The brainchild of producer Charles Wessler, Movie 43 was dreamt up in the early 2000’s as an outrageous anthology comedy consisting of a series of gross-out Funny or Die style sketches from a range of writers and directors. Wessler and co-producer Peter Farrelly (one half of the infamous Farrelly brothers) shopped their pitch around. No studio would touch it. Almost a decade later, Relativity Media gave it a green light and a six million dollar budget — a remarkably small price considering the bevy of A-list actors who would be drawn to the project.
The movie was shot over several years, bending to the availability of its cast. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were involved early on but jumped ship. So did Colin Farrell. George Clooney was asked to star as himself in a skit about how he can’t pick up women. “No fucking way,” Clooney responded. Richard Gere reportedly tried to wriggle out of it, but eventually agreed to cameo as a Steve Jobs-like character who struggles to understand why consumers are putting their penises inside his company’s hottest new release: the ‘iBabe’. Gere succumbed, under the condition that the set come to him and the shoot would take no more than four days.
Movie 43‘s most talked about sequence, in which Kate Winslet goes on a blind date with Hugh Jackman and is horrified to discover, when he removes his scarf, that he has a pair of testicles dangling from beneath his chin, was shot more than four years ago and used to convince a raft of other high profile actors to join.
The resulting production has 14 storylines credited to 13 directors and nine writers. Its never-ending Timtam packet of luminaries include Jackman, Winslet, Gere, Gerard Butler, Naomi Watts, Halle Berry, Uma Thurman, Emma Stone, Dennis Quaid, Liev Schrieber, Greg Kinnear, Justin Long, Johnny Knoxville, Stephen Merchant, Terence Howard, Seann William Scott, Anna Faris and Seth MacFarlane. They didn’t do it for the money. According to Farrelly, each of the actors received US$800 for their contributions.
Movie 43 wasn’t screened for critics prior to its release in America and the UK on January 25 (it opened in Australia on February 7). Two separate cuts were made for each release. In the US the framing device is a crazed screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) pitching scenes to a studio executive (Greg Kinnear), the resulting feature a collection of his kooky ideas. As Kinnear’s attention wavers, the screenwriter grows increasingly desperate and pulls a gun to try to seal the deal. In the UK version, a bunch of teenagers try to find a mythical movie called Movie 43. Australian cinemas are screening the former.
None of its many stars promoted the film on talk shows or in the press. Asked about the lack of PR, Farrelly responded: “the studio is not hiding it. We knew it would have to find its audience, and believe me, it will.” The film’s poster taglines include “The most outrageous comedy ever made” and “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
Not many people have. Movie 43 tanked at the box office, and its chances of becoming a sleeper hit at cinemas are on par with its chances of winning a Best Picture Oscar. As soon as it opened, the tsunami hit — a sustained and unrelentingly savage attack from critics, up there with the biggest collective take-down of any star-studded Hollywood release.
Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper led the charge, trotting out a variation of a line famously applied to Tommy Wiseua’s low-fi 2009 romantic drama The Room, which went on to become an unlikely cult hit. Roeper called Movie 43 “the Citizen Kane of awful.” The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin was “overcome with a sudden rush of emotion: not amusement, anger or even mild irritation, but a profound and faintly tragic sense of pity.” The New York Times‘ Stephen Holden warned that “it brings Hollywood’s standards of comedy one step closer to the gutter.” Vulture’s David Edelstein looked on the bright side (sort of). “It’s rare to see a piece of shit that actually looks and sounds like a piece of shit. It’s exciting,” he wrote. The Star‘s Peter Howell put it simply: “the worst film ever.” At time of publication, Movie 43 is sitting on a dismal 5% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To say it has been lambasted by critics is to put it very, very lightly.
Farrelly, co-director of flaky OTW comedies such as Kingpin, Stuck On You and Me, Myself and Irene is no stranger to a bad review. But so vicious was the critical mauling that the 56-year-old filmmaker took to Twitter to vent his outrage.
“To the critics: Movie 43 is not the end of the world. It’s just a $6-million movie where we tried to do something different. Now back off,” he wrote. And later: “To the critics: You always complain that Hollywood never gives you new stuff, and then when you get it, you flip out.”
That’s the story, up until this point, of how one of Hollywood’s strangest comedies got made and received. The question on everybody’s lips: “is it actually that bad?”
At the risk of being ridiculed by my zinger-happy brethren, the answer is simply: no. Not even close.
Movie 43 has its faults. It is a freakshow of gross-out humour that goes harder and further than virtually any of its vomit bag contemporaries. There are plenty of funny moments — myself and 15 or so other cinema attendees regularly laughed out loud, one person to the point at which he erupted into an ugly coughing fit — and it’s one of the most unconventionally entertaining insane-in-the-brain pictures you’ll see (or not see, as the case may be) this or any year. Its structure relies on a slippery variety show “throw mud and see what sticks” approach, and plenty sticks, even if some jokes can only be appreciated if viewed through the fuzzy prism of pure absurdity (a short segment about how oppressed small children live and work inside photocopy machines is Python-esque in its random ridiculousness).
