Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 3:44 pm on September 27, 2009

Status: In limited release (opened 9/25/09)
Directed By: Bob Gosse
Written By: Tucker Max & Nils Parker
Cinematographer: Suki Medencevic
Starring: Matt Czuchry, Jesse Bradford, Geoff Stults

I’ll say up front that I think Tucker Max has contributed something significant and worthwhile to the world of film: The womanizing blogger turned bestselling author turned screenwriter and independent producer has chronicled the making of his first film from the point of view of a Hollywood outsider, sharing a lot of valuable insights about what goes into making a movie in layman’s terms as he learned about the process himself by going through it. While a lot of what he writes about may seem obvious, there are several useful insights to be found throughout his I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell production blog. The result of this process is the film loosely based on his book of the same name, which, in contrast, comes as a discouragingly poor movie, displaying more often than not the concessions made during its production in the name of maintaining complete creative control on the part of filmmakers who probably could’ve used some of the tried-and-true wisdom they so readily shunned.

There have been successful films based on collections of short stories (Short Cuts comes to mind), but I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is an example of how not to go about such an adaptation. It’s what I think of as a He Goes Movie. The screenwriters—Max, along with writing partner Nils Parker—have a series of situations they want to put their characters in, with the primary goal being to set up quips and one-liners, rather than to be in service of an overarching story. They want to make jokes about bartenders, so Tucker (the character, played by Matt Czuchry) goes to a bar and engages the employees. They want to give their characters excuses to espouse their thoughts on strippers, so he goes to a strip club. Later there are more jokes about bar patrons to be made, so he goes to another bar. And so on. It’s as if in developing their screenplay, Max and Parker first concentrated on which jokes they wanted to tell, and then lazily contrived situations in order to force these jokes into their story.

That story—or what there is of one, at least—centers around three friends’ trip to a strip club for a bachelor party. There’s the groom, Dan (Geoff Stults), Tucker Max, and Drew (Jesse Bradford), a bitter, recently-cuckolded character who exists only to brood and sulk while tossing one-liners about women, until he becomes involved in an inexplicable love story that’s tacked on just so the filmmakers can respond to accusations of misogyny by having a female character to point at. For what it’s worth, Marika Dominczyk in said role is the only actor in the film to exhibit anything resembling a noteworthy performance, though she’s given precious little to work with (look what a cool girl she is, she plays video games!). The leads, in contrast, are painfully bad at nearly all times. Bradford in particular delivers every line in a robotic monotone, going for a disinterested delivery but achieving an unengaging recitation of one-liners. Czuchry plays Max as a wacky screwball of a character, sporting disheveled hair and a chronic case of bobbling-head syndrome throughout the movie (if I bobble my head while delivering this line, you can tell I’m being funny, right?).

I normally have a pretty high tolerance for independent films and the shortcuts they’re often forced to take, but I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell consistently exceeded that threshold. There are two sets in particular that are ridiculously under-sized and under-filled with extras, one being the strip club that serves as the primary location for about half the film, the other being the wedding reception scene of the film’s hacked-together conclusion. The latter is described earlier in the movie as “a big wedding,” but it takes place in a room that’d be more appropriately used for the buffet table than the actual reception, with about a dozen people in attendance. This scene also exemplifies the shoddy, nonsensical storytelling at work: Drew’s bachelor party was attended by his two closest friends, neither of whom is involved with the wedding. His groomsmen show up for the first time during the wedding and reception scenes, which also serve to give the real-life Tucker Max a chance to try his hand at acting, which he does about as well as the rest of the cast (which is to say, not very well at all).

Tucker Max has repeatedly stated that he’s made the movie he wanted to make, and there’s certainly plenty to be said for that, but none of them are that it’s good. It feels like the product of a couple of guys who’ve seen a lot of funny movies and thought, “Hey, we could do that too!” They don’t seem to have put much thought into what made those movies work, though, instead focusing solely on the jokes and funny lines that occur throughout. He also often says that this is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen before, and if he means it has virtually no story or character development to speak of, I guess I might agree with him. This movie is most easily and readily compared to The Hangover, both in terms of its subject matter and in its aim of comedy above all else. Re-reading my comments about that film, I find that a lot of them could also apply to I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, but a few key aspects affect the final verdict: the production value is significantly lower here, sporting a cheap and lazy look throughout, but more importantly, the jokes just aren’t as funny, and the characters have no likability to fall back upon when their attempts at humor fall flat. And when telling jokes is the sole purpose of your film, those are pretty big deficiencies. (The climax of this movie is a prolonged shit scene, and I think that says it all.)

I do have one footnote to add, though, of a positive nature. Max’s decision to embark on a month-long, self-financed premiere tour is not only a refreshingly unique and effective way to market a movie, it’s also immensely cool of him. I attended the last stop on the tour in San Francisco, and was thoroughly impressed by how all-out they went. For my $10 ticket, I got to see the movie, introduced by the screenwriters; I got a t-shirt and a “swag bag” full of mostly useless stuff emblazoned with the film’s title (although the pint glass is nice quality, and will get plenty of use); and I got to sit through an extensive—though mostly banal—Q&A session afterwards. Tucker Max is certainly savvy and dedicated, and that’s impressive in its own right. I think if he gets the chance to make another movie based on his stories, though, he should probably let a professional handle the adaptation, because after achieving success in other forms of media (with his blog, and with his books), here he seems to be quite a bit out of his league.