Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"I promise you, things are about to get a whole shit-load brighter": BEACH PARTY AT THE THRESHOLD OF HELL

Director: Jonny Gillette/Kevin Wheatley
Starring: Kevin Wheatley, Paul Whitty, Jamie Bullock, and quick cameos from Daniel Baldwin, Jane Seymour and Tony Hale

In case Kevin Wheatley serving as both star and (one of the) director(s) wasn't enough, he also wrote the screenplay. Also, his biggest credit other than this is a recurring role on "Dirt". And if that didn't kill your interest, the fact this movie's official title includes "National Lampoon Presents" probably might.

Wait, wait, come back!

Okay, those of you that are left might be wondering, "why did you watch this movie, Mr. K?" Well, one, I'm a masochist. And two, it's a post-apocalyptic comedy.

A low-key, low-budget, poorly-executed comedy that mostly reminds me I still need to see Six String Samurai. But it has a slight charm.

The plot, such as it is, is this. In 2075, something called the Sunstroke Corporation apparently obliterated America, leaving only a few hundred thousand survivors, mostly underground. While underground, the survivors were comforted by Clarke Remington (Daniel Baldwin, basically being a low-rent version of his brother Alec), a used car salesman who convinced people he was King of America and that his half-mad, blind, albino nephew Benny (Bill English) was his sucessor. When the surviving Americans finally emerged, Tex Kennedy (our star, Kevin Wheatley, trying for a Kennedy impersonation and mostly failing) makes it his mission to let America know Benny is their king, and hopefully get the Vice-Kingship in the process. Unfortunately, he's opposed by a bunch of Satanic spring-breakers, Clarke's pyschopathic son Jackle (Lea Coco) and his mysterious advisor from the "Republic of Arizona", Marcellus St. Joan (Ted Schneider).

That's a lot to take in. Also, that really doesn't represent what the story is. It's a hell of shaggy dog story. The Sunstroke Corporation? Not mentioned after the first five minutes. What the Republic of Arizona represents (if it exists), what Benny's visions are, who killed Clarke Remington, why a bunch of spring-breakers were protected by the Devil from the nuclear fall-out, and if Tex Kennedy will actually become Vice-King are not answered either. Don't even get me started on a half-assed framing device that includes Tony Hale and a few other people pretending to be historians commenting on this film as if it were a documentary.

Now, comedies have a tendency towards rambling, disconnected narratives (though both Hot Fuzz & Shaun of the Dead prove this isn't necessary). Some movies, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, even turn this to their advantage, using the loopy and disjointed nature of the plot to make fun of the way stories about King Arthur and his knights are cobbled together from a variety of sources with a variety of different motives. At the very least, digressions in a comedy should lead to something funny. Why does Stryker's flashback in Airplane! turn into a Saturday Night Fever parody? Who cares, because it's unexpected and (more importantly) hilarious.

Now, to be fair to Beach Party, it does have a few funny moments. But way too much of the film is devoted to setting up an incredibly developed mythology that isn't funny and is clearly setting up another film. This mythology isn't even interesting enough to build up my interest in another film. It's just distracting and confusing. And not funny.

In my estimate, a good 20 minutes of exposition, mostly in the beginning of the film, are spent setting up characters and situations who don't even figure into the climax, and the last 13 are spent setting up the next film. Beach Party is only an hour and a half! You don't need to remember your Robert McKee to see the structural problems.

It certainly doesn't help that, even when Beach Party is trying to be funny, their reach exceeds their grasp. The low-budget and inexperienced actors make the movie feel like a collaboration between a college improv troupe and the film department. Daniel Baldwin is probably the best actor in the entire movie, and he's just on auto-pilot (Tony Hale and Jane Seymour are completely squandered). Most of the other performances give off that strange mix of apathy and over-acting that people new to improv display. Though at least Lea Coco and Ted Schneider go all the way into scene-chewing, and are frequently the funniest because of that.

This is a shame, because there are some good ideas in the mix. A movie set in a post-apocalypse where the survivors are incompetent assholes pretending to be tough guys is a great concept. When Mr. Jackle is trying to chainsaw an offending minion and takes five minutes to get the chainsaw started, it's hilarious. The idea that one of the new Founders ends up inspiring a holiday devoted to cannibalism, complete with cheesy patriotic commercials, is comedy gold. And a failed car salesman who ends up becoming king of (part of) New America merely because he's the most charismatic guy with a radio is an inspired character.

But throughout, Wheatley and company are trying to convince the viewer that they're ready to play in the big leagues, squandering whatever charm their laid-back approach sometimes earns. Cannibal! The Musical is only slightly less hit-or-miss, but the low-key, communal feel to the film draws you in. And the "National Lampoon Presents" label suggests a level of professionalism and polish that just isn't there. Maybe if Troma had released it, it might have done better.

As for why National Lampoon might have decided to release this film, it's probably because of the titular  Beach Party, which is about as salacious as a TV edit of American Pie, and a torture scene with a lesbianic catfight. Trust me, it sounds more interesting than it actually is.

Grade: C -