The absurdly disproportionate critical response to Movie 43 has brought to the fore one of the laziest strategies a film reviewer can deploy, and we’ve seen it time and time again: the technique of describing content with the insinuation that such a description constitutes analysis.
For example: “Hugh Jackman wears testicles on his neck,” “Halle Berry makes guacamole with her breasts” and “Anna Faris asks to be defecated on”. The implication being that a movie featuring giant, ugly, sweating, life-like balls dangling from Hugh Jackman’s chin cannot be good. Yes, that indicates the humour is being pitched at a certain level, but the point is that description is not a form of analysis, and to correlate the two is either lazy or disingenuous.
The way Wessler and Farrelly’s ostentatious production has been unceremoniously dumped on says less about its shortcomings as a work of “art” and more about a critical commentary echo chamber where catchy lines and shrill put-downs have replaced any reasonable look at what went wrong and why. The consensus among clambake commentary has been to pick low hanging fruit — an irregularly shaped comedy full of bodily fluid puns — and smash it with a mallet, creating analysis more vacuous than the movie’s many grotesequeries.
Applying to Movie 43 any vaguely analytic point-of-view now, apparently, constitutes an act of lunacy. And there is, despite the movie’s technique of reducing the impact of its more thoughtful moments with self-sabotaging toilet bowl punchlines, plenty to consider. (At this stage I should point out that this post contains some spoilers).
Movie 43‘s first sketch is the now infamous Hugh Jackman testicles scene, which was directed by Farrelly. It’s a combination of crass sight comedy and Twilight Zone mystery, in which the protagonist is shocked to discover something nobody else is bothered by and subsequently calls into question her sanity. Those awful, mesmerising testies hog the viewer’s attention but the thrust of the scene concerns why they are there in the first place.
Kate Winslet is the only person perturbed in a busy restaurant. Nobody else notices, cares or pays the conspicuous ball sack any mind. The many critics of Movie 43 who dismiss the whole package as nothing more than senseless gratuity are the Winslet character: all they can see are the testicles, and they can’t get past the gross-out. Audiences happy to go along with it are the other people in the restaurant: carefree, accepting the reality they’ve been handed and unafraid to enjoy themselves.
Or, perhaps, this is Farrelly’s slap-down of the current state of studio-sanctioned crassness, a statement about the nadir toilet bowl humour in Hollywood has reached and how no-one in the industry bats an eyelash at the most reprehensible of visions. To argue that these readings are something that could never have been intentioned isn’t fair to the narrative framework (at least the US / Australian version I watched), which goes to great lengths to power these kinds of “what am I watching, and where did it come from?” thought trains. Quaid’s screenwriter is violent and insane, his ideas risible and rotten. Kinnear’s studio executive is reluctant to cater to the wishes of a person determined to lower the tone of his product, before eventually turning on his own rationale as part of a perverse prank against a superior — a pundit deliberately sabotaging the studio system from the inside.
In Homeschooled, co-written and directed by Will Graham, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber play overzealous parents who take micro-management of their only child’s life to absurd levels. Their hypothesis, as they explain to another couple, is that homeschooling can offer the curriculum educative value of going to school, but cannot replicate coming of age experiences indirectly related to the classroom (being teased and humiliated by other students, experiencing a first kiss with a fellow classmate, etcetera). So Schreiber teases his child about his penis in the shower, and Watts, sitting on his bed, begins making out with her own son.
The final punchline is mediocre, but the rest is a neat two-hander, condemning the vulgarities of high school culture while extolling the virtues of them as resilience-building rites of passage and, most importantly, sledging overzealous parents along the way.
In Victory’s Glory, Terence Howard plays Coach Jackson, who is giving a pep talk to his basketball team before they face-off against an all-white opposition. It’s a piss-take on sports movie conventions and a mockery of racial expectations. The nervous team murmur about how they are going to get beaten but Jackson repeatedly slams home the point that they’re black and therefore, they’ll win.
Truth or Dare mines sexual perversion in a depraved society, with Stephen Merchant and Halle Berry mutilating themselves to get laid. Beezel is a Ted-esque corruption of kiddy play things by foul, adult realities, as if Puff the Magic Dragon grew up, flew away from Honah Lee and became a smack-taking sadist. iBabe imagines a world in which obsession about gadgetry leads to mutilation of the body and mind. Middleschool, which focuses on a girl embarrassed by her first period, paints a shocking portrait of men’s compulsions to outlaw women’s issues.
Movie 43 has a great deal more on its mind than poo and fart jokes. More, in fact, than most comedies that come out of Hollywood, though the mauling its received over the last couple of weeks suggest a critic isn’t supposed to say that.
A froth from the mouth groupthink review is the name of the game. Drink the pee-poisoned Kool-Aid, whip up a zinger, join the snark brigade and kick the dog when it’s down.