½*/**** Image C- Sound C- Extras C
starring Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Stephen Lemme, Paul Soter
screenplay by Broken Lizard
directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
THE DUKES OF HAZZARD
ZERO STARS/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras C
starring Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, Jessica Simpson, Burt Reynolds
screenplay by John O'Brien
directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
by Walter Chaw The first film from what would become the comedy troupe Broken Lizard, Puddle Cruiser was completed and released in 1996 on a budget of a quarter of a million dollars and enjoys the dubious distinction of being irrefutable evidence that Jay Chandrasekhar and company are as funny now as they always were. Something about Chandrasekhar's Adam Corolla-on-quaaludes persona rubs me exactly the wrong way: it isn't the delivery, really, so much as the pervasive sense of smug superiority, not to mention the hostility and, while we're at it, the fact that he's just not funny. With Puddle Cruiser, he's created a film best described as a carbon copy of Noah Baumbach's debut pic Kicking and Screaming--the key difference between them that Chandrasekhar and co-writers Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Erik Stolhanske are woefully out of their element as scenarists, gag writers, actors, you name it. That Broken Lizard has attained a level of popularity now with garbage like Super Troopers, Club Dread, and The Dukes of Hazzard is astonishing, if not as astonishing as Chandrasekhar having helmed a handful of episodes from the brilliant "Arrested Development"'s first season. Goes to show that even a glib asshole can't ruin a gifted cast, pitch-perfect script, or ironclad premise.
It seems that Felix (Lemme, a dead ringer for Kicking and Screaming star Josh Hamilton) has the hots for Suzanne (Kayren Butler), who happens to be dating a guy saddled with a girl's name, Traci (Jamison Selby). Felix's wacky best friend Zach (Chandrasekhar) gives him wacky advice, his hostile fat friend (Heffernan) gives him like advice, Felix woos Suzanne successfully but withholds a vital secret whose revelation inevitably puts their relationship in jeopardy, and then there's a rugby game that goes on for a long time wherein Felix gets the ever-living shit beat out of him by Traci. All this may sound like a fine Animal House-style skylark, except that these characters are neither likeable nor, indeed, charismatic; when the straight lines are things like "It's a big pong out there, man, maybe you don't have tasty bait," and the punchline is, "Oh, I'll show you tasty bait!" (or when the set-pieces turn out to be that interminable rugby match and a scene at a restaurant with a hostile waiter and Felix and Suzanne acting in a bemused, shit-eating way towards him), it begins to resemble an exercise in deconstructionalism where you're invited to examine how it is that a film that blatantly piggybacks a long tradition of identical entertainments could fail this miserably. What galls the most is this pervasive sense when it comes to Broken Lizard of the cat that ate the canary. I don't know why they're so pleased with themselves--for whatever reason, they're successful now, and success breeds conceit no matter how baseless, but this is their debut picture.
With writing, acting, and directing (oh, and editing) clearly, woefully lacking, there's no trump in the hole to salvage this thing in the eleventh hour by magic, thus Puddle Cruiser--garnering a second look now that Chandrasekhar and his merry band of flatliners have carved a little niche in the naughty drugs and tits comedy sub-genre--makes one wonder how it started careers instead of nipping them in the bud. In the picture's defense, however, it's not nearly as leering and hateful as it could be thanks to a budget too low to convince women to take off their tops as they're "paneled" by these sub-Howard Sterns. The pacing is poor, the judgment is worse, and while Olivier couldn't sell this swill; "sports" comedy improv groups grinding through the material robotically is truly a sight to avoid. After this and Super Troopers premiered there, one wonders how hard it could possibly be to get something into Sundance.
