I’m not a big fan of bandwagons. Two decades’ worth of trend-focused American pop culture has burned through whatever circuits I once had in my brain that correspond with the fad-lust of your standard-issue human. Next Big Things just make me twitchy and irritable. (And no, it’s not because I’m getting older. I’m still hip. Really.)
But see, there’s a problem: As little as I like the idea of Vince Vaughn and company jumping on the record-a-comedy-tour-and-release-it-commercially bandwagon, by voicing that same disappointment, I’m dangerously close to jumping on the anti-Vince Vaughn bandwagon. (You know the one: “Vince Vaughn plays the same guy in every movie.” “Vince Vaughn exploits solid casts to make himself seem better.” “Vince Vaughn goes after Brad Pitt’s sloppy seconds, which is a terrible thing to say, as Jennifer Aniston is a beautiful woman, a talented actress, and should totally send her phone number to me c/o Metro Pulse, Knoxville, Tenn.”) It’s every critic’s nightmare—my conflicting aversions have painted me into a corner, and the only way to salvage my credibility is to abandon my pessimism and judge the film on its merits.
Giving this one a chance ultimately doesn’t pay off, though. Vaughn bills his Wild West Comedy Show as a documentary about a comedy-themed revival of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows (obviously), but aside from a few passing similarities, the theme comes up empty. There’s just nothing particularly wild or western about the show. Performing 30 dates in 30 cities might be a maverick concept, but it’s definitely not the sole province of the cowboy. Another part of the source material may have a more tied-together version of the live show, but if that part exists, it didn’t make it beyond the cutting room floor. Without a theme more cohesive and more original than the one it has, nothing differentiates Wild West from its predecessors. “Why,” I kept asking myself, “is this a feature film when it would have made perfect sense as a Comedy Central special?” As intelligent and handsome as I am, I couldn’t come up with an answer.
To be a standout entry in the budding ensemble-cast comedy tour documentary genre (a la The Original Kings of Comedy), Wild West needs two things: stellar on-stage performances, and something more than the regular old backstage hijinks. Unfortunately, it comes up short on both counts. All of Vaughn’s comedians (Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, and Sebastian Maniscalco) are solid performers, but none of them have the kind of consistent, rapid-fire act that would work in the limited time they’re given. They’re likable, but they would have been better served by more stage time in the film’s final cut. Maybe that’s the point—giving the audience a taste and hoping they’ll pay more for the real thing sounds good on paper. But isn’t that why I paid $9 at the door?
To its credit, someone on Wild West’s production team recognized the importance of a fleshed-out offstage element—Wild West is stuffed with candid shots, interviews, and post-show reactions. They also shot a few benefit shows immediately following Hurricane Katrina; but even this doesn’t add the life Wild West desperately needs. I know we’re dealing with a group of performers who, talented though they may be, aren’t yet household names, but the abundance of non-comedy material feels overblown and unnecessarily self-serving. Given the ratio of comedy to non-comedy, Wild West definitely could have been scaled back in favor of beefing up what should have spoken for itself: the anemic comedic element.
Despite the depressing sameness of the entries so far, I’m sure that we lucky patrons will be seeing even more of these concert-tour movies. It’s a finicky market, studios are demanding less risk from their productions, and there’s really nothing less risky than recording something that would happen anyway. Someone out there could turn the whole idea on its ear and make it work, and I’d like nothing more than that. But Wild West isn’t the one to do it.