“The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part.” So said Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset at the end of David Fincher’s Seven, which was written by Andrew Kevin Walker. That last-minute stab at cautious optimism didn’t feel terribly convincing back then, and after bearing witness to Walker’s latest vision, for director Chris Prynoski’s animated feature Nerdland, it definitely doesn’t now.
The world of this film is a brightly colored hell of soulless manipulation, moral relativism, and emotional disaffection—in other words, Hollywood at its worst. No one is spared the acid bath of Walker’s equal-opportunity contempt. John (Paul Rudd) and Elliott (Patton Oswalt) are underachieving losers struggling to make it in Los Angeles and who, in the course of one long day, try to come up with a get-famous-quick scheme after John realizes, as his 30th birthday looms, how little he’s accomplished. The characters around them are, for the most part, about as loathsome, from two fame-obsessed, gold-diggers (Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci) to an overweight, acne-ridden comic-book-store owner (Hannibal Buress) who wears a crown on his head and has even greater delusions of grandeur than the two antiheroes do.
Nerdland exudes a self-satisfied smugness in its unvaried focus on the worst of human behavior.
Nerdland is the feature debut of Titmouse, the animation studio behind Cartoon Network stalwarts like The Venture Bros. and Metalocalypse, and like those shows, Prynoski’s film slathers its misanthropy with a surfeit of bright colors, watercolor textures, and exaggerated human features. As coal-black as its sensibility may be, it’s a strangely beautiful film to look at. It’s also a perverse pleasure to listen to, thanks in large part to the score by Mark Brooks and Emily Kavanaugh, with its insistent electronic throbs making the film even more alienating than the material already is.
All of its visual and aural pleasures, however, are hardly enough to hide a bankruptcy of intelligence and insight at its core. Nerdland is Walker and Prynoski’s attempt to satirize our fame-obsessed culture, with John and Elliott filming themselves giving a check to a homeless person, running into a fiery building in order to try to save a couple of people still trapped inside, even contemplating murder, all in the service of achieving infamy—because infamy, John concludes, is what gets national attention.
But none of this is revelatory. Even before the popularity of online video and reality television, Oliver Stone had already sledgehammered this point home in Natural Born Killers, while Network, 40 years ago, targeted the kind of shameless media sensationalism John and Elliott try to stoke. Worse than the familiar targets, though, Nerdland exudes a self-satisfied smugness in its unvaried focus on the worst of human behavior. It’s so busy thrusting unpleasant sex and violence into our faces—all to make the skin-deep point that people can be unspeakably awful—that not only do we never once feel implicated, but we can’t help but wonder if Prynoski, Walker, and company are less interested in satirizing this behavior than in getting off on it.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.