The story grafted uncomfortably onto the revving noises and sirens of Chandrasekhar's abominable The Dukes of Hazzard, meanwhile, involves a nefarious plot to strip-mine Hazzard County, the irony of which, of course, is that 'strip-mine' is precisely what they've done to the already dishonourable series on which the film is based. It's a cheap Blues Brothers knock-off, with its last hour one extended chase sequence involving a jillion cops that climaxes in a courtroom; it's a spineless exploitation flick in that there's nothing the least bit shocking or titillating about its sedate jiggle and faux-feminism; and it's a sketch concept without any sort of meta-intelligence that manages to deflate the one or two sequences in it with the potential to be smart or edgy. When the Duke boys, cousins Bo (Seann William Scott) and Luke (Johnny Knoxville), drive to the big city of Atlanta and receive various hosannas and condemnations for the Confederate Flag lovingly decaled on the roof of their car The General Lee, for instance, it starts off as funny in a Brady Bunch Movie vein, but it's completely deflated once the guys, baffled by the attention they're gathering, climb out of the car, slap Ol' Dixie, and moan that they're gonna be real popular up here. Their PC innocence is pure, unfiltered, bullshit cowardice--the kind of garbage that either a studio demands or a focus group--or a screening audience, or Chandrasekhar, or any other moron or collection of morons--believes will let the movie have its cake and eat it, too. It comes from the school of thought that the best way to address racism with a topic as hot-button as the display of the Confederate flag (in the very state, Georgia, where the Confederate battle emblem was part of their state flag until 2003) is to condescend to it--to treat it as though it were a given that everyone's on the same page regarding what's actually a fairly complicated matter. It's a film that at its essence boasts hateful character pastiches who barely have the courtesy to like themselves. The only thing The Dukes of Hazzard has in abundance is hate.
Consider the example of the suddenly singularly humourless authority figure Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (M.C. Gainey), here tossing off a dismissive Jeb Bush/George Bush reference as though he weren't the resident Nazi in a redneck misadventure. The problem with The Dukes of Hazzard isn't that it's puerile or, more often, simply vile (many a film has made a virtue of these very things)--it's that not one figure stands as a defender of anything espoused in the picture. Familial loyalty among the cousins, their uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson), and another cousin, Daisy (poor Jessica Simpson), is a concept bandied about like the Hatfield/McCoy 'a-feudin over stills joke attached to subsistence Appalachians (there's more real pathos in family relationships in any five minutes of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than there is in the whole of The Dukes of Hazzard), and the whole thing with evil Governor Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds) wanting to steal poor farmers' plots of lands to sink a mine is another case of cartoon redneck-on-redneck violence. It's a film written by a snob about people to which he believes himself superior. Not that I particularly respect the Duke boys and their hotsie-totsie cuz ("I'm just going to have to shake my butt to get someone out of jail again!"), but if nobody has any respect for them, it leeches the picture of character consistency and, with it, any possibility to attach the most basic investment to anything that happens to them. The Dukes of Hazzard is as mean and rancorous as a white Soul Plane.
Those resisting serious discussion of the picture should at least know before going in that it's boring, unsexy, and unfunny, too. Of course, that hasn't stopped Warner from presenting an unrated version of The Dukes of Hazzard on a fairly-loaded DVD that offers the film in its original 'scope ratio of 2.35:1. The anamorphic video transfer is agile and handsome, reproducing this Hazzard County's green and dirt palette nicely. (Although Jessica Simpson's legs look a little yellowish in a few scenes, I'm faulting the make-up department as opposed to bad colour correction.) Chandrasekhar's failures are more an existential stain than a cosmetic one, and so they don't adversely affect the cinematography or the cacophonous DD 5.1 soundmix, either.
I'm frankly shocked that the never-shy Chandrasekhar and his cohorts failed to record a commentary track for the film. In its place, find a trunk-full of supplementals, starting with "Daisy Dukes: The Short Short Shorts" (5 mins.), a mockumentary for everyone except for Simpson, who doesn't appear to be in on the joke--which elicits a fair amount of sympathy for her. (She might not be that smart, but she doesn't deserve to be reminded of it ad nauseum.) The costume designers prattle on about trying out wardrobe prototypes on a Barbie and then using the Barbie to convince Simpson to show progressively more skin, and while I think you're supposed to laugh knowingly, the source of the humour is that they're objectifying this beautiful girl, naïve and inexperienced in the movie biz, by comparing her to Barbie. It's hideous to watch and anything nasty I have to say about Simpson, well, watch as it dries up and floats away. She tries--she never should have been cast in this thing, she's not an actress, but as we go through the bloopers and the deleted scenes, whenever she flubs a line, note in her a genuine chagrin at looking dumb, at wasting people's time and money. She's the least disingenuous thing in this piece of shit, and I'm holding onto her like a life preserver in a sea of self-satisfied sewage.
