David Wain's The Ten, a mildly heretical iteration of Mel Brooks or Monty Python style satire, strains very hard to find shock value though it is less renegade than nasty and somewhat repugnant. Aside from two standout contributions, this scattershot effort to illustrate, in a comic vernacular, the Ten Commandments falls largely between the flat and the risible.
Wain and his writing partner, actor Ken Marino, previously collaborated on Wet Hot American Summer, a similarly breezy though more coherent and interesting homage to late 1970s summer youth comedies like Meatballs. Their inspiration here is the television comedy sketch format, a staple of programs from Saturday Night Live, David Letterman to their own Comedy Central cable program Stella.
They introduce some funny, clever ideas, but they lack the creativity and imagination to sustain the work for its 93-minute running time.
ThinkFilm acquired the rights to the Sundance Midnight work for a reported $4.5m, and the company has announced a summer release. Comparable titles such as Wet Hot American Summer or Beer Fest had little traction in theatrical revenues.
The filmmakers have assembled an imposing cast that should help it achieve some recognition in the marketplace. This is likely to do quick fade out theatrically and enjoy far healthier returns on DVD and cable. Internationally, the title is probably restricted solely to television and video.
The stories are narrated by Paul Rudd, playing a swaggering, somewhat preening on camera host whose own story is fractured by the two women he is caught between, his demanding wife (Janssen) and hysterical young lover (Alba). His primary prop are the two massive stone tablets that contain the sacred text.
The storytelling is episodic and straightforward, with characters introduced in one episode appearing in subsequent stories. It allows for some continuity and easy identification though the filmmakers never capitalise on the fluid sketch format to try different stylistic and formal ideas, except for one section that deploys some Ralph Bakshi style animation to less than impressive effect.
From the start, the tone is jerky, rude and nasty. Only two of the episodes have any real sting. Gretchen Mol plays a 35-year-old virginal librarian whose immersion in learning Spanish has intoxicating ramifications when she meets a handsome, dashing Latin lover (Theroux) on a vacation to Mexico. This is the only episode in which the pay off acquires a rude, disturbing sense of social disruption, and the humour is couched in social and political hypocrisy rather than personal humiliation.
The only other piece that achieves a level of outrageous, dark humour involves Winona Ryder (still in career rehabilitation form) pulling out all the stops as a sexually-frustrated woman who becomes erotically fixated on a ventriloquist's dummy. The straight man, played by the excellent stand up comedian and puppeteer Rob Corddry, is hilarious. Most impressive Ryder eviscerates her own Hollywood reputation as a man killer in her fiendish pursuit of satisfaction and sexual domination. The sketch has a degree of desperation, even madness that the balance of the work never comes close to approximating.
Too much of the other panels are flat, insipid or just cruel, the most staggeringly unfunny episode inveighing against coveting thy neighbor's wife is turned into an excruciatingly tasteless joke about prison rape. The recurrent problem is the humour is about personal violation and degradation rather than attacking social mores and political conformity.
Technically the work leaves a lot to the imagination. Yaron Orbach's cinematography is flat and overlit, designed like television. The Ten is not blasphemous, or jolting or dangerous. It is repetitive and largely unfunny, telling the same joke again and again, and missing the timing pretty much each time out.
City Lights Pictures
Morris S. Levy