Search Engines feels like a painfully super-sized, emotionally tone-deaf, fecklessly R-rated episode of Modern Family, written by a crotchety, broad-generalization technophobe insisting on the last word.
This overwritten, overstuffed mess sees the loss of cellular reception plummet an already stereotypically dysfunctional California Thanksgiving into further chaos. That plot doesn’t even kick in until the movie is more than halfway over, but the revelation as to why is laughably tipped within the first few minutes. Trailers hint at a red herring that, by sheer virtue of ambition, would have been far more interesting.
Functioning drunks? Neurotically insecure gays? Sexually curious teens (who, quite unbelievably, use the phrase “erect ding-dong” in a movie where “hard dick” would otherwise fit right in)? Straying spouses? Sad divorcées? Kvetching mothers? All here, plus eight or so more characters of equally feeble depth.
Engines could have been a combustible powder-keg of close-quarters social satire. Writer-director Russell Brown doesn’t even bother packing a fuse. When one character remarks that the situation has become “like one of those old Rosalind Russell movies,” you have to laugh. If not, you would weep.
It’s more like the worst of Diablo Cody sliced, diced and resurrected Frankenstein’s monster-style as the script settles into a rapid-fire rotisserie of literary and pop-culture references; one scene whiplashes from Gustave Flaubert to Sir Mix-a-Lot with nary a chuckle. And Brown’s thesis (technology is bad and ruining us all) lands with a series of predictably, and depressingly, didactic thuds. The characters’ screeds feel like something Brown scrawled one afternoon after an annoying trip to buy a new smartphone.
There is one intentional laugh delivered with perfect timing by Ayumi Iizuka as Kimmy, a sports journalist besieged by anonymously racist and sexist comments on social media. The rest of the cast — including Joely Fisher, Daphne Zuniga, Connie Stevens, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Barry Watson — flounders, unaided by attention-deficit editing that kills any mild momentum mustered. It’s difficult, though, to imagine anything saving a moment like Zuniga’s character arguing why paper dictionaries trump digital ones. Her rationale: You had to know alphabetical order and work hard to turn thin pages.
“Who has time to watch anything longer than a YouTube video?” is an awfully dangerous hypothetical for a feature-length film this bad. If only Engines ended before a vain actor shows up to hallucinate his superego speaking in his smartphone and chant, “My selfie is not myself.”
Here’s another bit of dialogue: “So much of life is about waiting for something to happen and the sadness when it doesn’t happen.” That might as well describe the hellish disappointment of expecting anything more than a single, solitary chuckle from Search Engines.