"The General Lee Lives" (5 mins.) is Chandrasekhar confirming that the titular '69 Charger is the entire reason for the film, the centre and soul of a franchise that shares its sensibility with EASY RIDER magazine's. The only thing better than a tricked-out muscle car is a tricked-out muscle car with a hot girl in a bikini on the hood, gimme five! Effects supervisors, cameramen, stunt drivers, and so on maintain how hard and rewarding their jobs are, while a demonstration of in-camera tricks surprises for a couple of seconds before that more familiar fatigue and disinterest sets in. They could've wasted a lot less time explaining "How to Launch a Muscle Car 175 Feet in 4 Seconds" (5 mins.) by saying "with a hydraulic catapult and a lot of 'want to.'" "The Hazards of Dukes" (15 mins.) is your standard making-of, recycling Chandrasekhar's observation that it's about first the car, then the shorts, then Boss Hogg, and then "that great thing that Southerners do: this rebellion against the cops with jokes." Uh huh. The cast chimes in with declarations that this is the best experience they've ever had on a film (which, for Knoxville, means that he doesn't cut his tongue with paper prior to getting hit in the nads with a dog bone)--followed by more about the stunts. Simpson's "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" (4 mins.) music video that caused so much upset in conservative households is causing some in mine, too, bless her little heart.
"Additional Scenes" collates twenty-five mind-destroying minutes of footage different from the upcoming "Deleted Scenes" somehow, including stuff that would have made the film more coherent, I guess, but also longer--let's call it a draw, okay? A thread concerning a wager and broken moonshine bottles is paid off, for instance, and there's more driving around, more Lynda Carter and Willie Nelson, more sirens and revving, and more Burt Reynolds. "Additional Unrated Scenes" (4 mins.) are more or less alternate takes of the boys at college, walking into a roomful of sorority lovelies smoking pot, applying body paint, etc., with an alternate ending that features the two non-Simpson principals topless on a bunk bed. "Bloopers" (5 mins.) are so unfunny that they're painful (and the usual suspects: flubbed lines, cutting up), while "Unrated Bloopers (5 mins.) sport another gratuitous tit shot and uncensored expletives. Insertion (huh huh) of the disc prompts skippable trailers for "The Dukes of Hazzard" television series, Batman Begins, Wedding Crashers, and "Seinfeld". Oh yeah, Easter Eggs: highlight Boss Hogg's ring on the bonus menu for a 2-minute featurette on, God, I don't know--wax statues of Bo and Luke going to a strip club on Bourbon Street? A trailer for the film itself rounds out the disc.
The relief over the lack of commentary on The Dukes of Hazzard is banished but good with the loaded Puddle Cruiser disc, which includes not one, but two feature-length yakkers. The first, pairing Chandrasekhar and Heffernan, is the expected back-patting and trainspotting in which every person in the film is related to someone as well as "a really funny guy" doing double-duty as a crewmember. I learned that Puddle Cruiser is based on Chandrasekhar's real-life experiences in college and his courtship of his then-girlfriend (the picture's costume designer) and that the whole thing cost 250g instead of the 200g attributed elsewhere. They crack jokes, I think--one or the other occasionally changes the inflection in his voice as the other dutifully chuckles. I wish I could say that there's an appreciable difference between this and the second yakker teaming Lemme, Soter, and Stolhanske, yet the second is, if possible, more useless and lifeless. Trailers for Club Dread and Super Troopers are on board along with a featurette--"Rodeo Clowns" (17 mins.)--that documents the boys passing out free passes for this thing to unsuspecting undergrads at Colgate University, in addition to some footage of Broken Lizard's very popular stage act. The 1.66:1 flat transfer is as ugly as the film itself is insipid, sporting sickly colour, grain, and black lines throughout. The lighting is inconsistent, something pointed out in the commentaries amidst excuses for the general cheapness of the project. In truth, I've seen lower-budget films that look four times as good. The DD 2.0 stereo audio is nothing special--if only the picture's ineptness were just that. Originally published: January 9, 2006.