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Non-Review Review: Between Two Ferns – The Movie

Between Two Ferns: The Movie offers an abstract take on cringe comedy.

The film is an adaptation of the cult web series, which finds Zach Galifianakis planning a fictionalised version of himself. The basic set-up involves Galifianakis inviting on a particularly famous guest, and the interview coming very quickly off the rails. It often descends into awkward silence, although occasionally exchanges get a little punchier. The whole premise is a riff on the absurdity and tedium of celebrity interviews, which very rarely result in something so skin-crawlingly embarrassing, but can still feel deeply uncomfortable for both audience and participants.

At a crossroads.

The Movie wraps a framing device around that set-up, expanding the world of its fictionalised Galifianakis by offering a broader context for the viral web interviews. In the world of the film, Galifianakis is a small-town public access television host whose work has been distributed online by a cocaine-addled Will Ferrell. Ferrell has exploited this “grotesque” as a twenty-first century freak show, which has become a runaway success according to the click counters that Ferrell keeps on his office wall or even carries around in his pocket at all times.

The Movie adopts a familiar enough plot structure for this kind of adventure. It escalates the stakes while providing a framework for episodic encounters. After one particularly disastrous interview, Ferrell sets Galifianakis a challenge. If Galifianakis can land ten celebrity interviews on a road trip, Ferrell will secure his top seller a Lifetime (not life-time) chat show slot. So Galifianakis sets off on a road trip in the style of David Brent: Life on the Road, with a band of misfits sidekicks for a collection of broad comedic set pieces that run the gamut from genuinely hilarious to disappointingly repetitive.

That sinking feeling.

Between Two Ferns was an internet phenomenon, which makes sense in the age of irony. Galifianakis managed to secure interviews with guests like Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and even Barack Obama. However, there was always an underlying tension within the basic format of the series. The whole point of the show was to play off the awkwardness of the celebrity interview as a concept, to offer an even more surrealist bent to moments like Bruce Willis describing the titling of the latest Die Hard sequel as “have a sandwich and let’s go shopping — then die hard”, John Cusack insisting he wasn’t in American Beauty or even “Sad Affleck.”

However, there has always been something a little unconvincing about how awkwardly staged Between Two Ferns is. So many of the show’s jokes build on the stand-off-ish-ness of the guests, juxtaposing their public personas with a more stilted and uncomfortable dynamic. However, the simple fact that the show’s entire brand of comedy is built around that awkwardness means that any of the celebrity guests are consciously playing into it. There has always been something uncomfortably “in on the joke” about the celebrities who sit down for Between Two Ferns, the series feeling a little too much like brand management.

Briezing through it.

(To pick an example from within the movie, it is telling that although many of the guests are willing to serve as stone-faced roast victims to Galifianakis’s inappropriate barbs and inquiries, both Benedict Cumberbatch and Brie Larson refuse to accept any real jokes – even biting sarcasm – about their involvement in gigantic blockbusters like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cumberbatch even makes a point to correct Galifianakis’ dismissal of Doctor Strange, to stress how much he enjoys working on those films. When so much of the basic premise involves awkward silence, the questions that elicit push-back are revealing.)

To the credit of writers Scott Aukerman and Zach Galifianakis, the pair understand that The Movie cannot simple be ten episodes of the show running back-to-back to pad out the feature-length run-time. One of the most surprising and refreshing things about The Movie is how little time it spends on the conventional interview format. Although the goal of ten celebrity interviews serves as a plot motivator – an aspirational goal for Galifianakis – the film understands that sometimes less is more. Some of the interview subjects are on-screen for less than a minute, and are subject to a single joke.

Another Lincoln the chain.

However, the most impressive innovation that The Movie brings to the web series format is the benefit of outside context. The framing device in The Movie is not particularly elaborate or creative. In fact, it often feels pretty standard, a functional piece of story structure upon which the cast and crew can hang a series of episodic adventures and jokes. However, it does allow for the interview sequences to become more than a series of jokes striking the same note. This intrusion of outside context allows The Movie to play with the set-up in a couple of interesting ways.

There are a handful of classic and familiar Between Two Ferns interviews which trade on the awkward dynamic of an unprepared celebrity confronting a woefully incompetent (and passive-aggressive) interviewer; the back-and-forth between Galifianakis and Cumberbatch is probably the best of the conventional set, with Cumberbatch becoming increasingly passive-aggressive (but still unfailingly polite) to his interviewer as the conversation progresses. However, the best celebrity cameos find ways to do something a bit more interesting with the interview template, to play a little bit with the expectations and rhythms.

Dont be a (Bene)dict.

For example, Galifianakis’ primary motivation of earning a prime-time late-night chat show lends a little spark and frizzle to an exchange with David Letterman. Letterman is a veteran chat show host, and so the power dynamic between the two shifts in interesting ways during the conversation. Letterman ruminates philosophically on the title of Between Two Ferns (“what if you get another fern?”) and offers his younger interlocutor some earnest advice that skirts the line between aggressive criticism and sincere encouragement.

Similarly, the framing device provides some extra context from a guest appearance by John Legend, who flips the script by approaching the interview with such unbridled enthusiasm that even Galifianakis is caught off-guard. None of these approaches to the basic concept are earth-shattering or revelatory, but they add some much-needed variety to the format of the series, and help to prevent The Movie from getting lost in a sea of cynical repetition. The Movie is just about playful enough to get away with what it’s doing.

Talking man-to-Letterman.

This also applies to the framing device. The Movie follows the path of least resistance in getting a cinematic adaptation of Between Two Ferns to work. The movie’s emphasis on the eccentricity of public access television owes a lot to cult comedies like Wayne’s World or U.H.F., and its road trip framing device provides a solid basis for a pretty paint-by-numbers character arc. The Movie feels more like a collection of broadly defined tropes than a single narrative. To pick an obvious example, the framing device suggests that the film is a documentary about Galifianakis, but that never really pays off in a meaningful way.

Many of the plot and character beats within The Movie are standard. Galifianakis’ arc in particular is highly predictable; The Movie presents its protagonist as a man who is searching for fame at any cost, so particular third act developments are inevitable. However, they feel pro forma for a movie like this, and completely unearned outside of being expected in a story like this. It is easy to imagine the story driving The Movie as something ordered by the film’s fictionalised version of Will Ferrell, something that exists primarily to justify the awkwardness contained therein.

Measuring up.

Again, there’s a sense in which The Movie is entirely aware of this, and the paint-by-numbers nature of the plot is itself a reflection of the show’s ironic sensibility; the vapid shallowness of the template that it follows is the point of itself. However, this isn’t entirely satisfying. It creates a level of cynical detachment from the film, which renders the whole exercise largely pointless. It is frustrating, particularly in the context of a film which works consistently well on a scene-by-scene basis. The film’s jokes land reasonably well on their own terms, but never seem in service of anything particularly engaging.

Then again, perhaps it feels entirely appropriate that a feature film adaptation of Between Two Ferns would struggle to engage with its subject.

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