28 June 2023

First Impressions: The Machine

You know, sometimes I really love this blog. The entire Internet is ablaze with The Flash (2023) and Dial of Destiny (2023), and maybe even Rise of the Beasts (2023) sort of, but what does Norwegian Morning Wood go out and see? Bert Kreischer's The Machine (2023), of course. And it's genuinely one of the best comedy films to come out in a long time, so let's get into this!

Bert Kreischer has been a quasi-popular comedian for a while, I'd say far from a household name, but his shirtless stand-up is certainly notable and memorable. His best bit, about becoming The Machine in Russia as a college exchange student and accidentally getting involved with the Russian Mafia is easily his most-well known routine. I can't remember another movie totally based on a single comedy routine, but the story is goofy and rich enough to earn such distinction.

This ends up being a pure Kreischer vehicle like we just don't see any more. It really exists purely to give him bits to riff on, and despite that it has a surprisingly amount of focus and pathos. The core conceit is continual flashbacks to the core story, featuring younger Bert, played by Jimmy Tatro, in some of the best casting of all time. It's all motivated by the current Russian mafia's search for a watch, which brings Bert on a present-day tour of his old trip in sort of an E-MC Hammered situation where he's trying to remember his time as a blacked out college student. It's an ingenious way to have this play out - we get all the regret of adult Bert and all the nonsense of young Bert.

It's uncompromising but not necessarily offensive, and it's bizarre that so many current comedians can't seem to find a way to balance all this. When Russia rules the world and we think differently about them, will we change our tune? They're the only country left no one has a problem making fun of anymore. And to be sure, it was filmed and cast mostly by Serbians. No love lost.

The cast is great, Bert does a serviceable job, and Mark Hamill as his dad is a relevation. It makes me regret that we really didn't get to see actor Mark Hamill for a very long time after Star Wars. There's just not a ton in his non-Joker, non-Luke filmography, except for recent works like Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) and Brigsby Bear (2017). He plays these old twisted weird dudes so well, it aches me to see what he could have been cranking out in the 90s if he could have escaped Luke's shadow. I think he literally had to age out of looking like Luke Skywalker to find his success.

He plays the overbearing dad well, even if the physical resemblance isn't there in the slightest. The only bit I didn't quite buy was his turn and then re-turn near the end, but the movie keeps pushing forward. Iva Babić as our main antagonist that sort of becomes our hero's main ally is also fantastic and somehow has the most coherent arc in the movie. She has a tough role balancing the ferocity necessary to be a female gangster in a very patriarchal society while stepping up to everyone around her, including when she gets shot and has to stay tough while recovering. It's fun to watch.

There are a lot of other stuff going on here. Irina has a few brothers, one is dispatched remarkably quickly (I did not pick up that it's in the trailer), and then our main bad brother emerges. It works because they're all antagonistic and we always have that momentum. The ending to all this was sublime as Irina does finally take control. SPOILER, I don't know, it's a comedy, it's going to end nice. Sort of.

That's because there is a fair share of violence here. It's mostly comedic, in the sense that decapitation can be comedic. But there's this happy-go-plucky vibe with these two dudes completely out of their element in the throes of the Russian mob, where things aren't so cute as they were back in the day when Bert was drunk and innocent.

I do really want to talk about the direction and editing, because this movie LOOKS amazing. In an era where mainstream movies seem obsessed with looking dingy and without contrast, this was one of the best shot and edited films I've seen outside of Spider-Verse in a long time. There are these amazing framing bits, panning and matching shots to convey flashbacks, and some genuinely Birdman (2014) - level editing here. It really stuck out to me. I can't think of another comedy movie where I left the theater being so impressed with the direction.

The director was Peter Atencio, who hasn't done much, but did do Key and Peele's Keanu (2016). That movie doesn't have as nearly as strong of a script, but I just watched it, mostly because I saw The Machine, and the direction holds up there, too. This dude needs more work and to join the underrated comedy directors' club like Steve Pink and Nicholas Stoller.

If there was one thing lacking, I would have liked to have seen it get into somehow even MORE cuckoo bananas territory. There is a bit where Kreischer lights his cigar on a live AK-47. We needed more of that energy. Just ultimate party energy. For a movie about 1997's number one partier, we didn't really get a classic party scene for the ages or for him to drink a beer and get super powers like Popeye. That's the biggest thing, just drink a beer and get super powers like Popeye.

I really enjoyed this, I have no idea if it's even in theaters anymore. It has also clearly had no cultural impact. Cult classic? I don't even know how films become cult classics anymore. I don't mean that as a whining old guy, I mean I literally don't know. Our culture is utterly fractured and it seems both immensely difficult for a film to stand out, but also we have all this groupthink that has anointed Game Night (2018) as the only good comedy movie in the past decade. We're in this weird realm of simultaneous fracture and homogeneity. Maybe they lead into each other? It's very dangerous when we lose our way and may easily cave to the whims of despots. Whomp-whomp. Go see THE MACHINE!

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