that scene, things get even sadder. It's intimated that Zahn is raped by border patrol. There's a whole scene in which everybody giggles because there's a guy named Dick. And then there's a bit of stunt-casting with Robert Patrick, who plays a Vietnam vet that's supposed to guide the crew to Bigfoot. But he's only in one scene, and only because the filmmakers had another elaborate dick joke they needed to make.
In the movie, you actually get to see Patrick's mangled wang, but I didn't want to scare you people. Also: totally not worth it, so don't rent Strange Wilderness just for this scene. (Actually, if you're the kind of person who would rent a movie just to see a mangled penis, this might be the movie for you.)
So Patrick conveniently disappears (good plotting), Harry Hamlin's competing team is conveniently murdered by pygmies, and Zahn leads his team to Bigfoot's lair. And what do they do when they get there? Clearly the screenwriters didn't know either, so they had the team get scared and shoot Bigfoot. To death. He's onscreen for about 30 seconds. A scene in which they try to justify the killing is good for a laugh or two ("Anybody remember what that big bastard said before he came at us?"), but the movie quickly winds down from there. There's one more big scene that I won't even bother to tell you about, because I already got stupider watching it, and I don't want to go through that again.
In the movie's final shot, Zahn and Covert start to crack up (for real) because the dialogue is so stupid, and then the movie ends. It's as if to say, "Joke's on you, suckers!" Or maybe not. There's a certain amount of hubris involved in tacking more than an hour of bonus material onto a movie this shitty—there's a Comedy Central special, some deleted scenes that are just as bad as the regular scenes, and a whole bit of Jonah Hill improvising a song. During the aforementioned "making of the turkey/dick scene," the cast and crew sit around the monitors and crack up. Makes you wonder what they're smoking.
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? I'm not sure how to add up the millisecond-long chuckles I experienced during Strange Wilderness. Let's give them massive benefit of the doubt and say they add up to one minute. At a slim 85 minutes, that means the percentage of time that wasn't wasted—and thus the score—is just above 1 percent. Yes, that bad.