Saturday, 9 December 2017

Movie Review: Nerdland (2017)



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Already this year, I have gone into detail on my favourite director and my favourite actor. Well, considering how I exist as a series of words on a page, it only fits to reason that I would eventually get to my favourite screenwriter. And chances are, even if you don’t know the specific name, you have seen his work before. Ladies and gentlemen and others, may I present the one, the only, Andrew Kevin Walker. As a writer, the man doesn’t just create stories; he creates breathing universes for them to inhabit. His best-known work as the writer of David Fincher’s Se7en had him give so much detail to an unnamed city that it became a character in its own right, one whose soul had to be fought for by the characters. No other writer that I have come across has shown such prowess at world-building and story detail, always being able to scratch that particular itch for me. Naturally, with all this in mind, I’ve been keeping an ear out for when his latest film would become available over here in Australia; dude’s been quiet for a few years now and, even though films like John Wick have served well along the same lines of narrative dimension, I need my AKW fix. So, how does his latest venture turn out? This is Nerdland.


The plot: Struggling actor John (Paul Rudd) and his best friend Elliot (Patton Oswalt), who himself is a struggling screenwriter, place a bet amongst themselves. They decide that they will become famous within 24 hours, by any means necessary. As John and Elliot delve further and further into desperation as the day drags on, and before too long, their friends, the police and the media are along for the ride.

For a cast this recognizable within comedic circles, it’s a real shame that most of the people here are just okay. Rudd and Oswalt are a decent double-act at the centre of the film, with John as the brains of the duo while Elliot is the passive enabler. Their rapport is good, and they do justice to their dialogue, but… I don’t know, I keep getting the feeling that Paul Rudd and Patton Oswalt teaming up for a film would yield higher returns than this. Again, not bad, just okay. Hannibal Buress gets some chuckles as the ‘Nerd King’, a rather on-the-nose embodiment of the adage “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome as two wannabe models only really get to shine right at the end, Mike Judge as a violent homeless man works nicely, and Reid Scott as actor Brett Anderson only works because of how much both the performance and the character himself is underplayed. He doesn’t care and that’s why it works.

Director Chris Prynoski, aside from his work on cult series like Metalocalypse, has done a lot of work for MTV’s animated productions, including spear-heading the semi-recent revival of old-school staple Liquid Television. Within moments of this film starting, that history is made very evident. The extremely crude character designs and the forced exaggeration in both their movements and the spaces they occupy give the film a rather literal grungy texture. It paints a surreal coat over what is ultimately a rather uncompromising look at the Hollywood landscape, and even down to the little things like the freakishly long appendages on the character, it’s like looking at the world through a greasy lens. Or maybe with just one eye open, with the other peering through a surprisingly-detailed anus. Yeah, when I said that the designs were crude, that was in reference to more than just the chicken-scratch line work. If you ever feel a want to see a man literally fall into another man’s ass, this is where you’ll find it. While the grodier bits of humour feel a bit forceful, when the animation delves into the more psychedelic and disturbed, it makes for some very trippy sequences.

Along with his sense of story detail, Andrew Kevin Walker has always been in his element when dealing with the darker side of human morality; not just the heinous actions we commit but also why we commit them. Sometimes, it’s down to a sense of twisted morality (Se7en), sometimes, it’s to fulfill a need for revenge against the ill actions of others (Sleepy Hollow), and sometimes, it’s just because they can (8MM). With that in mind, this film feels like the most unfiltered AKW has ever been because of how to-the-point it is. Here, we get more of the same questioning but with a far clearer answer: Because it gets people’s attention. With the year we’ve had in relation to Hollywood news, it may be a bit of an understatement to say that Hollywood isn’t full of particularly nice people. Of course, it’s only in the short amount of time since this film’s release that people are starting to really acknowledge that. The story itself, focusing on two down-on-their-luck creatives and their increasingly desperate attempts to gain notoriety, feels like the sort of story that just about every Hollywood writer wants to tell. The adage goes “write what you know”, and if you’re trying to make it in Hollywood, what you know may only be a feeling of rejection and discontent. It’s these same feelings that went into AKW’s script for Se7en, and here, it feels like he’s tapping even further into those instincts.

Now, with all that said, this isn’t a particularly insightful film. Rather than really delving into societal attitudes concerning why media tends to inadvertently reward those who do wrong, this seems to just wallow in it. With AKW’s other scripts largely focusing on a singular good character reacting to the evils around them, the approach here with focusing on the main sources of misery instead might show where the difference in efficacy spawned from. Or it could be that this might be the easiest job AKW has had yet, since his natural sense of world-building is practically gift-wrapped for him with the seedy L.A. backdrop containing enough cultural memory to be its own world already. Regardless, while the film certainly knows its stuff in terms of the means by which attention whores (let’s not mince words here; THAT’S what these people are) get their fix, it feels flat in really delving into the mindsets behind it. Honestly, it feels like it’s trying to be like Nightcrawler in how it subverts traditional storytelling tropes to highlight sociopaths rising to the top of the food chain, except without the heady thrills. Or standout acting. Or sense of dread about what’s going on. The concept for the film went through several stages under AKW, not even intending to be animated at all at first, and that amount of weathering and time for the titbits to become dated results in what we have here.

All in all, while not without its artistic merits, it might actually be writer Andrew Kevin Walker’s most underwhelming work (maybe tied with The Wolfman, but that’s neither here nor there). The animation is very eye-grabbing and a tribute to a bygone era of American animation, the writing shows AKW in his psychologically dour element and the soundtrack by Night Club sets a nice acid-trip backdrop to what we’re seeing. However, between the lacklustre acting and the surface-level attempts at satire in the script, what good this film can generate is outweighed by the general apathy on display. It ranks lower than All Eyez On Me, which may have bottomed out by the end but it at least started with some promising notions. This is essentially a crudely-drawn shaggy dog story, complete with the non-existent punchline for an ending. However, as let-down as I am about this being the latest from one of my favourite writers, it still isn’t as disappointing as The LEGO Ninjago Movie, which by all rationality should have been better than it was.

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