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February 1, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | February 1, 2008 |

Strange Wilderness could be the least enjoyable film Happy Madison Productions has ever spewed from its poisonous and learning-impaired bowels. It’s not the most outright disgusting — that honor has to go to Grandma’s Boy, which featured a grown man who should know better masturbating to a Barbie doll and then chancing to fling the ejaculate onto his friend’s mother. That’s enough to make Strange Wilderness, which features men making themselves puke into a shark’s mouth, almost tame by comparison. But Strange Wilderness is so dumb, so aimless, so plotless, and just so plain unfunny that it made me long for the days of Allen Covert rubbing one out to an action figure. It’s so poorly plotted and badly written that pretending it’s an actual comedy, let alone attempting to derive any meaning from the film, would be an exercise in futility that would drive even the strongest of men to drink themselves into an early grave. It’s the worst kind of stoner comedy, one that would require you to be just blasted out of your mind to laugh at any of it.

Peter Gaulke (Steve Zahn) is the neurotic host of “Strange Wilderness,” a wildlife show he inherited from his father when the old man passed away. The film opens with Peter watching old footage of his dad and talking on the phone to someone about how his own life has gone off the rails — and if you’re hoping to find out who he’s talking to, just let that one go right now. It’s like a weird little mystery; could be a reporter, or a girlfriend, or the time and temperature recording. The only reason he’s talking on the phone to someone is that director Fred Wolf, who co-wrote the insipid screenplay with Peter Gaulke, couldn’t figure out a better way to start the story. (And yes, the main characters are named after the co-writers. No idea why.) Anyway, Peter lights up a joint and begins to relate the sad, stupid story of how his show went downhill. Back in the day, Peter and his crew were happy turning out really bad episodes of their low-rent wilderness show that’s on the verge of cancellation. Pete’s crew consists of Fred (Covert), the sound man; Danny, played by the astoundingly untalented Peter Dante; Milas (Ernest Borgnine), the camera operator; and Cooker (Jonah Hill), whose role is never made clear. Financially and intellectually bankrupt, Peter is approached by Bill Calhoun (Joe Don Baker), an old friend of Peter’s father who offers Peter photos of Bigfoot and a map to the creature’s Ecuadorian hideout. So Peter and the gang decide to head to South America to film Sasquatch and try to save their show. Milas stays home, probably because they only got Borgnine for a couple days, so his nephew, Junior (Justin Long), takes his place as cameraman. They’re also joined by Cheryl (Ashley Scott), who I believe is there because she knows Spanish or has travel contacts or something; really, I left the theater more than two hours ago, and I’ve already forgotten, if indeed I ever knew. It’s clear she’s only along so she can take off her shirt at some point — which she eventually does, for all the curious 9th-graders out there — so she’s hired. Finally, there’s Whitaker (Kevin Heffernan), the drunk animal handler. Damn, but I almost clawed my eyes out just listing all that.

So they load up in the RV and hit the road, presumably heading south, though no locations are ever given until much later, when they finally make it to Mexico, though by that point my brain stem had already dissolved. Anyway, Peter and the boys and the one girl drive around and film bears and sea lions and lay down really bad narration that reflects their actual ignorance of nature. Get it? Like, they’re making a wildlife show, but they don’t actually know anything about animals. The cognitive dissonance is genius. Every sequence feels completely irrelevant to the ones before and after it; the film has all the emotional continuity of a trailer, with no sense of flow or importance or even a semblance of a cause/effect relationship. Peter’s competing for the Bigfoot discovery with a rival wildlife show host, but really, who cares? The film is one long and pointless road trip, laced with weed and beer and the kinds of non-jokes that would only work if you’ve ingested a lot of weed and beer.

The saddest part is that Zahn is involved with all this. He’s a gifted and likeable comedian, and for every blemish on his resume (Joy Ride springs too readily to mind), he’s also turned in some enjoyable performances in films like Out of Sight, Safe Men, and the stunning drama Rescue Dawn. But here he’s reduced to nothing more than shrieking “fuck” a lot and doing his best to blend his easygoing persona with an abrasive character that doesn’t fit him at all. Scott, who’s the kind of forgettably attractive sidekick that seems to pop up in movies like these, actually feels the most at home in the film, since the awful script isn’t in danger of outstripping her limited acting abilities. She’s even appeared in another pot-based comedy, Puff, Puff, Pass, directed by Mekhi Phifer (!) and apparently some kind of warm-up for this film. Gaulke and Wolf’s script does its best to sink the rest of the ensemble, and though Covert and Dante are predictably cringe-inducing and laugh-suppressing, at least Hill and occasionally Long sneak in little bits of actual character-based humor every now and then. That’s the biggest problem of the film, and one that Wolf and Gaulke seem to have no way of understanding: Funny is only funny when it makes sense in the film’s universe, and especially when it jibes with an individual character. Strange Wilderness, on the other hand, assumes things are funny without actually bothering to ask if they’re really humorous or if they just look like jokes. Even at a blessedly trim 87 minutes, the film is one long, painful slog.

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.

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