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Sundance Film Festival 2012: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and Celeste and Jesse Forever

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: <em>Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie</em> and <em>Celeste and Jesse Forever</em>

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie: The first feature-length film by comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim is pretty much exactly what their Tim and Eric Awesome Show would be like as a 90-minute narrative. Beginning with a characteristically surreal short film within the film, Tim and Eric have turned out a predictably exhausting but fitfully funny extension of their stream-of-conscious brand of humor. Their jokes, which rely heavily on dead air, echolalia, and body horror-centric sight gags, are still very reliant on alternately quick and staggered editing cuts that make you wonder if you’re watching what it looks like you’re watching. Rest assured, that is definitely a bad Johnny Depp impersonator, that is a metal stud being jammed into a prosthetic penis, and you bet that’s someone getting shat on. Take it or leave it seems to be Tim and Eric’s mantra, a mentality that has served them well when they inundate their Adult Swim fans with loopy, sub-Dada skits. But that same approach is more tedious when used in a feature film.

In Billion Dollar Movie, Tim and Eric play themselves after they’ve signed a contract with cantankerous studio exec Tommy Schlaaaang Jr. (Robert Loggia) and agreed to make a movie with a billion-dollar budget. They produce a confusing three-minute-long shirt film that Andy Kaufman would have been proud of, wherein a Frenchman dressed in a diamond-encrusted suit proposes marriage to an American waitress. After seeing the film, Schlaaaang understandably demands that Tim and Eric return his investment, except they’ve already spent all of it. So Tim and Eric run away to Swallow Valley, where they agree to manage the local mall after its owner (Will Ferrell) promises to pay them a billion dollars if they revive the now-dilapidated mall’s business.

True to the redemption-story clichés that they so sloppily poke fun of, Tim and Eric try their hardest to build new lives in Swallow Valley. Tim takes it upon himself to randomly adopt the son of a used toilet-paper salesman who works in the mall (the man says his shop is for “gourmet” tastes, which Eric naturally spells out loud as “g-o-u-r-m-a-y”). Meanwhile, Eric tries to work up the courage to talk to Katie (Twink Caplan), the mall’s eccentric creator of “celebrity balloons.” Katie’s an older woman of modest charms that Eric nonetheless idolizes by masturbating to her image five-to-six times a day. This puts a knowingly contrived strain on Tim and Eric’s relationship. Meanwhile, Schlaaaang searches in vain for the boys.

As you can probably tell, illogical and proudly crude plot developments are par for the course in Billion Dollar Movie. Tim and Eric are vomiting their ids, replete with jokes about being covered in various different fluids (from rancid yogurt to semen), onto the screen. And that’s sometimes pretty funny. But their kind comedy works better in short sketches. The fact that so many of the film’s more effective jokes, like when somebody gets crapped on by a gaggle of prepubescent boys, are tethered to a narrative story takes a lot of the fun out of Billion Dollar Movie. Tim and Eric have made a career of outstaying their welcome, but this is a bit much even for them.

Celeste and Jesse Forever: There’s a genuinely exciting and thoughtful film at the core of Celeste and Jesse Forever, an indie rom-com about accepting one’s limitations during a messy breakup. But most of the film’s insights into the power dynamics between two temperamentally different lovers are mired in sloppy contrivances. Too often, director Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind) and co-writers and co-stars Rashida Jones and Will McCormack shy away from fully exploring the ways that a control freak (Jones) and her relatively loose husband (Andy Samberg) respectively pursue other relationships after they decide to divorce. Jones and McCormack rely on cutesy shorthand ways of showing that their characters have a bond so strong that they can’t bear to break it off, as in early scenes where Samberg and Jones make funny voices and mock-fellate anything small and phallic-looking that happens to be within arm’s reach. There’s a number of scenes that create thoughtful parallels between the film’s two main protagonists and their respective hang-ups. But often those relationship-defining connections are either not fully explored or are resolved too neatly for the film’s characters to ever become more than just clever variations on familiar archetypes.

Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) are two very different people that happen to love each other very much. This is particularly evident after they’ve agreed to file for a divorce. Even after this major decision, Celeste and Jesse hang out with each other constantly, so much so that their clingy relationship accidentally freaks out their friends Beth and Tucker (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), who are engaged to marry each other. So when Celeste and Jesse finally do separate from each other, it’s not because they want to but because contrived circumstances intervened. Namely, Jesse bumps into and starts a relationship with Veronica (Rebecca Dayan), with whom he had an eventful one-night stand. This is an awfully convenient development, one that allows Celeste’s control-freak personality to go into overdrive and obsess over Jesse like only a textbook rom-com neurotic ex-girlfriend would.

But Celeste, who’s the film’s real main protagonist (Jesse often serves as a foil to her), isn’t always so one-dimensional, which is what makes the broad beats of Celeste and Jesse Forever’s cookie-cutter plot so frustrating. Jones and McCormack make time to show that she’s motivated by jealousy and creates double standards when it comes to other women: She outright dismisses Riley (Emma Roberts), a vain, no-talent pop star, but glibly tells Beth that she thinks Justin Bieber has talent. Likewise, when dating a younger man, Celeste’s shown to be instinctively intolerant of the things that rubbed her the wrong way about Jesse. On the flipside, when Jesse goes out with a young barista whose attitude toward work is reminiscent of his own, he shies away because he also sees himself in his young would-be conquest. Both of these emblematic scenes reveal implicit dynamics that are not fully fleshed-out in the film’s screenplay. For a film whose heroine is over-analytical, Jones and McCormack certainly didn’t fully think through what makes their characters so unique. And as a result, Celeste and Jesse Forever is a big missed opportunity.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.