It’s hard to explain the comedy style of “The Ten,” the new film from the people behind such subversive offerings as TV’s “The State” and “Stella” and the film “Wet Hot American Summer.” It would be easier if everyone had seen all of those things, because then I could just say, “It’s like that” and you would know what I meant.
But bizarre, post-modern comedy is rarely mainstream, and it (almost by definition) seldom attracts more than a handful of devoted fans. Sure, I think “Stella” (available on DVD) is one of the most inventive and funny TV series of the last decade. It was the work of David Wain, Michael Ian Black, and Michael Showalter, all of whom you’ve seen in other things, too, and Wain has directed and co-written (with Ken Marino, whom you’ll also recognize) “The Ten” as an extension of that absurd, surreal style of comedy. But again, without having seen “Stella,” that description tells you nothing.
So I’ll give it my best shot.
“The Ten” is a collection of comic vignettes, each related to a different one of the Ten Commandments. They are connected by a narrator, Jeff (Paul Rudd), who stands in front of a huge reproduction of the stone tablets and introduces each story. Jeff’s personal life occasionally bubbles over into his introductions, and his ongoing problems with his wife (Famke Janssen) eventually becomes the subject of the Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery chapter.
None of the stories is straightforward. Thou Shalt Not Steal, for example, stars famed shoplifter Winona Ryder, who steals a ventriloquist’s dummy. Why? Because she’s fallen in love with him. The dummy, I mean.
Not having any gods before God becomes a delightfully bizarre story about media fame, where a skydiver (Adam Brody) miraculously survives an accident only to learn that to move him from the place in the ground where he’s landed would kill him. So there he is, only his head, shoulders, an arm, and a leg sticking up out of the earth, and now he’s famous. He gets a sitcom (with the sets built around him, of course) and a catchphrase. The fame goes to his head, he burns out, yada yada. You know how it goes.
Coveting your neighbor’s stuff? Two next-door neighbors try to one-up each other after they each buy a new CAT-scan machine.
Taking the Lord’s name in vain? A virginal librarian (Gretchen Mol) vacations in Mexico, where she has a steamy romance with a local man named, um, Jesus (Justin Theroux).
You get the idea. The humor is both high and low, ranging from subtle satire to juvenile silliness. There is a fascination with words — “shutterbug” and “prestidigitation” come up — and a lot of characters and jokes that weave their way in and out of the stories. One section is animated. There are some musical numbers.
The cast list is impressive, too. Aside from those already mentioned, there are appearances by recognizable talents such as Oliver Platt, Rob Corddry, Jessica Alba, Bobby Cannavale, Liev Schreiber, and most of the cast of “Reno 911!”
The comedy itself is hit or miss — mostly hit for me, but humor is incredibly subjective, and this style of humor is particularly prone to the “either you like it or you don’t” effect. I suspect that even among people who like the film, there will be wildly differing opinions on which segments are funniest. And the one you think is the least amusing? Someone else will have thought it was the very definition of hilarity.
B (1 hr., 33 min.; )