Straight Outta Washoe
Reno 911!: Miami / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | February 23, 2007 | Comments ()
For the members of the defunct comedy troupe The State, Reno 911!: Miami is a return to form and a welcome family reunion. The 11 performers starred in an eponymous sketch comedy show on MTV from 1993-1995, back when it was possible to actually imagine MTV airing something other than insipid reality shows set to emo. The group split up after that, and though they continue to work together, their subsequent films and TV shows have remained focused on one faction or the other: Wet Hot American Summer and “Stella” featured Stella troupe members Michael Showalter, David Wain, and Michael Ian Black, whereas pretty much everyone else went off and did “Reno 911!” on Comedy Central (after the short-lived “Viva Variety”). Reno 911!: Miami marks the first time all the original Staters have reconvened since the MTV show ended, and the resulting comedy is by turns silly, sloppy, and crude, but it’s also consistently (occasionally riotously) funny. Chalk it up to the vibe that must have formed when the whole group got back together for one last rally. The film traffics in a mix of improvisational brilliance and bathroom humor, and while no one will ever mistake it for Preston Sturges, it’s still a hilarious, lightweight affair that rolls credits just as it’s gently running out of steam.
Reno 911!: Miami begins in Nevada, reintroducing the characters from the “Reno” series in a brief but effective montage: Deputies Travis Junior (Robert Ben Garant), S. Jones (Cedric Yarbrough), James Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui), Trudy Wiegel (Kerri Kenney-Silver), Cherisha Kimball (Mary Birdsong), Clementine Johnson (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Raineesha Williams (Niecy Nash), and Lieutenant Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon), all doing their best to serve and protect but generally screwing up at everything. Director Garant also wrote the script, along with Lennon and Kenney-Silver, and it’s to their credit that they only really recycle one joke from the series in establishing the characters for the film (it’s the one about how Dangle wears hot pants to “move like a cheetah”). The deputies don’t get to do much besides talk to the camera before Dangle introduces the weak but necessary catalyst that sets up the premise: The entire force has been invited to a national law enforcement convention in Miami, so they hop on a bus and head for Florida.
As with the TV series, the plot here is nothing more than an excuse for the deputies to play out a series of barely related scenes, and the film doesn’t really find its legs until well into the second act. After arriving in Miami, the Reno troopers find themselves shut out of the convention thanks to a clerical error and are rebuffed by a low-level government official played by comedian Patton Oswalt, who’s also logged time on “Reno.” Despondent, they seek lodging at a seedy nearby motel that looks, in the words of Wiegel, designed to harbor “a good old-fashioned rapin’.” The motel clerk (“Reno” regular Toby Huss) takes them on a brief tour of the rooms, assuming they’ve come for a “suckfest.” Many, many jokes revolve around some kind of sexual behavior, and the cast brings a fierce commitment to the lowbrow material; I’ve never seen so much effort or camerawork put into a sequence that would culminate in a tableaux of hotel-room windows that reveal the inhabitants to each be masturbating. Sure, the sequence isn’t quite as funny as it’s meant to be, but I almost admire the effort, you know?
While Dangle and the rest are at the motel, a biochemical terrorist attack at the convention center infects the city’s cops and places them in quarantine. That’s a pretty frightening plot, if you think about it for a moment, but Reno 911!: Miami skirts the potential political commentary without so much as a second glance; the setup is the only way possible to put the Reno officers back in uniform in a new city, after which the film finally begins to gel. All the deputies pair up and begin responding to 911 calls, allowing the film’s strongest scenes to take on the vignette approach of the TV series, with each individual excursion into society standing on its own comedically and only rarely forwarding the larger plot. Garcia and Jones find an alligator in someone’s pool, Wiegel and Williams walk the beach while Williams imparts the basics of Ebonics, etc. These scenes allow a host of recurring “Reno” actors and characters to join the fray, including Paul Rudd as Ethan the Drug Lord, an over-the-top Scarface pastiche who keeps kidnapping Jones and Garcia and warning them to stay away, despite their honest protestations of ignorance. It’s a light but still enjoyable turn from Rudd, who plays Lamaze instructor Guy Jerricault on the series and who also had a prominent role in Wet Hot American Summer. But the real kicks are seeing the former Staters show up in the corners of scenes, often for no more than a few seconds of screen time. Black and Showalter play a tattoo parlor owner and customer, respectively, while Wain plays a lecherous plumber who puts the moves on Clementine. Fellow Wet Hot faces Joe Lo Truglio and Ken Marino (aka Vinnie Van Lowe) make appearances, too, as does Stater Todd Holoubek, who’s done pretty much nothing since the original “State” series. The rapid-fire skits are the film’s greatest achievements because everyone on screen seems to be having a genuinely good time riffing on the bizarre little encounters they’ve arranged.
Like the TV series, the film is shot as a “Cops”-style documentary, with the characters speaking directly into the camera when they’re out on patrol, and the choice goes a long way toward cementing the feel of semi-reality in the proceedings. Some scenes, like the ones with Garcia and Jones on the deck of the drug lord’s boat, are shot from a distance at a zoom, a conscious nod to the presence of the cameraman trying to constantly follow the action. And while Lennon and Garant aren’t above selling out a little to make a buck — they did, after all, script Herbie Fully Loaded and Night at the Museum, among others — their obvious devotion to the perverted members of the Reno Sheriff’s Department, not to mention the quality and inventiveness in their performances, shows their true colors.
How the plot, such as it is, actually unfolds is utterly pointless; there’s a vague government conspiracy, and Ethan the Drug Lord, and even a chase. But Reno 911!: Miami is at its weakest when it tries to adhere to the story, ludicrous though it may be. When the script breaks free from more conventional narrative and lets the characters wander through their own weird little universe, the result is a breezy but entertaining comedy that, like the Reno troops themselves, is far from perfect but still manages to get the job done.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.