If the comedy “Bad Trip” had premiered in theaters as intended until it switched to Netflix because of the pandemic, an already infamous scene would surely have made the crowd moan and laugh. It’s an encounter between Eric Andre and a gorilla that is best not described in a family newspaper. Clever, absurd and tasteless, it is a sequence that alienates part of its audience and at the same time consolidates a cult reputation with another.
Whatever your reaction is (I loved it) it’s as clear as any mission statement, and shows that the makers of this film are less interested in glowing reviews than in visceral, loud reactions. It also signals the comeback of gross comedy, a genre in decline that is grappling with nerves over social criticism and competition from the shocking value of real life.
In a 2019 interview, no less an authority than John Waters, whose well-deserved nicknames include the Pope of Garbage and the Duke of Dirty, declared the death of the gross comedy. Last week he gave an explanation for this unassailable point on Marc Maron’s podcast. “It’s easy to be disgusting. It’s easy to be obscene, ”he said. “But it’s not easy to be funny about it.”
This is what makes Bad Trip a welcome feat, and why its impact could dwarf that of any movie that took home Oscars over the weekend. It’s smart and gross to find new ways to put up with old-fashioned finesse.
The roots of modern comedy can be traced back to EC Comics and Mad Magazine, dizzying publications devoured by children in the middle of the last century, some of whom made films such as Animal House and American Pie. ”This led to an arms race of vulgarity with increasingly red taboos and funny landmarks: the contagious vomiting in“ Stand By Me ”, the hair gel in“ Mad About Mary ”and the wildly influential“ Jackass ”franchise. (One of its creators, Jeff Tremaine, is the producer of Bad Trip.)
“Bad Trip” is firmly anchored in this tradition, but has been updated for an era in which reality and fiction are becoming increasingly blurred. It’s no surprise that Nathan Fielder and Sacha Baron Cohen, who used the tools of documentaries to expand the range of comedy, helped out with the advice. “Bad Trip”, which contains elements of a buddy film, romance and prank show, spills every imaginable body fluid and stomps on sensitive sensations, but manages it with warmth and deserved feeling.
The key to his success is the benevolent, mischievous charisma of Eric Andre, an anarchic performer who always seems to be on the verge of accidental destruction, be it in his stand-up or on his brilliantly experimental talk show. Through “Bad Trip” it moves like a giant pane of glass in a silent film. His fragility deserves your sympathy from the start.
In the first scene, his character Chris, who works at a car wash in Florida, is chatting with a customer when he spots a woman in the distance with a crush on high school. With his mouth open and tasty music in the background, he explains how nervous he is to see her before inadvertently walking towards a vacuum that suddenly sucks off his jump suit. He is naked when the girl approaches. He and the woman are actors, but the stranger watching this is not, and this whole stunt is constructed to find a comedy in his reaction as he sets the gears of the plot in motion. It’s a used cringe comedy.
“Bad Trip” is organized around a series of increasingly sophisticated set pieces that include reactions from real people who are not involved in the joke. They are cleverly integrated into a fictional story that is rooted in relationships that are given room to develop and fill out. Andre has excellent chemistry with Lil Rel Howery, who plays his frustrated, sensible friend Bud Malone, who goes on a road trip to find his lost love. They begin by stealing Bud’s sister’s car, which is brilliantly played with a light-hearted enthusiasm from Tiffany Haddish that plays off real people as well as professionals.
These are some of the funniest comic book actors to work today, but what makes the most laughs here is their interactions with common people. Director Kitao Sakurai (who directed many episodes of “The Eric Andre Show”) alternates between slick-action films and Vérité shots that draw attention to the unwritten element. Just as the string comedy “Borat” helped to lend the political humor against Trump a spontaneity and danger, this also applies to the coarse humor. “Jackass” did so too, but it didn’t have the same narrative belief.
There are some moments when you really worry about Andre, like when he’s getting drunk and wreaking havoc in a country bar. While “Borat” views many of the real people the character encounters with a cutting satirical gaze, “Bad Trip” aims for a much more lovable tone, even in its most confrontational scenes. It is a film that ping pong between gross and feeling good.
The crux of the joke is usually Andre, and yet the film takes care to keep the audience on its side. There’s an unexpected innocence here that makes the chaos tastier. The way the sequences escalate shows an alertness to structure and rhythm. There’s a scene where Haddish sneaks out from under a prison bus in an orange jumpsuit and asks a man on the street for help in escaping the police who eventually arrive. What follows is a series of car chases, a farce that might remind some of the classic Charlie Chaplin. But luckily not too much. “Bad Trip” never wants to be too respectable. Who makes good taste anyway?
No mainstream film genre gets less respect than gross comedy – not even its artistic cousin, the bloody horror, which also deals with gushing body fluids, disgusting ID cards, and happy transgressions. There is no comedy equivalent of writer David Cronenberg, who is often hailed for his intellectually challenging bloodbaths. Critics routinely dismiss gross films as free and youthful. Well duh
Children understand some things better than adults, and that includes the weird potential of vomit. A rough comedy provokes explosive laughter in part because it exerts parts of the sense of humor that were given up when we were growing up. It evokes the laughter we experienced before we learned how to do the right thing. While transgressions are built into these films, their joys are inherently nostalgic, which is why they age poorly, act with regressive attitudes and tired stereotypes. But you don’t have to.
The best provocateurs pay particular attention to shifts in sensitivity. And blatant connoisseurs can also be snobs. Therefore, for a certain type of fan, this gorilla scene signals a twisted kind of integrity, an obligation to those who, above all, are in the mood for insane moments of provocation. You need high standards to be so simple.