I would say that “Strange Wilderness” tries to be stupid and succeeds at it, except that I don’t think anyone involved really “tried” very hard to do anything. This is a lazy film, lazily written, lazily edited, lazily released. Its final scene ends with an outtake, a winking acknowledgement that the plot doesn’t matter and who cares how it resolves itself anyway?
It’s hard to hate a movie as congenial and unassuming as this one, and it made me laugh a few times. Of course, a few laughs spread over an entire film, even one as short as this, is not a good ratio, and when I wasn’t laughing I was usually rolling my eyes. You should not take this review as a recommendation. All it means is that the flick isn’t aggressively, actively bad. It has the benign kind of badness.
It is a stoner comedy, in the sense that the central characters are potheads, and also that being high is probably a prerequisite for enjoying its absurd, juvenile humor. Steve Zahn (whose manner was made for stoner comedies) stars as Peter Gaulke, son of a beloved TV nature-show host who has inherited his dad’s program, “Strange Wilderness,” even though he has no idea what he’s doing. Aided by his similarly incompetent friends, Peter has turned the show into a sloppy, irresponsible mess, with narration like “Monkeys make up over 80 percent of the world’s monkey population.”
Under the threat of cancellation by the TV station manager (Jeff Garlin), Peter finds a way to make history: by finding the real Bigfoot in Ecuador. An old friend of his father’s (Joe Don Baker) has a map that he says will lead the way. Only trouble is, a competing nature-show host (Harry Hamlin) is already hot on the trail.
The story is loose, almost surreally so, with numerous characters and tangents that have no purpose in the film. For example, Ernest Borgnine plays Peter’s regular cameraman, only to recuse himself from the Ecuador trip and send his nephew (Justin Long) instead. So why have the Borgnine character in the first place? Ditto Robert Patrick as a legendary backwoods tracker, appearing for a couple scenes then disappearing again. And why is comedian Blake Clark here as yet another nature expert? You get the feeling the filmmakers just wanted to give their friends something to do.
In the core group, Peter is accompanied by sound man Fred Wolf (Allen Covert), inexperienced animal handler Whitaker (Kevin Heffernan), duties-undefined Cooker (Jonah Hill, doing a funny voice for some reason), the aforementioned replacement cameraman, and Cheryl (Ashley Scott), a beautiful travel liaison. It is a testament to the film’s stoner mentality that Cheryl does not become a love interest for Peter. She’s just there for the guys to halfheartedly ogle while giggling about someone’s name being “Dick.”
The film was written by Fred Wolf and Peter Gaulke (who named two characters after themselves) and directed by Wolf, a longtime Adam Sandler cohort. Its easy-going attitude is both a blessing and a curse: While it’s too pleasant to be irritating, it’s also too lackadaisical to be truly funny. Real comedy takes effort, and no one involved with this project was interested in expending any. Unless you can smoke weed in a movie theater without being caught, I suggest you wait until it’s on DVD. Watching it sober, as I did, will be fruitless.
C- (1 hr., 27 min.; )