Reel Opinions

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Ten

If The Ten proves anything, it proves that it takes more than a great concept and a talented cast for a film to work completely. The movie is a collection of intentionally crude and juvenile sketches that are loosely based on each of The Ten Commandments. The cast that has been gathered to tell these stories include a number of likeable actors including Paul Rudd, Liev Schreiber, Gretchen Mol, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen, and Oliver Platt just to name a few. By all accounts, it should work, and most of the time it does. The Ten is certainly crude with its humor, but never so gross that we become turned off. Something else entirely turns us off before the film is finished, and that's the fact that the movie runs out of steam far too quickly, and that many of the skits go on long after we get the joke.

In The Ten, our host is a man named Jeff (Paul Rudd), who tries to set up each sequence in the film, but is interrupted either by his long-suffering wife who he has secretly been cheating on (Famke Janssen), or by his bubble-headed new girlfriend (Jessica Alba). Each skit is supposed to be a modern day example of the lessons the Commandments teach us. For example, to help teach us about not being jealous of our neighbor's possessions, we get a sketch where two warring neighbors try to one-up each other when one of them brings home a CAT scan machine, and the two men start filling their homes with hospital equipment to try to make the other one jealous. The skit that is supposed to tell us to honor our fathers and mothers tells a bizarre story about two young black men who have a white mother, only to discover that their father is Arnold Schwarzenegger. When the men want to meet their father, the mother can't arrange it, so she hires a second rate Arnold impersonator (Oliver Platt) to act as their father. Many of the characters and situations carry over each other from each skit. For example, in the very first skit ("You shall have no other gods before me"), a woman played by Winona Ryder watches her fiance become an overnight celebrity after he jumps out of a plane without a parachute, and becomes stuck in the ground. She leaves her fiance, but returns in the "You Shall Not Steal" skit, where she falls in love with a ventriloquist dummy, steals it, and goes on a sex binge with it.

To call The Ten random would be an understatement. Director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) was involved with a popular mid 90s sketch comedy show on MTV called The State. Many of his former co-stars from that show return in this film. For the most part, I admired what they tried to do here. Some of the skits are very funny, such as the story about a librarian (Gretchen Moll) who goes on a vacation to Mexico, only to find love with a local who turns out to be Jesus Christ, who is just killing time on Earth, waiting to start The Rapture. Another highlight is the two-part story concerning a medical doctor (Ken Marino) who teaches us "you shall not kill" in a sketch where he leaves a pair of surgical scissors in a woman after he operates on her as a prank. No one else finds it funny when the woman dies, and he is sent to prison. His story continues in "you shall not covet your neighbor's wife" when he starts a relationship with another inmate in prison, even though he's already officially the "bitch" of his cellmate. Like the recent Hot Rod, the movie has a certain "anything for a laugh" mentality that I really admired. There is a certain inspired incoherency to the film, with no two of the comedy sketches being exactly alike. A wide variety of humor is used, from clever word play, to gross out humor, and even animation. You can tell that everyone involved with this film was having a good time making it, and for a while, it carries out into the audience.

It's hard to keep this kind of inspired lunacy running for a full 90 minutes. The movie eventually starts to drag, and this is where The Ten starts to fall apart. The later skits are nowhere near as clever as the ones during the first half. While the first half of the film has a couple misses here and there (the previously mentioned one about Arnold Schwarzenegger falls flat, despite a funny idea), the movie seems to run almost completely out of inspiration as it goes on. By the time the film is coming to an end, we're thinking more on the earlier material that worked rather than the stuff we're currently watching. A skit concerning a man who decides to start making up excuses so he doesn't have to go to church, and instead prefers to hang around his house naked, goes nowhere and is dragged out long after we've gotten the joke, which wasn't that funny to begin with. The laughs eventually become fewer and further between one another, and the dry patches where we're waiting for something to happen become longer. It's almost as if Wain and co-writer Ken Marino kind of lost interest in their own project as they were writing the script. The performances are still lively and the movie never quite loses its energy, but it all seems to be a waste if the script isn't there backing it all up.

While it may be an uneven experience, at least the cast is completely game for everything the movie throws at them. The movie is made up of a variety of stand up comics who you will recognize from various TV shows, and even features some actors who you wouldn't expect to see in a movie like this, such as Liev Schreiber as one of the feuding neighbors in the CAT scan sketch. Some other highlights include Winona Ryder, who is given the unenviable task of having a lengthy and passionate sex scene with a dummy, yet still somehow manages to retain a strong performance. Rob Corddry from TV's The Daily Show also gets some laughs as the inmate who wins the "affection" of the doctor currently being held for murder. Since much of the cast has experience with sketch comedy, everyone seems to be in their environment. That's why it's such a disappointment when the jokes stop coming. Everyone's obviously giving it their all, why can't the movie itself do the same for us?
I watched The Ten with growing interest during the first half, and then little by little, the movie betrayed that interest. I was disappointed, and yet I still found myself admiring the movie in some way thanks to the actors. I don't think this is a bad movie, just one that lost its way somewhere down the line. It seemingly has everything going for it, and the filmmakers didn't take full advantage of what they had. Something tells me they should have filtered out the best material, and used them for something a little bit more worthy. There's good stuff to be found in The Ten, but it's surrounded by stuff that just shouldn't even be there in the first place.



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