19 November 2020

The Auspicious Highs and Impossible Lows of Broken Lizard Films

 Somehow in the year 2020 I have been on a Broken Lizard kick. If you don't know what I'm talking about, first, I have no idea why you would click the article heading, but it's the name of the comedy group who made Super Troopers (2001), and then a ton more, mostly pretty bad films. I have been struck for a long time, though, wondering how a group could make two incredible instant-classic comedies and then also some of the worst, most forgettable comedies of the modern age. There is a larger question at play here, which eternally confounds me. How do the same artists make inconsistent work and what pushes one movie over the edge where another comes up short?

Broken Lizard is an interesting group to study, and for some reason, after searching the entire Internet (twice), I haven't found very many deep dives into their work. Perhaps they come across as too sophomoric and puerile to be worthy of deep study. Well, folks, that is what Norwegian Morning Wood is all about. It's literally in our website's title.

So, background time. Broken Lizard was formed by five men who met while attending Colgate University in 1989. It consists of Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Hefferman, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Eric Stolhanske. They're notable for not really ever breaking up or splintering off in the past thirty years, and while they each have their own sparse projects, most notably Chandrasekhar who has had steady director work in all of the great comedies of the 21st-Century and may be the closest we have to the "face" of Broken Lizard.

Their films include Puddle Cruiser (1996), which is their Hard Eight (1995), the small budget almost proof-of-concept type film that no one has really seen but directly lead to the aforementioned Super Troopers. I would never say that this movie became particularly mainstream, it's not an Austin Powers (1997) or Hangover (2009) level, but it's a significant cult classic in its own right and crushed DVD sales enough that it gave these folks a career.

A career they immediately squandered with Club Dread (2004). I will get into why each of these films work and fail soon here, but suffice it to say that Club Dread does everything the opposite of Super Troopers and I'm frankly amazed that they were allowed to make more movies afterwards. It is truly a crime against cinema. But then they churned out Beerfest (2006), and suddenly it seemed like Club Dread was just a blip and they were back in form. After that, however, they made The Slammin' Salmon (2009), which was okay, and then a long break until Super Troopers 2 (2018). And that's pretty much it.

There are other bits in here. They were all heavily involved in The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), which I would like to add to the discussion here because it feels quite a bit like all their worst indulgences, with studio backing. They also made a stand-up movie and produced Freeloaders (2012), which I do not know a ton about. It's hard to even find clips or info about this movie. The trailer looks very much in their zone, though, and I will have to admit to this gap in knowledge.

Cultural Context

Super Troopers came out during this time where the "Group of Friends" comedy was pretty big. There were a lot of movie that pitted teams of man-children against each other, which early Apatow leaned into and then capitalized by making everything more realistic and dramatic. Before that, though, we had Anchorman (2004), Dodgeball (2004), Team America: World Police (2004) - okay, that's maybe a stretch. But you can stretch this ensemble comedy into the teen realm with even the American Pie series, Road Trip (2000), and Mean Girls (2004), and even as far as Old School (2003) and Eurotrip (2004). I would even venture that the Jackass movies basically worked as watching a group of friends have fun with each other.

It was only natural then, that Super Troopers would catch on. The rapport is so instant and deep between all the core cast members, and despite the inherent juvenile dick and fart jokes, there are legit moments of wit and timing. It's continuously amazing that the biggest stars they got were Lynda Carter, Brian Cox, and Jim Gaffigan. I know, I know, Daniel von Bargen really reeled in the kids back in 2001.

The film works because it built on something we hadn't really seen since the days of Monty Python - the comedy troop movie based on genuine friendship that you can see all up on screen. It's crazily quotable but looking back it feels apparent that this was the first great burst of creativity for these guys and they didn't have much left in the tank afterwards. It's easy to riff on doofus cops in Vermont, but it is apparently tough to find another reason for all these disparate team members to work together.

Playing with the Formula

Broken Lizard has stated that they enjoy playing around with what characters they play in each movie, swapping personalities and roles. It's noble to play with but also extreme hubris that these guys consider the roles they take on to be acting challenges. There really aren't any good actors among them but instead of recognizing this, they force each other into roles beyond their capabilities. That's first apparent in Club Dread.

