In my lifetime, gross-out comedy has come to an impasse of sorts, the boundaries of taste having long ago been obliterated (weeds grow over them) while filmmakers working in this vein are challenged to come up with novelty in execution rather than concept. That’s where Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim come in. Creators and stars of Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job!, they’re pioneers, after a fashion, in bringing their abnormal, highly personal brand of comedy to a wider viewing audience. The program, produced in 15-minute episodes, airs on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and showcases Heidecker and Wareheim’s fake carelessness, their meticulously planned and produced versions of devil-may-care, naughty-boys-taking-over-public-access-television comedy content. Their big joke was, and remains, self-awareness of self-awareness of self-awareness, i.e. testing just how far into infinity that snake eating its own tail goes. As it turns out, pretty far indeed. On first blush, a newcomer’s experience of their material is that it’s bad, amateurish, and embarrassing; after a few moments, it’ll register that every nanosecond of it is intentional. The question left to the viewer is: Does it matter?
Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is cut from the same cloth as their 15-minute bouts of television experimentation. The main difference, as one might expect, is that their trademark asides and repetitions (their favorite tropes include training videos and infomercials) are sewn into a boilerplate buddy comedy/road movie, in which the pair, “playing themselves,” turn to business management when their big Hollywood dreams are dashed by hubris and bad decisions. The blueprint (two friends must navigate a series of trials, including a temporary breakup) isn’t so much treated with contempt as it’s viewed as a repurposed environment, an emptied-out swimming pool that’s now being used for parties and skateboarding or, on another level, some kind of twisted commune inhabited not entirely by people who know what’s going on.
“I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me.” So says the unnamed correspondent who narrates Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, a holy talisman at the other end of the spectrum from Heidecker and Wareheim’s shrine to the profane. Like the letter-writer, the duo is obsessed with banality. Connoisseurs of flat hokum, they build their houses on the relentless smooshing together of absurd digressions, featuring deer-caught-in-headlights non-actors and vomit-provoking spectacle that leaves not only a bad taste, but the mystery as to whether anyone had some sort of dignity-related clause in their contract that was violated, several times over. The guest stars, which number nearly a dozen, are of such a variety that the viewer draws imaginary lines between those who are in on the joke (obviously Awesome Show staple John C. Reilly, but also Will Ferrell, Will Forte, and Zach Galifianakis) and those who, just as likely, took their roles as pure work, perhaps with the stipulation that they’d never be forced to sit through the finished product: Ray Wise, Robert Loggia, and William Atherton.
By its nature, a movie like this places itself beyond the jurisdiction of criticism. If you laugh, nobody can say that you didn’t, and if you watched it with a straight face (occasionally wrenched in a grimace of perseverance), it’s unlikely you’ll entertain the idea that it’s actually funny. You may dismiss it as an epic of puerile noise, or you might see it as a quasi-Dadaist masterpiece, an attack on the fraud we’re drowning in as consumers and moviegoers. To the charges leveled by many reviewers that Heidecker and Wareheim’s shtick is insufficient to sustain a 94-minute feature, the duo begin the movie beating these presumed critics to the punch, as their journey is predicated on a failed crack at Hollywood glory, squandering a billion-dollar budget on three minutes of finished product, and being duped by a Johnny Depp impersonator in the process. Who knows how many untold tens of thousands of dollars were similarly flushed down the toilet to make this meta-collage, dedicated to fearlessly, assiduously documenting its own pointlessness, a quality with which it seeks to contaminate everything it touches?
Giving the lie to the "Aw, to hell with it" attitude the pair strains to convey, Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie was shot using the Red One camera, with great care by cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Every stream of projectile diarrhea, every crevice of John C. Reilly's stricken face, is lit more beautifully than you could possibly wish, and Magnolia's nearly faultless Blu-ray makes the whole enterprise as crisp and sharp as an episode of Game of Thrones.
You might expect the movie to be nested in a series of supplements that create an even more meta experience than the movie would by itself. In letter, you'd be right, but in spirit, it's pretty thin gruel. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim provide a nitpicky commentary track, admonishing themselves for coins that are turned the wrong way, or misplaced locks of hair. A featurette revels in similar minutia, daring the viewer, once again, to laugh at or dismiss the banality.
Tim and Eric's defining trait is that they seem too soft-spoken to wield brickbats against established orders. Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie elaborates the mystery without quite solving it, as Magnolia's trim, handsome Blu-ray preserves their most ambitious broadside for the viewer's delectation or revulsion.