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In the end credit bloopers, Paul Rudd is asked “What advice do you have to other young actors who want to hide their Jewishness?” and he laughs hysterically. It’s only after the film ends that the audience gets what it wants from Between Two Ferns: The Movie.
The premise of the original Funny Or Die webseries is simple: trap well-known celebrities on a low-rent set and say whatever it takes to make them uncomfortable. Simple but very effective. Between Two Ferns (the series) is a hilarious, cringe-inducing showcase of host Zach Galifianakis’ talents as an insult comic and the second-best parody talk show around (first is The Eric Andre Show). A more unlikely springboard for a feature-length story would be hard to find but this is the Netflix Age. Anything can be green-lit.
The film takes us behind the scenes of the crummy public access television station where Galifianakis shoots the series with the help of his cheery assistant Carol, cameraman/nemesis Cam and annoying assistant Boom Boom. A glut of famous faces, from Keanu Reeves to Chance the Rapper, turn up to subject themselves to Galifianakis’ ridiculous, usually insulting questions. He doesn’t mean to hit these celebrities in tender spots, the movie says, he’s just a bit of an idiot.
After a mishap involving Matthew McConaughey and a leaky pipe, Funny or Die founder Will Ferrell sends our host on a road trip to record ten episodes of the show in two weeks. In return, he’ll give Zach his own late night talk show. Having a proper, respectable show has always been a dream for Zach, who wants people to be laughing with him for a change since, as Ferrell explains, the success of Between Two Ferns is “predicated on the fact that people are laughing at him”.
Anyone who has watched the webseries knows that’s a total lie. We’re not laughing at Galifianakis, or even at the celebrities he eviscerates. The fun comes from seeing them battle to save face, to maintain the good humour and politeness that’s been drilled into them through years in the spotlight. And the joy comes from seeing them fail and revealing themselves to be, you know, human.
But the film, to its detriment, takes Ferrell’s perspective and makes Galifianakis the butt of the joke. In his bumbling journey across America, he will insult Brie Larson, get maced by John Legend and plot to steal Faberge eggs from Peter Dinklage.
It could be argued that focusing on his character was the only way to make a cohesive narrative out of a story-less webseries but it’s hard to justify compromising the series’ strengths for the sake of narrative when the movie doesn’t work hard enough to sell that narrative. Galifianakis is too unspecifically stupid for the film to be effective as a character piece and the need to cram so many celebrities into 82 minutes (there are tons I haven’t mentioned) means we don’t get much time to learn about Zach’s crew or their reasons for loving/hating him.
Nowhere is the fitting of the movie square peg into the webseries round hole more damaging than in the interviews themselves. Instead of celebrities squirming under Zach’s questions, they’re now openly confrontational with him, and that’s no fun. He asks Matthew McConaughey “Who do you think will accidentally starve themselves to death first: you or Christian Bale?”. We see a smile creep onto McConaughey’s face before we hard cut to him looking pissed. You want to see that genuine reaction but the film needs to stick to the script. Forget the script. What makes the webseries work is not something you can script. So if you’re a fan of the show, skip to the bloopers.