February 7, 2008

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Strange Wilderness (R)
Stoners search for Bigfoot but find only gross-out gags, lame weed jokes and a bafflingly awful story in Strange Wilderness, a painful alleged comedy produced by Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison Productions.

Peter Gaulke (Steve Zahn, poor Steven Zahn) is desperately trying to keep alive the wilderness television show that he inherited from his dead father. But, unlike his father, he knows nothing about the wild or animals or being on TV or keeping a TV crew from smoking pot during filming. So, naturally, he has a few problems in the ratings. Even after a move to 3 a.m., the show can’t win its time slot and station executive Ed Lawson (Jeff Garlin) threatens to ax it unless they can turn it all around in two weeks. Naturally, Peter decides that the answer to his problem is to search for Bigfoot. Sadly, he is not the only nature show on Bigfoot’s trail — the well-scrubbed and not completely stupid (relatively speaking) Sky Pierson (Harry Hamlin) has also set out to capture the creature on film. Luckily for Peter, Sky slept with the wife of the man who gave him the map to find the Sasquatch and now that man (Joe Don Baker) is all too happy to help Peter and his crew (Allen Covert, Jonah Hill, Kevin Heffernan, Ashley Scott, Peter Dante and Justin Long).

Various characters are gnawed on by a shark, eaten by piranhas and manage to get turkeys stuck on their private parts. What feels like hours is spent having the characters chuckle — Beavis and Butthead-style — about a tour guide named Dick. But I think the stand-out “what the hell? / dear God, why?” moment is when Zahn, an otherwise decent actor who has a résumé of underappreciated performances in fine films, speaks in a Frito Bandito sing-song to a vaguely Mexican character after first saying something like “I speak the language.” Nails on a chalkboard, angry mating cats, that peace-obliterating “EEENEH EEENEH EEENEH” noise that my alarm clock makes — all of these sounds would have been more welcome than the nerve-shredding nasally whine of that accent. (You know those pandas with the weird and offensive Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s accent in the Super Bowl commercial? This was like that but louder and longer.)

In addition to all that, this movie gives you (1) Justin Long’s extremely slappable stoner character; (2) Jonah Hill’s distractingly weird accent — is it Southern? some sort of speech impediment?; (3) Hill’s regular application of a hand-buzzer to the groin of one of his companions, and (4) a bewildering scene in which the characters take a particularly icky form of revenge on a shark. (Hint: think vomit.)

Strange Wilderness feels like a random collection of deleted bits from 15-year-old Saturday Night Live skits assembled with nearly no story structure. Ultimately, the movie ends by just stopping — mid final scene (or at least final scene before the credits — I wasn’t sticking around to find out if there was some unholy “gag reel” sequence) the actors break character and laugh. What’s the joke? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s on us. F

Rated R for non-stop language, drug use, crude and sexual humor. Directed by Fred Wolf and written by Wolf and Peter Gaulke, Strange Wilderness is an hour and 27 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount.