Dir. Scott Aukerman; Zach Galifianakis, Will Ferrell, Lauren Lapkus
[2 out of 4 stars]
Rare is the TV-series-to-film adaptation that successfully captures both the essence of the original show and achieves a continuous narrative worthy of ninety minutes. Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019), a clever attempt to take Zach Galifianakis’s popular internet segment series to the big(ish) screen, almost achieves this goal. Between Two Ferns begins in its familiar, off-kilter madness, parades a star-studded cast – including Jon Hamm, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Peter Dinklage, Matthew McConaughey, and (many) others – across its minimalist set, and then runs out of comedic steam in a dull third act. This is a film that didn’t need to be made, and the creators seem to have known that.
Before the Netflix adaptation was the original show, Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis (2008-), which was immensely popular for its iconoclastic take on the tradition of the Letterman-style Late Show. In short segments, Galifianakis sat down with the likes of Bradley Cooper and Steve Carrell and put questions to them that nobody else would dare. Galifianakis plays a buffoon in front of the camera; sitting next to Keanu Reeves, who has just said that he does, in fact, research his roles, Galifianakis asks a bold follow-up: “Have you ever considered researching a character that has taken acting classes?” It’s this kind of horrifyingly awkward moment that gained Galifianakis millions of online views, and eventually earned him a spot interviewing President Barack Obama. In the film, Will Ferrell, playing Galifinakis’s producer, provides a momentary glimpse into reality: “His show’s success is absolutely predicated on the fact that people are laughing at him, not with him.” It was always a source of comedy in the tension that nobody could quite tell if the interviewees were in on the joke.
Between Two Ferns tells the backstory of Galifianakis’s show in a mockumentary style that recalls some of the faux “making-of” sequences from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) or Christopher Guest’s films. Beginning in Flinch, North Carolina, we see Galifianakis shooting take after take of the same simple opening scene. But the joke continues “off-screen” in The Movie: here, it is revealed that Galifianakis’s stage persona is no persona, he’s really just an awkward loser who doesn’t realize the impropriety of asking Benedict Cumberbatch if his British accent distracts from how bad an actor he is. These moments are held loosely together by an improbable plot. Galifianakis is working for a cocaine-addicted Ferrell, who demands more episodes for his online comedy empire. Following Ferrell’s orders, the Between Two Ferns team takes to the road in pursuit of celebrities to interview in order to create 10 new episodes of the show. In increasingly obscure locations, they interview a host of celebrities and slowly run out of funds.
Between Two Ferns falters in the third act, losing much of its sense of timing. The interview sequences grow further apart, leaving more time for reflection on just how boring the overarching structure is. Shifting into another idiot-on-a-road-trip plot, the film starts taking its cues from Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Dumb and Dumber (1994), Borat (2006), and Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007). The same gaffes are replayed here, with little creative effort: driving across the country, Galifianakis gets distracted and loses control of the car and swerves off the road to avoid an oncoming car. Eventually they make it to the promised land, where Galifianakis gets a new set and a new identity. But after making it in Hollywood, the team decides they were having more fun back in North Carolina.
Galifianakis shines in the interview segments, but after an amusing beginning, the rest of the “off-screen” plot drags. The interviews are all funny, and the amount of celebrity screentime is impressionable. One of the better moments of the film is when Galifianakis interviews David Letterman and accuses the comedy giant of stealing the idea for his Netflix special, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction (2018-), from Between Two Ferns. If there’s anything the film does brilliantly, it’s these painfully funny moments (and I mean that almost literally) which show how many levels of influence are at work in the show. The film is based on a sort of communal confusion, best summarized in a scene when Galifianakis approaches Chrissy Teigen in a bar. She says she loves how awkward he is and how much his guests obviously hate being there, and Galifianakis softly replies: “That’s not really what I’m going for.” As a full-length film, Between Two Ferns is entirely forgettable. Woven into the clichéd road-trip narrative are a few genuinely amusing moments, but as a whole, it’s somehow lesser than the sum of its parts. There are more celebrity guest appearances than I care to list, and they all start to blend together, which suggests that the original show’s brevity was part of its success. If you’re a die-hard Between Two Ferns fan looking for more from Galifinakis, watch clips of the film on YouTube instead. You really won’t miss anything if you don’t see the film.