Going back to Monty Python, that group always knew their limitations. Graham Chapman was the only one who they felt could carry a movie, beyond that was John Cleese as a strong second, who was great at playing pompous authority figures. Eric Idle could do songs and cowards, Michael Palin had the most range and could do innocent put-upon bystander as well as a sleazy car salesman. Terry Jones I always considered just bonkers, who would throw himself the most completely into the insanity of a sketch or movie. Finally Terry Gilliam was really just a little troll man who drew the cartoons. It all worked out.

It's perhaps unfair to compare Broken Lizard to Monty Python, but it's where we are right now. We need to get into each actor in their own section, but for now, suffice it to say that when they play with their formula, the results get pretty rough. Chandrasekhar is the closest we get to a leading man from the group, but he only gets that role in Super Troopers. Club Dread is all over the place. It seems like they made an effort to make every character awful, maybe so we'd be both suspicious of everyone as well as not care when they died?

See, Club Dread is a murder mystery set on an island run by a Jimmy Buffett knock off played by Bill Paxton. Yes, even in the movie he is a Jimmy Buffett knock off. Broken Lizard plays the resort staff. This all seems like gold so far. But the big mistake is that they set themselves against each other - they are on the same team, but no one likes each other. And since this is a murder mystery, they (mostly) end up killed, so we lack the catharsis of them coming together. The formula actively works against their genre.

See, it's hard to have a comedy troop movie where someone dies every ten minutes. This has a number of ramifications. For one, their greatest strength is having the group working together and bouncing both jokes and ideas around. The inherent suspicion with this kind of movie negates that. They are also designed to be an ensemble with roughly equitable screen time and jokes. When they start dying, this also gets in the way of that, and in fact, a few have incredibly ignomious deaths. Finally, because of both of these problems, they are forced to infuse a lot of fodder and extra characters into the mix. This happened with The Slammin' Salmon as well - as much as it is genuinely good to get some periphery characters on screen, particular women, which they don't have a great track record representing, other characters tend to dilute their brand. It's hard to describe, but again, in a Monty Python movie it's very jarring to see non-Python actors in major roles.

This is why Beerfest and Super Troopers work. In those movies everyone is working together, on the same team, with the same goal (Farva notwithstanding, but in the end he's all Highway). Club Dread and Slammin' Salmon feature both non-Broken Lizard actors getting in the way and are primarily centered around them being rivals or antagonists. Okay, obviously the Python parallel doesn't hold up here, but in all these movies (except Beerfest, briefly), everyone is only playing one character and there are actual stories afoot. Not just a series of gags. I do sincerely love Python, and have watched most of their films this year as well as a matter of fact!

As we were getting into, Beerfest just shines. It's a more coherent film than Super Troopers, feels bigger, stronger, and taps into a simple premise - drinking games! International drinking games! Club Dread is simultaneously thin and everywhere at once. It's Jimmy Buffett island, but also murder mystery, and also a contrived love story that really stretches the hot girl and fat guy trope. Its protagonist ostensibly is Kevin Heffernan, but he's also a suspect, so he has to do suspicious things, so he's absent for large stretches of the film. It could maybe be Brittany Daniels as a Final Girl, but she's also not that. It's....it's just very weird.

Beerfest has a simple premise that allows the cast to make constant jokes. It lets each of the cast shine while also mixing it up with some randoms. It gives them a target to hit, insane villains to root for while you're rooting against, and also America. It's a sports movie! It's all very clear, and it keeps things breezy enough that they can pull of their surface level antics and mayhem. Soter and Stolhanske share roles as the protagonist, with maybe Soter shining a little better as the relatable every man and opening up his character more.

Despite really hitting their stride by going back to their tested formula with Beerfest, they decided to ditch all that for The Slammin' Salmon. It's their most polished movie visually and also features the most expansive cast. On the surface it also feels like a good premise - they are restaurant workers who need to raise enough money in one night to pay Michael Clark Duncan's gambling debt or else he will hurt them. It all lines up. But it also drives the troop into vengeful competition with each other which eliminates the team aspect that had worked so well in their more successful movies.

Salmon isn't nearly as bad as Club Dread. It's a coherent film and characters have arcs. Some of the jokes land and it's a fairly enjoyable experience. It trips itself up by its need to satisfy all the yarns it begins to spin. Each Lizard has his own thing and story to develop, some are done fine, others are dropped, and that's in addition to other ancillary characters working at the restaurant. It's also off that they aren't really at the same level - Heffernan is the manager, Soter plays dual roles as both Chef and busboy, while the rest are all waiters. I don't honestly know why this is off-putting to me. Maybe it's the need for that ensemble again - this time around Heffernan is the undisputed protagonist and everyone else feels lesser. And normally that is fine, literally every other movie is built this way, but the film is still trying to give everyone a character on equal footing. It's trying to have it both ways and it stumbles hard.

