The comedy duo's feature film will make you squirm in your seat. That's the point.
The small screen, where the cult-comic duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have resided for almost a decade now, would have been big enough. A television allows the viewer to be otherwise occupied while watching. But movies command attention. The film is the only thing going on in the cinema. If what's playing terrifies or disgusts you, there is no escape, nowhere to avert your eyes. In the darkness, you are confined to the cushiony seat that cradles you into a state of unselfconsciousness, as your eyes start to water from the screen's brightness and popcorn butter dribbles down your chin. Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, in theaters this Friday, features its creators' characteristic array of cringe-worthy gags and goons, but none more disturbed than those in the audience with the enlightened perversity to willingly be held captive to this film.
Randomness and bizarre gross-outs are at the core of Tim and Eric's brand of comedy, which was on display during the three-year run of Cartoon Network's Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! But theirs is not mere toilet humor. It is simultaneously grotesque and humane: in distorting the picture of how we are, the audience is repulsed. Billion Dollar Movie begins with an ad-within-a-film, and Jeff Goldblum as the spokesperson for Schlaaang movie theater seats. "I bet you're just getting comfortable in your own Schlaaang Super Seat" (for which, says the closed-captioning, your particular theater is unfortunately not equipped). Here's how it works: "First, several needles are connected to a vein in your arm. Chemicals are then introduced to synchronize your emotions with the movie. Next, air tubes are inserted into the nasal cavity to guide you into a natural breathing pattern..." There is no escape. Once the model-sitter's legs have been strapped into stirrups, and viewers "stare directly into the screen for Super Seat calibration," the film-within-the-film can finally start.
"We cast some people that—we like to say—put a headshot up online and forgot about it, maybe"
The "real" movie follows from there. Tim and Eric must pay back cartoonishly furious studio heads for the $1 billion they blew on a failed attempt at making a Johnny Depp flick (they accidentally used a Depp look-alike, hired a nincompoop guru, etc). As the head producer says, significantly, "What the fuck was that?" We are more fortunate, though, because Tim and Eric periodically interrupt themselves to further subvert the already-absurd film with corporate info-video parody "Understand Your Movie" interludes.
Understanding Tim and Eric may not be worth your time. When Billion Dollar Movie premiered at Sundance, about a third of the audience walked out by the end. But if Tim and Eric's appeal is a matter of taste, it also merits closer consideration than the "stoner comedy" label it is given, often too casually. They are like the used-toilet-paper store in the mall they plan to save to earn back their billion: "a gourmet operation."
In the first part of the film, Tim and Eric appear as L.A. boy caricatures. Eric Wareheim has a diamond-studded goatee and purple sunglasses presumably stolen 12 years ago from an *NSYNC music video shoot. Tim Heidecker has false teeth, a fake tan, and lip gloss that doesn't match either. When their screening flops, the pair head out to (where else?) the Circus Disco and (what else?) cut an arm off. But we then see them transform. To become mall-saving P.R. men, they change their attitudes and their looks in a montage of the heartwarming-absurd with the flavor of bromance-farce, as they trim each other's hair in the bathtub and remove their outlandish accessories. A box arrives at the door marked "Ken Dugard's Men's Shirts and Khakis." They dress one other in muted-colored attire as the delivery man looks on (another mirror to the audience), initially with cheery approval, which then descends into boredom and discomfort.
Witnessing this makeover, we should remember the master. In the 1970's the artist Cindy Sherman set off a celebrated career by turning herself into off-kilter characters and snapping photographs of these images. On view in a retrospective of her work open now at the Museum of Modern Art are her beloved Film Stills (not from movies, just disconnected shots), a collection of grotesque pictures with mangled body parts and barf-art, creepy clowns, as well as L.A. caricatures of her own—any of whom could be cast in Tim and Eric's TV show. In fact, Sherman conceived of that collection as women who had tried, and failed, to make it in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Tim and Eric told fans at Sundance, "We cast some legitimate character actors, as you saw, some real funny comedians, and then some people that—we like to say—put a headshot up online and forgot about it, maybe. We dig through to the bottom of the pile and find them, then give them lots of lines."
Tim and Eric use a strategy similar to Sherman's humor. Of course, she is playing to a different crowd, and in still frames even garishly made-up figures can have grace and dignity when they silently demure for a photograph. The delicate mystery comes from exposing these characters: While Sherman is playing a part, they are not. But what if her Film Stills moved and spoke? Perhaps they would be as jarringly silly as a Tim and Eric reel.
Still, Tim and Eric never quite allow the characters they portray (who are, purportedly, themselves) to completely take over, and so the viewer is always watching the comedians wiggle around inside their costumes. The same goes for the stars—Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Zach Galifianakis, Goldblum—who time and again come to join the gang. There is no mystery. We see exactly who is playing whom.
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But then there are those oddballs—the ones whose headshots Tim and Eric happily dug up on the internet—who are in a sense both the funniest and most sympathetic. The cringe-worthiest moments may not truly be the penis piercing or the you'll-never-be-the-same "Shrim" sequence, but when the audience knowingly laughs with the assumption that a character-actor is unknowingly being mocked. These actors—listed in the credits either as having played themselves or by nameless monikers (i.e. Shrim Gods)—seem to know that they are funny but do not know why. And that is precisely what makes them hilarious, at least to Tim and Eric's tastes. When Vanity Fair asked the duo about this a few years ago, they explained, "We try to present these people in their pure form, just doing what they do," adding of one of their lampoonable fixtures, "He's not putting on an act. We tend to elevate who he is for the show and create a more heightened absurd character out of it, but it's based on his real personality."
Billion Dollar Movie, with a more concrete narrative structure than Tim and Eric's TV comedy typically allows, elaborates on the heightened absurdity of movies themselves. It all ends as it began, as a screening—though this time Tim and Eric are triumphant: "We did it buddy. We really did it." They look at the camera. The lights come up in the movie theater. They dance as balloons flutter from above. It's all over. You can go now.