Saturday, June 6, 2009

Movie Review: "Land of the Lost"

In his latest film, Will Ferrell pole vaults into a Tyrannosaur's mouth. He then reappears later, having escaped (how do you THINK?) and actually rides the dinosaur into battle.

And this is the most normal thing you will see in "Land of the Lost," a truly cracked-out comedy that is either a testament to the human imagination or to the power of screenwriters on drugs. I'm heavily leaning towards the latter.

I never saw the 1970s television series this is based on but they did try and remake it on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. From what I recall, the series was about a scientist who was taken, with his children, to an alternate reality where past, present and future merged into one. There were bizarre lizard creatures known as Sleestacks, dinosaurs and a furry little monkey-man creature named Chaka.

This latest summer entry, directed by Brad Siberling (the underrated "A Series of Unfortunate Events"), ditches the kids but keeps the same basic idea. Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell) is a laughingstock who, in the funny opening sequence, picks a fight with Matt Lauer after its revealed that every scientist in the world thinks he's a crackpot for his time travel theories. Three years later, Marshall is a professor at the La Brea Tar Pits and is approached by Holly (Anna Friel), who claims that she believes Rick's claims to be true. The two head off to a tourist trap in the desert where fireworks salesman-tour guide-entertainer Will (Danny McBride) leads them down a river into...where do you think?

Also, at one point, Rick says "F*** you" to Chaka.

I bring that up before going into more of a description as a warning. The previews for this movie portray it as a funny adventure for the family. There were quite a few kids at the theater last night when I went to see this. But parents should be warned that this is EXACTLY what you would expect from a team-up of Ferrell and McBride (who is quickly becoming my favorite comedic talent thanks to HBO's uproariously wrong "Eastbound and Down"). There are crude sex jokes, the language is quite salty and a scene where the heroes unwittingly trip on drugs. Also, maybe my mind was just in the gutter but I think one shot subtly implied that Chaka and Will did something fairly untoward (kids and most adults will probably not get it, but there's no way McBride didn't know what he was doing when he got into that position).

I honestly don't think there's anything worse than any of Ferrell's previous movies (well, besides "Elf") but parents should still be aware that this is not a kids' movie.

I'd describe the plot in further detail, but I don't think I can. It's basically one thing after another, jumping from chase sequences involving a Grumpy T-Rex (named Grumpy, of course), bizarre encounters with the Sleestacks, pterodactyl eggs, and the soundtrack to "A Chorus Line." The movie is never boring although being bizarre isn't necessarily a good thing...sometimes the movie goes so far out into left-field that I have to wonder if Siberling and the cast were just entertaining themselves.

Still, the fantastical elements to the film are fun if only because every other second you're asking "what the heck?? what am I watching?" Siberling's adept at bringing bizarre worlds and characters to life (again, "A Series of Unfortunate Events" was a very underrated family flick) and he manages to give the film a brisk pace so that we really don't have much a of chance to stop and say "hey, wait a minute..." The special effects are deliberately bad in some sequences (I love that the Sleestacks are basically just men in rubber suits) and there's a great running gag in how Will and Holly are unfazed by anything they see, remarking about a dinosaur's beauty or stopping to take a picture even as their lives are in danger. The comedy undercuts any real feelings of suspense or peril but that's fine...this is a comedy, first and foremost and I'd rather laugh than pretend I'm really concerned that Ferrell is going to be eviscerated by a dinosaur.

I think people forget how difficult it is to pull off big-budget comedies. The discipline and structure required in special effects sequences usually removes the freedom improvisation provides and films like this usually silence the comedy in favor of the effects. Very few films can succeed in balancing big effects and big laughs; "Ghostbusters" and "Galaxy Quest" are the only exceptions I can think of.

And that's not to say that "Land of the Lost" completely succeeds. The plot meanders and several jokes do fall flat. But Siberling gives his actors enough freedom to play around even in scenes requiring heavy CGI. Ferrell's "Land of the Lost" theme song--while his blood is sucked by a mosquito--is funny and there's a sequence involving dinosaur urine that is pure Ferrell--it starts off kind of funny, goes on a bit so it becomes unfunny and then goes on even longer so it becomes really funny (also loved the fact that Siberling lets McBride and Ferrell improvise a bit about how peaceful it was collecting the dinosaur pee).

Of course, much of your enjoyment of this film is going to be dependant on whether or not you're a fan of Ferrell and McBride. Ferrell detractors will probably not become fans with this film and I think event his most ardent fans will realize that he's basically just playing his "greatest hits" here. Ferrell's best films allow him to create a complete and bizarre character. Here, Rick Marshall really is not a fully-developed character. Sometimes he's shown as a genius, other times as mentally unhinged. It's hinted that he eats a lot when he's frustrated but nothing comes of the gag. Yes, it's kind of funny to hear him declare "Matt Lauer can suck it" but that's really just a riff on Ferrell's standard high-ego characters. And when he lets out a "By Captain Kirk's nipples," it's a funny line...but I have a feeling it was a line that was simply left over from Anchorman outtakes. Make no mistake, I think Ferrell's one of the funniest people around and I giggled when he first appeared, staring way-too-intently into the camera on the "Today" show. But while he's funny here, there's really nothing we haven't seen him do before and better (the Chorus Line dance is funny...but it's just a redux of his ribbon dance from "Old School"...probably not the comparison he wants to invite when his film is up against the much-better reviewed "The Hangover," from "Old School" director Todd Phillips).

McBride will probably fare better simply because he hasn't generated Ferrell's following (yet). Most people probably know him simply from "Pineapple Express" or "Tropic Thunder," while those who have followed him in "The Foot Fist Way" or on "Eastbound and Down" will realize that Will is basically the same exact character, just without the F-Bombs. He's the inappropriate wild man once again, which is basically his stock character--although no one does it better. It works better than it should here, though, because McBride feels like an intruder...this was supposed to be a family film, I'm guessing, and McBride just saunters and pushes that PG-13 to its limit. When he referred to a firecracker as a "Mexican vasectomy" early in the film I let out a giant laugh because I knew McBride was going to hijack this movie. But still, like Ferrell, he's just rehashing his previous work.

Of course, maybe that's the point. I've read many people refer to the original "Land of the Lost" TV show as a "gateway drug" into harder science fiction...the kids who grew up on Sleestacks later moved on to Vulcans or Jedi. And maybe, this is a gateway drug into better comedy. Surely someone who walks up to me and proclaims this is the funniest thing they've ever seen is going to receive a lecture about how Ferrell was basically aping Ron Burgundy and McBride was delivering a toned-down Fred Simmons or Kenny Powers. Maybe this prepares people for the unhinged comedy of Ferrell and McBride.

"Land of the Lost" is getting fairly savaged by critics, and I can see why. It's too silly for an family movie, too dirty for a family movie and the most outright bizarre film of the summer. And it's not a great movie. But there's some truly funny stuff here and it's definitely worth a look for comedy fans.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.