It also largely feels like a long sitcom premise. All of the set-ups are fairly hackneyed like accidentally eating an engagement ring, as well as the whole "Raise enough money to do something" conceit. All their movies are sort of like this, from Troopers saving the police station to Beerfest's winning redemption for America, but it's particularly egregious with Salmon.

I also don't exactly know why Soter playing two roles bothers me. Maybe because it would have been more fun if each individual had a different role in the restaurant that fit their strengths to help with the world building. Even though Soter plays both well, it's also underdeveloped. The cooks in Waiting... (2005) have more chances to shine with pure jokes than this. Oh yeah, also Waiting... (2005) fits this ensemble team trope of movies. Dang, 2000s. He gets the romance this time as well, but it's also just an afterthought. So they split his roles and gave them each less to do. It seems like they could have gotten rid of someone, probably Steve Lemme's character, who is incredibly bland (for arguably their most dynamic and energetic character actor). Make him the psychotic chef, get rid of all his sad sack storyline, he could dial up the R rating they love and everything would be better.

This brings us to Super Troopers 2. It was a long time in between projects that they had been cranking out every two or three years. A whopping nine years until their next true feature. Sure they had Freeloaders and their stand-up movie and Tacoma FD, but it does very much feel like they dropped off. Super Troopers 2 was largely crowd-funded through Indiegogo (I gave them $20). I am not aware of production parameters, but it's not like it's anything extremely edgy or dissimilar from their other work. Studios wouldn't touch them, though, possibly because all their films are pretty bad, possibly because they really aren't all that profitable.

Super Troopers 2, which I really think should be called Super Twoopers or Super Trooper Twoopers or something stupid is where my critique breaks down a bit. It's the gang together again, with a clear goal against a clear rival team. And the movie is funny, it doesn't try to live up to the lofty standards of Super Troopers and finds plenty of material to riff on, both building on the first film's gags and presenting new material. Something about it falls flat, though. I'm not sure why but after I watched it (I now own it forever, thanks Indiegogo) the first time, I forgot most of it immediately, despite laughing and liking it. I watched it a second time a few months ago and I still have difficulty remembering some of my favorite lines and jokes. I had even forgotten Rob Lowe was in it despite (SPOILER) him being the main villain at the end.

There are good moments. The bear scene is inspired, as is just about any Farva moment. We just don't have blowhard characters like this in movies anymore and it's incredibly freeing to relinquish any standards of self-control or decency. He's updated well, in the fact that he's still largely funny and not cringey. The protagonist shifts to probably...Rabbit? Maybe it's just them getting older - their cheeky shenanigans aren't quite as cheeky as they all start pushing 50. It's their third-best film, for what it's worth.

Jay Chandrasekhar - Leading Man

What I'd like to do here is go through each actor's character swaps and how they work (or don't) in their five respective films. Some of this is informed by Super Troopers, where most of the troop created their first impression, but some diversified enough in later roles.

Chandrasekhar is the only one with presence and dignity. He should have been their Graham Chapman and taken the leading roles in every film. Yet the only time he takes this position is in Super Troopers. Even in the second one he's neutered, and I mean that literally, he starts taking estrogen pills. In Club Dread he plays an arrogant British tennis instructor who doesn't have a huge impact on the story. It's amazing to me that they took their most charismatic actor and made him an unlikable side character devoid of purpose in their second outing.

Beerfest splits the middle. See, he's their best actor, which means sometimes they need him for the heaviest lifting, not necessarily the core of the film. He plays Barry Badrinath, a one-time legend, current day prostitute who has one of the most complete arcs in the film. He's able to be sincerely goofy, way out of the constrains that we need for a protagonist, but his presence is still used to show he's a big deal whenever he's on screen. Beerfest is just the best one of these films, we'll hear this over and over again.

He has sort of a dual role in Salmon. He plays Nuts, who is an odd fellow, and then has a split personality, Zongo who is crazy. It does lead to my favourite scene in that movie. He's good at this kind of character, but it's also a deep hole to throw your best actor down, especially when he isn't sharing director duties in this movie.

