BeerfestReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/25/06 01:53:55
(Worth A Look)
Over the course of their first four films–the little-seen “Puddle Cruiser,” the cult hit “Super Troopers,” the underrated “Club Dread” and the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the Broken Lizard comedy team has effectively divided critics and audiences evenly between those who have sparked to their brand of smart dumb comedy and those who have dismissed them as third-rate Monty Python wannabes who traffic in dumb jokes and an amateur-hour approach to the cinematic arts. Personally, I find them to be among the most consistently hilarious people working in American film comedy today–I have laughed so hard at moments in their earlier films that I have almost had to leave the screening room in order to calm down--and I would cheerfully take their blend of blissfully stupid gags (the syrup chugging of “Super Troopers”), surprisingly clever wordplay (such as the description in “Club Dread” of a youthful indiscretion between a man and a goat as “just being a couple of crazy kids” and the occasional bursts of pure surreal silliness (an audiobook version of Al Unser Jr’s autobiography as read by Laurence Fishburne) over most of the recent output of Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller combined. Their latest film, “Beerfest,” is unlikely to win many new converts to their cause but those who are already on their peculiar wavelength are likely to find it to be a side-splitting romp that, especially in the wake of the hard-sell likes of “Talladega Nights,” is as smooth and refreshing as a cold glass of the beverage that is the focus of virtually every scene.The absurdity starts as brothers Jan and Todd Wolfhouse (Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske), the proprietors of a simple Wisconsin tavern, travel to Germany to spread the ashes of their recently deceased father (I won’t spoil the identity of the actor making that cameo appearance except to say that he is a face familiar from several generations of anarchist comedy) at Oktoberfest. After causing an immediate ruckus (which includes plenty of not-at-all-gratuitous nudity) at the festival and are whisked away by a mysterious stranger to witness a top-secret international beer-drinking competition in which teams from all over the world compete at Olympic-sized versions of the very same games that many a student became an expert at in college. Jan and Todd learn that the reigning champions are the German team lead by the fearsome Baron Wolfgang von Wolfhausen (Jurgen Prochnow), a distant relative who accuses their beloved Gam Gam (Cloris Leachman) of, among other things, having absconded with the family’s secret beer recipe before fleeing to America decades earlier. Jan and Todd challenge his team to a contest in order to preserve their honor, are defeated in the most humiliating manner possible.<
After returning to America, they decide to form their own group and represent America in next year’s contest. To have even a slight hope, they need to go out and recruit a dream team of imbibers. First up is Landfill (Kevin Heffernan), a man whose nickname hardly begins to do justice to his gargantuan appetites. Next, they come across Fink (Steve Lemme), a scientist who decides to take a break from his job (which seems to only involve performing a certain unspeakable act on frogs for no particular scientific purpose) in order to help them maximize their guzzling potential. Of course, skill is also a part of the program and so they seek out Barry (Jay Chandrasekhar, who also directs), a once-legendary beer gamer whose tattered existence now finds him standing on the curb and offering to consume entirely different types of fluids for anyone with a few bucks. (Even if he can pull himself together, there is still the matter of the psychological scars that now prevent him from properly playing Beer Pong effectively.) Now united, the five begin their extensive training–much of it done while crashing high-school parties–and after much effort, a few crises of confidence and, okay, one death, they return to Germany to fight for their honor–one enormous stein at a time.<
One of the trademarks of the Broken Lizard approach to comedy is the way in which they utilize their ridiculous premises in order to explore equally ridiculous movie genres and conceits. While “Super Troopers” explored cop movies and “Club Dread” skewered mad slasher movies (so closely in the case of the latter that some viewers wound up being put off by the amount of blood involved), “Beerfest” is their goofy take on that hardiest of genres–the Guys-On-A-Mission film. We all know the drill of such films–a rag-tag bunch of misfits are recruited for an impossible mission (usually, though not always, with Germans as their foe) and triumph over adversity with the aid of inspiring speeches, noble sacrifices and a training montage or two. The twist here is the way in which they take that solemn story approach–and every one of the story points I have just mentioned make an appearance or two--and apply it to something as utterly ridiculous as an international beer-drinking competition. Some of you may find this to be utterly idiotic but I could easily point out any number of films with premises just as implausible that we were actually supposed to take seriously. Remember Tom Cruise training to become the Last Samurai or Frodo studying to become a British soccer thug. Compared to those sights, the idea of a beer-chugging subculture loosely based on the tenets of “Fight Club” in which the ultimate goal is to conquer the mammoth 3-liter stein known as “Das Boot” is almost staid.<
Having shared the screen with any number of co-stars in “Club Dread” and only appearing in separate scenes during their brief appearances in “The Dukes of Hazzard” (a film which is to Broken Lizard as “Room Service” was to the Marx Brothers–a film that featured the group but which cannot be considered a group movie because it was conceived and designed for others), “Beerfest” seems to have been designed to get the five group members to play off of each other in as many scenes as possible and when they catch fire, they bounce jokes and comedic ideas off of each other with such quickness and grace that you can see the spark in their eyes as they get into it. More importantly, they correctly realize that instead of playing to the rafters to get laughs with weird voices and over-the-top behavior, it is much funnier to play the material relatively straight and let the jokes emerge on their own. Of them, the standout is Heffernan, who unapologetically plays a gross and repulsive character–imagine Bluto Blutarsky without the grace or dignity–and still manages to make him strangely likable. Of the non-group members, Leachman gets some big laughs doing a blatant reprise of Frau Blucher and Prochnow is amusing as well as the chief villain (and yes, there is a cheeky “Das Boot” reference to be had.)Of the films in the Broken Lizard canon, “Beerfest” is admittedly their least substantial effort since their “Puddle Cruiser” debut–it lacks the manic inspiration of “Super Troopers” or the cleverness of the unjustly maligned “Club Dread.” That said, the vast majority of the jokes (none of which I will spoil for you), the ones that miss aren’t too horrible and I found myself laughing hysterically throughout at both the gross-out gags and the more intelligent bits of actual wit. Some of you out there may be put off by the very notion of plunking down a ten-spot for something called “Beerfest” but I assure you that it is a million times removed from the frat-house stupidity that the title suggests. Besides, I like the idea of a film that features so many drinking games that the only way one could base a drinking game on it (at least one that wouldn’t kill most participants) would be to devise one in which players took a drink only during the scenes in which the characters aren’t drinking anything.
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