Peter Farrelly’s 'Movie 43': The Return (or the End) of the Comedy Anthology?

What a weird time for the anthology film to be making a comeback. That is, in some ways it makes sense. The chopped-up attention spans of a YouTube-clip world are perhaps better suited for a string of bite-size mini-movies rather than an extended storyline (unless that extended storyline involves, say, giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters). Last year’s blood-soaked, boob-obsessed horror anthology V/H/S showed that there may be more appetite for this sort of thing right now; it certainly benefitted from not having to try to get you to care about any of its lunkhead characters.

But at the same time, the anthology film has never really been a good fit for any particular time. By their very nature, they are erratic. Even the few high-end takes that have made a dent on the larger cinematic consciousness—the opera-inspired Aria, the Scorsese/Coppola/Allen troika of New York Stories—are hit and miss at best.

Despite an eye-popping cast—Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, Common, Naomi Watts, Dennis Quaid, Terrence Howard, Richard Gere, Anna Faris, Halle Berry, seriously, it goes on like this for a while—Movie 43 (20th Century Fox DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) is almost all miss. Again, producer/co-director Peter Farrelly is working from a reasonable premise: If folks are willing to flock to watch short videos on Funny or Die, then a sketch-comedy movie packed with top comedy types and tons of slumming stars should work.

The big revelation/reminder Movie 43 provides is that good actors are better at comedy than bad actors. Even within segments, this is painfully evident. In the wraparound segment that encompasses all the other bits, Greg Kinnear handles himself with aplomb as a casual-Friday studio exec. Quaid, on the other hand, can’t find the funny with a handle as an unhinged producer pitching the movie we’re watching. (Yeah, exactly.) And Common makes Quaid look like Will Ferrell. Hugh Jackman? Sorta almost funny as a guy with a pair of testicles dangling from his throat. (Yeah, exactly.) Is Kate Winslet funnier as his blind date? Not exactly, but she isn’t painful to watch.

Farrelly directed only the wraparound, but the gross-out R-rated humor he helped revive in the ’90s dominates. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but with execution so uneven, the juvenile jests get to be a bit much. Conjugal scat play? Foul-mouthed leprechauns? A masturbating cartoon cat? Yeah, exactly. And a sequence centering around the iBabe, a music player embedded in the flat stomach of a naked model is, well, moving on.

Two things make Movie 43 worth mentioning at this length. One is Elizabeth Banks, who tackles the thankless task of starring in the masturbating-cartoon-cat segment, but also directs the “Middleschool Date” short, which is one of the few bits here to feature recognizable human beings. Long one of the funniest actresses in Hollywood, her turn behind the camera for a few minutes here hints at larger potential for the feeble state of film comedy. And then there’s “Veronica,” a wonderfully surreal segment written by Matthew Alec Portnoy and directed by Griffin Dunne (yeah, that guy) that rips the dim-witted suck wide open with a tight, tart supermarket showdown between exes played by Stone (who’s great) and Kieran Culkin. It’s a thing of beauty, and if you search “movie 43 veronica” on YouTube, you don’t have to sit through all this to watch it.

Farrelly no doubt had 1977 anthology film The Kentucky Fried Movie in mind as inspiration. A modest hit in its time and a staple of the midnight-movie circuit for years thereafter, it provided one of the models for the sharp, swift-moving comedy anthology film—a model few successfully imitated, it’s true. The release of Movie 43 seems to have inspired Shout Factory to re-release KFM on Blu-ray.

It isn’t a true anthology film: John Landis, who went on to Animal House next, directed; Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, who would go on to make Airplane!, wrote the screenplay. But it nonetheless establishes the familiar rapid channel-switching between fake news, sketches, fake commercials, more sketches, fake trailers, and so on. While Landis inserted some appealingly random meta moments (“Big Jim Slade!”), it’s easier to see how funny it must have been once than to find genuine laughs in it now. A Fistful of Yen, the movie-within-a-movie kung-fu parody that takes up much of the film’s center, seems interminable now. As gross-out contemporary as some of the humor is, much of it is wildly dated (e.g., teenagers using combs). Again, one bit stands out: a fake trailer for an exploitation flick called Catholic High School Girls in Trouble. A feverish quick-cut burst of crassness, pitched at the kind of unrelenting pace that made Airplane! fly, it thrusts heaps of boobs in your face, and as many dumb jokes as it can fit, and then it’s done. Sadly, it’s not on YouTube.

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