Kevin Heffernan - Fat Idiot

Heffernan is an odd duck. He plays the most unlikable characters, but also tries his hand at some of the most sincere. Rod Farva in Super Troopers is obviously an American icon. Loud, obnoxious, impulsive, prideful, he exists as a whipping boy for the department and Heffernan plays him outrageously well, maybe even better in the sequel, just because it's all the more jarring.

He takes a big left turn in Club Dread, playing confident, suave, calm, and dignified. As you might imagine, it's a whole lot less funny and he doesn't quite pull it off. As I mentioned earlier, he's trying to be our gateway into this world, but he's also simultaneously distant from the audience (again, in order to increase the suspense that he's a suspect) and capable of feats that stretch the imagination. He's practically a Mary Sue. It's all sorts of ridiculous.

In Beerfest Heffernan plays Phil "Landfill" Krundell and his secret twin brother, Gill. He's more charismatic here, but he's also still a bully. It's like a toned down Farva, and it's exactly what the film needs to get everyone on the same page. He's also possibly the one most interested in Beerfest as personal redemption for his own drinking-related problems (it all sort of works out). Of course, SPOILER, having Phil die in the last quarter and to be replaced by Gill is a really cheap writing move, but it somehow works here. We get all the needed dramatic weight of Phil's death but then the movie can just keep moving forward with Gill. There are plenty of cheeky nods about it..

In Salmon he's our main dude. He also directed this movie, stepping in for Chandrasekhar. His character (and if you haven't figured it out, I haven't looked up any times. It's no coincidence that I remember everyone's name from Troopers and Beerfest and not the other two) is the restaurant manager who is married to the Champ's (Michael Clark Duncan) daughter and wacky shenanigans ensue. There's just not a lot there - Salmon purposely makes its characters pretty bland and it's rough.

Steve Lemme - Fun Dude

Lemme has one of the weirder wider ranges of the Lizard troupe. He plays Mac in Troopers who is just an agent of chaos and the most fun-loving member of the group. Then he switches to a Puerto Rican diving instructor for Club Dread who is a lothario with the ladies. He pulls it off well enough but it misses some of Lemme's energy. Also, like everyone else, it doesn't have enough weight to keep the movie going.

He makes his most significant left turn in Beerfest where he plays Charles Finklestein as a bookworm Jewish scientist, and the farthest from Mac he can possibly be. He seems to really relish these supporting character roles and he really gives it his all here. He is not Jewish in real life, and so it's a little awkward to be playing in Jewface. There are certainly some stereotypes at play but the rest of the characters support him and don't bring up his Jewish heritage in a negative way. It gets really hard to parse some of this stuff out, it's a bit of an Apu Simpsons thing, so make of that what you will. As a white Christian (not practicing) dude I'd rather leave its racism up to the people it's possibly racist against. I will go with what you decide, Jews of America.

I already mentioned his role in Salmon, it's completely uninteresting, he comes in very late into the movie, seems like he'll be a big deal, and never is. He's basically a failed actor because he had a nose job after he got his big break as a crime-sniffing detective (I may be thinking of The Fifth Sense) here. He has an arc....I guess? But it's forgettable and insignificant. As you can tell, I forget his character's name.

Returning as Mac in Super Troopers 2, he feels a lot more dialed back. This may be in reaction to Thorny, Farva, and even Rabbit getting a bit zanier. It's not too tame, but he doesn't hit the heights he did on the first film. Lemme's strength always seems to be the dynamic energy he brings to the roles, when that's stifled, he suffers.

Paul Soter - Everyman

Soter is an interesting situation. His role in Troopers is ostensibly to be the love interest, and he plays the kind of everyman well, the guy who can just sort of be normal amidst all the chaos around him. It's a tough character to pin down. He plays pranks like the other officers but isn't quite as confident, witty, or dynamic as anyone else. He is a great supporting character actor.

Club Dread sees him as Bill Paxton's drug addled nephew, and really amps up his douchery. After playing the nice guy in Troopers he is really unlikable here, akin to Chandrasekhar's Putnam. See, I remembered one name. Is Putnam right? He doesn't jibe well with anyone and it's just hard to root for him on any level.

This is reversed in Beerfest. He's the closest we get to a protagonist, as he's in the first scene and we are mostly following his journey. His goals and attitude is what drives the movie, but he is also able to get out of the way and let the other characters come in and be insane. He's a lot like his Troopers character here - just kind of a normal dude who wants people to be united and have fun. He's supreme glue.

