'Between Two Ferns: The Movie': Film Review

A modern-day 'SNL' movie.
9/20/2019

Netflix's feature-length version of the Funny or Die web series stars Zach Galifianakis as a small-time talk show host who roasts celebrities for a living.

An SNL film is a genre unto its own. Featuring silly/low-brow humor inspired by self-contained Saturday Night Live sketches, these movies inflate outlandish concepts and characters that typically work best in short format. The movies have a certain flavor: They're broad and loopy, often high-concept and highlight just enough feel-good emotional stakes to reward the audience for their time. Some are outright successes, such as The Blues Brothers and Wayne's World. Some are cult classics, like Coneheads. Others are… It's Pat.

Despite being an alt-comedy Funny or Die production — far from the mainstream ethos of TV's 45-year-old sketch comedy king — Netflix's Between Two Ferns: The Movie is a modern-day SNL flick.

Before Zach Galifianakis made a career from playing a petty tyrant, hitting it big as The Hangover franchise's banana man and wowing critics as Baskets' resident Pagliacci, he was a comedian's comedian famous in underground circles for a style I can only characterize as "deadpan mania." His absurdist web series Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis debuted in 2008 at the height of the mid-aughts' obsession with creeping cringe humor (The Office, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!).

These skits were the kinds of weirdo early YouTube videos your college friends passed around through Gchat. Like a dry Jiminy Glick mocking the slick toadying characteristic of celebrity talk show appearances, Galifianakis plays a heightened version of himself as an awkward insult comic who interviews/berates confused, defensive or otherwise uncomfortable Hollywood bigwigs. (They're in on the joke.) 

Between Two Ferns, filmed in a spare and badly lit set decorated with two spiky green ferns, is made for a particular type of comedy nerd. Think Inside the Actors Studio, but bitter. You must already venerate and vilify Hollywood simultaneously, because in order to "get" the joke, you've got to be in on the minutiae of celebrity personas. It's semi-improvised, Dadaist anti-humor for pop-culture snobs, in the way Billy Eichner's Billy on the Street is a frenzied, aggro game show for pop-culture snobs.

Unsurprisingly, less is more with this kind of conceit. Directed by BTF's original producer Scott Aukerman (host of podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!), fun-dumb mockumentary Between Two Ferns: The Movie is a loose patchwork of these short-form celebrity interviews hurriedly sewn together with a gossamer-thin story thread. Galifianakis stars as Zach Galifianakis, a public access host in rural North Carolina who dreams of becoming a big-time late-night talk show comedian. Dogged by a camera crew shooting a documentary about his career, Zach introduces us to the dysfunctional doinks who help run his low-budget program, including airhead producer Carol (Lauren Lapkus), antagonistic cameraman Cam (Ryan Gaul) and chirpy sound mixer Boom Boom (Jiavani Linayao).

As we learn, Between Two Ferns is popular in this movie's universe because real-life Funny or Die purveyor Will Ferrell (in a funny parody of himself) discovered "this fat idiot" Zach Galifianakis and gleefully exploited him knowing that viewers laugh at him, not with him. When Zach accidentally destroys the production studio during an interview with Matthew McConaughey, Ferrell sends him on a reputation-recovering journey with the promise of his own network talk show if he succeeds. So, like a demented Dorothy, he sets off with his three dumb companions on a road trip across America, interviewing stars along the way.

The concept is basically an excuse to cram as many hilariously anti-fawning celeb interviews as possible into a single 80-minute sequence. These scenes are by far the most valuable moments in the picture, and possibly worth plodding through the harebrained hijinks that buffer each interview, such as Chrissy Teigen (always game) seducing Zach in a bar for some reason.

Part of BTF's original defining joke is not having a foundational narrative, but rather placing the viewer in a no-context vacuum with a razor-tongued schlub and a deer-in-the-headlights victim. By giving the protagonist a pitiable background here, the film's producers are actually weakening the structure of their entire raison d'etre. Vulnerability kills the concept of an aggressive host clawing at Hollywood artifice, forcing you to wonder why celebs would choose to go on his show at all. The void at least maintains the flow of surreality.

That being established, the mock interviews with actors including Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Awkwafina, Tiffany Haddish and Peter Dinklage (or "Dink-lah-guh" he deadpans) are laugh-out-loud hysterical. The best among them are a zippy few minutes with white-bearded David Letterman as Zach breathlessly flings barb after barb. "My guest today is Santa Claus with an eating disorder." "Did you just wake up from a 15-year nap?" "You look like Steve Jobs now." "You love fast cars. In what other ways is your penis small?" Old pro Letterman effortlessly lobs darts right back at his seeming bully without crumbling once.

You won't care at all if the protagonist achieves his dream or bonds with his production crew, but you will 100% guffaw at the credits sequence outtakes of celebrities cracking up at razor-sharp insults being hurled at them.

Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Will Ferrell, Lauren Lapkus, Ryan Gaul, Jiavani Linayao

Director: Scott Aukerman

Premieres: Friday, September 20th (Netflix)