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November 22, 2006 |

By John Williams | Film | November 22, 2006 |

No rule of moviegoing is more ironclad than this: Beware the film born as a sketch. By the light of that rule, Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny should be awful. Like any number of “Saturday Night Live”-inspired duds, it should be a short-form joke (in this case, a cult-inspiring series on HBO in the late ’90s) stretched well beyond its breaking point. It should find increasingly embarrassing ways to spend a Hollywood-size budget on a living room-size idea. It should be a sorely misguided attempt by Jack Black to recapture some of the indie-metal magic that helped make him a star.

And it is. Sadly, it is all of those things.

Sad because “Tenacious D,” in its cable heyday, was worth hollering about. The 15-minute episodes followed Kyle (Kyle Gass) and JB (Black), who launched a blistering (albeit acoustic) musical attack on unsuspecting coffeehouse crowds. Alternative as comedy, but geekily earnest in the way it both sent up and celebrated heavy-metal conventions, it was better than just about everything “SNL” has produced in the past 20 years. But unfortunately, it leaps to the big screen with all the grace of Molly Shannon’s Superstar character upsetting a stash of folding chairs.

Performing a detailed autopsy is unnecessary. It’s enough to say the movie simply isn’t funny. You can find four-minute clips of the HBO series on YouTube that are 10 times more entertaining than everything on display here.

But it’s the night before Thanksgiving, and I have nowhere to be, so let’s dig into this cadaver, shall we?

The first problem is the most obvious one. For a few minutes at a time, it was a blast to watch the duo sit around a squalid apartment waiting for inspiration to strike or to hear JB improvise lyrics about burrito supremes and Backstage Bettys. But add 90 minutes, and now our heroes are required to do something. (Plot’s a bitch.) After opening with a lame sequence (and can a sequence that features a cameo by Meat Loaf be anything but?) that gets JB to Hollywood, where he finds Kyle serenading beachgoers with classical music, director and co-writer Liam Lynch sends them on a quest to find the titular guitar pick, ownership of which is believed to be the common denominator among rock’s guitar gods. In order to get it, they have to break into the Rock and Roll History Museum. Trust me, none of this matters. The whole thing could have been conceived of by tranquilized zoo animals.

(Lynch was responsible for “Sifl & Olly,” a dadaistic sock-puppet show on MTV that I found hilarious, despite not being a pothead. Yes, The Pick of Destiny is probably intended to be viewed through bloodshot eyes, but I swear there isn’t enough weed on the planet to make this thing funny.)

And what happened to the music? Kyle and JB’s songs used to sport halfway-memorable melodies and hysterical lyrics. Hell, they released an entire album at a time when there wasn’t a TV show or a movie to promote. But the best song here is a rehash of the one involving burrito supremes. The rest are instantly forgotten strings of sex-based rhymes that a smart 12-year-old would dismiss as too lazy. (Black’s boasts of sexual prowess in the bedroom — and backstage, and in outer space — have always been part of the joke, but they once had some animating flicker of wordplay.)

And poor Kyle. On the TV show, he was the classic straight man, the Laurel (but portly) to Black’s Hardy. Here he’s forced to open his mouth with much greater frequency, which does a lot to shatter the pair’s fragile, previously endearing chemistry.

Like many comedies in dire need of back-up, the movie is overrun by guests: Amy Poehler, Ben Stiller, Fred Armisen, and a hammy role for Tim Robbins that I’d call pointless if that differentiated it from the rest of the project.

The only guest appearance potentially worth a damn comes toward the end, after the story builds (or staggers) to a “rock-off” showdown between the boys and Satan. (See, the supernatural guitar pick was made from one of Satan’s teeth, and … oh, forget it.) Dave Grohl plays the dark lord, and he looks pretty fearsome. Between the special effects (he towers over his mortal foes) and Grohl’s very real ability to rock, his song could have been a showstopper. As it is, we’re just treated to more words that rhyme with cock.

Tenacious D originally appealed because it was dumb-but-smart. Here, it’s just dumb. This movie makes Wayne’s World look like Doctor Zhivago. What’s most maddening (and mystifying) is how it’s content to pitch itself to stupid 15-year-olds, rather than the devoted audience of aging hipsters who watched and loved the original series when it aired after the brilliant “Mr. Show.”

It’s easy enough to shake off that disappointment — the chances this would turn out well were slim — but the movie does leave one compelling question in its wake: Is Jack Black mortal? It’s not like he’s the most selective guy (he once lent his skills to a project called LaserFart), but based on all the previous evidence, I thought he had that rare gift, crap-salvaging talent, and that no movie was beyond the help of his insane charisma. (Even the anemic Nacho Libre got some belly laughs out of his antics in the wrestling ring.) But here, for the first time, his willingness to sell any bit actually makes things worse. It turns out that his calling card — that scrunched-up, eye-darting, demented-Cabbage Patch Doll thing — is awfully thin stuff in a vacuum, which is the best way to describe the prolonged psychedelic fantasy sequence when, after eating some bad mushrooms, he cavorts with Sasquatch through animated strawberry fields for what feels like forever.

His work in the earlier incarnation of “The D” was hilarious, and the perfect prelude to his breakthrough role as Barry, the self-righteous record collector in High Fidelity. School of Rock kept him in his comfort zone but also elevated him, his central role in a well-conceived story forcing him to add a layer of control to his mania. On the heels of Nacho Libre, though, this effort (admittedly long in the production stage) has the feel of some serious wheel-spinning, and the extremely gifted Black needs a strong, funny script, stat. Of course, in our age of status-seeking clowns, it’s probably inevitable that he’ll move toward more serious roles (the upcoming The Holiday seems like a small step in that direction), and part of me is dreading the day when, like Bill Murray, he’s artfully shot for the cover of The New York Times Magazine and we’re all asked to think of him as a peer of Ben Kingsley. Then again, if this dreck is all the comedy coming his way, bring on the gravitas.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny / John Williams

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