Review: Between Two Ferns: The Movie

by Andrew Parker

Yet another film to add to the pile of comedies that fail to capitalize upon or expand the short form sketches they’re spun off from, Between Two Ferns: The Movie is at its funniest when it sticks to what it does best. A tiresome and laboured attempt by director and co-writer Scott Aukerman and star Zach Galifianakis to blow their beloved Funny or Die produced take on the traditional talk show format up to feature length, Between Two Ferns: The Movie gets some light chuckles out of celebrity cameos popping up to engage in a cringe-worthy battle of wits with the star, but everything that spaces out these moments is dead on arrival. When critics lamented the glut of half-assed movies from the 90s and early 2000s that were based on Saturday Night Live characters, Between Two Ferns: The Movie is exactly the kind of project that would’ve elicited such comparisons. In that respect, this one is a bit of a throwback, but unlike some of those unjustly maligned films of the past, Between Two Ferns: The Movie isn’t good at all. It’s also one that arrives at least five years too late for it to still be relevant.

For the uninitiated, Between Two Ferns is a sketch created by Aukerman and Galifianakis where the latter would use his trademark nonplussed, oblivious, and boorish persona to play himself as a public access television talk show host. He inexplicably gets some A-list talents to stop by, they sit between a couple of potted plants, and Galifianakis asks them a bunch of questions that feel either ignorant or like they’re straight out of a celebrity roast. The joy in these sketches comes from watching the guests squirm, barely able to hide the contempt they have for Galifianakis and his idiotic line of questioning. Some get angry. Some try to play along. Some try to flip the script on Galifianakis.

The overall premise – which is so flimsy and poorly integrated that I would hesitate to even call it a plot – is that Zach has screwed up so badly with both his bosses at his Flinch, North Carolina studios and Funny or Die founder Will Ferrell (who portrays himself as a greedy cokehead, in a turn that’s barely better than the one he gives this week in James Franco’s disastrous Zeroville) that he has to take his show on the road. Ferrell demands ten new episodes of Between Two Ferns, and in exchange he’ll give Galifianakis a new talk show on network television. Zach and his “right hand woman” (Laura Lapkus, a fine and talented addition who has very little to do here) bring their crew on the road, trying to bank as many awkward celebrity interviews as possible.

To say what celebrities show up to match wits with Galifianakis would be to ruin the only punchlines to be found in Between Two Ferns: The Movie. If you want that spoiled, you can just head on over to the film’s IMDB page for a full list of cameos or watch the trailer, but the main joy of this feature film is wondering who’s going to pop up next and what they’re going to do. An up and coming actress gets one of the biggest laughs of the movie with a deadpan observation after Zach mistakes one of her movies for a late 90s-alt rock band. A big name actor is willing to paint himself as someone incapable of turning down any role that comes his way, and Galifianakis scorches his ego for it. Another performer proudly shows off a painting of La Croix cans that he thinks was done by Warhol. A prominent musician is excited to come on the show, unaware that Zach has slept with his wife. These are funny moments, but they could easily work as sketches on their own terms and are in no way strong enough to build an entire movie around them.

The lazy conceit behind Between Two Ferns: The Movie is the well-worn “backstage documentary” chestnut, with a couple of film school students following Zach and his crew around for the ride. It’s an uninspired concept for an uninspired, fictional talk show, which is probably part of the joke Aukerman and Galifianakis are trying to make, but absolutely nothing is being done with it. Between Two Ferns: The Movie is so keen on coming up with new sketches that it forgets about building up the film’s only binding agent. There’s no character development, no drama, and whenever Galifianakis isn’t sparring with a guest, there aren’t any laughs. There isn’t even much of an effort being made to create laughs, with nearly every gag that doesn’t take place within the sketch dying a horrific, silent, flop-sweat drenched death.

To his credit, Galifianakis is trying to push the character to another level, even if the film built around him isn’t doing anyone any favours. Between Two Ferns: The Movie is also yet another movie about an asshole learning to be less of a jerk, and while the fictional Galifianakis doesn’t learn many lessons over the course of the story, there’s a sense that the experience has still changed this boor for the better. Towards the end, Galifianakis starts abandoning the character’s schtick slightly and injecting some genuine charm into his performance. It’s too little, too late into a film that already feels like it’s wheezing to hit all of its already well skewered targets and pass out as soon as it crosses the 80 minute mark.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie would be better served if it were chopped up and made into a dozen sketches. It’s current form in no way improves upon the original formula, and the jokes get tiresome very quickly. And much like the 90s comedies it takes some inspiration from, a lot of the funniest moments are found in the outtakes and deleted scenes that are shown during the credits. It’s somewhat worth sticking around until that point, but it doesn’t make Between Two Ferns: The Movie any more fulfilling to sit through. Like watching a bunch of YouTube videos for 80 minute, you’ll know you’ve done nothing more than waste a bunch of time.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, September 20, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Between Two Ferns: The Movie:

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