When they discovered this it didn't last long. They split him up in Salmon and turned up his assholeness for the chef and his doofiness for the busboy, and gave him a love interest again, but he totally does not earn it by being a buffoon the whole time. It's pity love at best. It just gets real rough. He is not all that different in the second Super Troopers, although his relationship with Ursula is downplayed and as a result he has less to do. Soter does better when he's playing a nice guy, although to his credit, makes a great douchebag. It really depends on the type of movie he is in, and as we've mentioned, the teamwork movies just tend to work better.

Eric Stolhanske - The Young Psycho

They are all the same age, I don't know why they made Stolhanske Rabbit the rookie in Super Troopers. Maybe just because he looked the youngest and couldn't grow a moustache. But he plays wide-eyed and bushy tailed well. There is honestly not much to him in Club Dread, although he is SPOILER revealed to be the murderer, so there's that. However, they cloud his motivation and none of it really makes sense. Before that he was just kind of an asshole, again, just more fodder.

He's paired with Soter in Beerfest as the other Wolfhouse brother and he's the more cynical and hesitant one. He also gets knocked out for most of the finale as he has to get blind-stinking drunk to remember where the secret underground tournament was being held. He's still active, though, and brings some ferocious energy to the final moments. And gets an arc!

As usual, Salmon just goes in the opposite direction. He plays an unrepentant douche who is the worst character on screen at any given moment. He ends up losing the contest and gets the shit kicked out of him, which is fun, but also makes me wonder why he always ends up with these horrible roles where he's punished by the end of the film.

In the Troopers sequel he's Rabbit again, despite being much older. Apparently they never had another rookie. He is more the lead of this film and gets the love interest and it actually has some nice growth for him beyond a punchline. It makes it so that Lemme is the only actor who hasn't been the lead, but there is clearly a debate on the ensemble here.

The Conclusion and Future

So, Salmon cratered, but really the whole idea of this kind of movie fell apart. The Hangover had that "bunch of dudes hanging out" feel for sure, and that was monstrously huge, but it's also clear how quickly that fell apart. I wish I could say what the predominant comedy style of the 2010s was, but it was largely absent. You have the Jump Street and Neighbors movies - is it nostalgia? Making fun of the generational gap? It's really hard to say. But the latter half of the decade it felt like comedies petered out entirely. Everyone loved Game Night (2018), which really wasn't that great. What's the best we have? Blockers (2018)?

Anyway, this kind of studio formatted comedy was never going to work for these guys. They slipped past their prime without much of an exit strategy as to what do when they became too old for this kind of juvenile schtick. There's no dramatic background to fall back on here. I think in general we have moved away from these kind of team ensemble comedies to smaller knit escapades and buddy films. Apatow swept in at the tail end of Broken Lizard's run and made bank with the "friends hanging out" dynamic, but injected so much more realism instead of absurdism. It's just a very different flavor.

Broken Lizard really does feel like it's from a different era. I need to get into this more, but women are not treated well in these films, they are objects or rarely seen wives or girlfriends. Salmon arguably has the best female roles in that they are real people with real agency and desires. Club Dread features plenty of women, but they're completely unrealistic and conform to a lot of juvenile cool girl stereotypes. Troopers has Ursula, who is a good character in her own right, but it miserably fails any sort of Bechdel Test. Beerfest is largely devoid of any women character not used as a sex object or male motivator. Troopers 2 has some decent female roles and is maybe up there with Salmon. They've toned down that early 2000s R-rated boob obsessed comedy a bit.

Which brings us all to The Dukes of Hazzard. I actually watched this for the first time this year. If you haven't seen it, everything you think may be true about it is true. Knoxville and Sean William Scott are fun but don't have too much chemistry together. There really isn't much of a plot. It's a little hazardous when dealing with um....Southern Heritage. And Jessica Simpson exists as the most blissful sex object of all time. All the Lizards make cameos, Heffernan probably has the most significant, followed by Soter.

But why? Why does Hazzard fail where Beerfest succeeds? I think it's in the heart. Hazzard just feels empty and rushed, juvenile without a drop of sincerity. Beerfest is juvenile, but it's also self-aware enough to know that at the end of the day it's all about redemption and triumph through trauma. There just isn't more to Hazzard beyond Jessica Simpson's tits.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into Broken Lizard. It endlessly fascinates me how they can make two perfect movies, one okay sequel, and two pretty awful ones. I am curious to see what they churn out next, but I also do feel like their window is over. What do you think? Is it all racist?

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