What is cinema? Is it in an art form? Or is it a physical location? Or both? And if it is an art form, how exactly do you define it? Is there a maximum and/or minimum running time or can an 8-hour documentary be considered cinema and win an Oscar? Exactly how much should a subjective thing like quality or measurable thing like budget factor into your evaluation?
These are the questions pondered only by those with the luxury of free time or institutional standing to truly care about such granular details. (“What Is Cinema?”, for example, is the cover story of the Spring 2018 issue of the Directors Guild of America’s magazine publication DGA Quarterly.) It’s the stuff of thoughtful essays, panel discussions, and heated board room debates as award show after award show struggles to parcel out how to distinguish between film and TV.
It is not, however, a question which anyone would normally think of in relation to Between Two Ferns: The Movie cares about any of it, yet it’s been weighing on me for the following reason: Between Two Ferns fits right into that strange new, wildly mediocre, but still moderately watchable category known as the Netflix Original. See also: Always Be My Maybe. While our definition of “cinema” has been in flux, Netflix has been quick to replace the TV movies and direct-to-video efforts of old with stuff that barely qualifies as a movie, yet we watch because it’s there and it asks so little of us.
Backstory time: Since 2008, Between Two Ferns has been an intermittently released Funny or Die web series featuring Zach Galifianakis (as himself) awkwardly interviewing his friends and other celebrities. The production knowingly apes the look and feel of a public access TV special, shouting “cheap, cheap, cheap” with every fiber of its being despite featuring a very famous host and his far more famous guests. The series arguably reaches its nadir in 2014 when a very game President Barack Obama appeared to promote Obamacare.
Pretty much since that moment, Galifianakis, producer/actress Lauren Lapkus, and co-creator/producer Scott Auckerman – who hosted his own mock talk show for five years on IFC and still hosts his improv comedy podcast Comedy Bang! Bang! – have been kicking the tires on a possible movie. The gestation process took so long that many of Galifianakis’s ideas for the movie ended up being folded into his FX series Baskets, which just wrapped its fourth and final season.
Finally, the trio came up with something simple: a madcap road movie featuring Galifianakis and a rag-tag crew traveling the country and producing as many Between Two Ferns episodes as they can to satisfy their coke-addicted producer, Funny or Die co-owner Will Ferrell (as himself). The reward at the end of the tunnell is a major network talk show version of Between Two Ferns, thus fulfilling Galifianakis’s lifelong dream. However, will he lose himself and his friends in the process?
There’s nothing inherently cinematic about any of it. There’s no overly compelling reason – other than brand new clips of Zach being casually mean to celebrities – for it to exist. However, the Netflix algorithm knows you’ll at least be interested in the IP or premise. Given that set of variables then, the movie doesn’t have to be a great. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be all that good. It just had to be good enough to hold your attention for a while and then maybe play in the background while you multitask – look at your phone, do some housekeeping, maybe, I dunno, get high.
So, the actual “movie” part of Between Two Ferns: The Movie contains scene after scene of absurdist, improv-style comedy the likes of which you’d normally hear on Comedy Bang! Bang!. Lauren Lapkus (who is not playing herself but instead Zach’s longtime producer) and Galifianakis, for example, lounge in a swan boat together during one dramatic “what are we going to do next?” moment. She then randomly pulls a trumpet out of her bag and proceed to play it with both the ear-splitting ability of someone who’s never actually touched a musical instrument before and the outsized confidence of a savant.
Her point is that her dream was to become a trumpet player, and it makes her happy to finally be pursuing that dream. So, if he’s always wanted to host a network talk show he should do everything he can to make it happen. Predictably, it’ll end about as well for him as her trumpet playing has for her.
That’s exactly the brand of silly-stupid humor Auckerman, who co-wrote the script and directed, is so known for, but when stretched across a feature-length story there is the added push and pull between the demands of a movie and the desire to do a bunch of bits. Mostly, Between Two Ferns feels like a bunch of bits, such as Galifianakis flirting with Chrissy Teigan at a hotel bar since her husband, John Legend, is upstars “polishing his EGOT.”
Some of them are funny, others aren’t, but they’re really just there as linking pieces in-between a bunch of one-to-three minute Between Two Ferns episodes in which Galifianakis sits in awkward silence with the likes Adam Scott, Jon Hamm, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Letterman, Brie Larson, and Keanu Reeves after asking them horribly rude questions.
A gag reel over the credits reveals how scripted the interviews actually were, with both Galifianakis and guests breaking into laughter over the inherent absurdity of the situation. Still, I do get a kick out of the whole “mock celebrity roast but said with a straight face” of it all. Matthew McConaughey’s outburst of laughter when asked “What was the marijuana budget on True Detective?” is the real reason to watch Between Two Ferns: The Movie.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you ever watched one of the old viral Between Two Ferns clips and laughed, you’ll probably enjoy the new interviews in Between Two Ferns: The Movie. Even if not, this is a rather straightforward, silly road movie that you can get through in 75 minutes – 82 minutes if you watch the blooper reel and post-credit scene – and if you’re a fan of cringe humor and seeing famous people laugh at themselves then you can get into this.