Since 2017, Midwest Film Journal has prided itself on delivering thoughtful commentary on current and classic cinema. No one piece has persisted as powerfully as our 2018 review of Den of Thieves, which we called an “unswervingly painful” waste of 140 minutes.
SEO tells us the piece’s popularity is thanks to its reference of one character’s inscrutable “Peckerwood” tattoo. Instinct tells us otherwise: People really love Gerard Butler.
Disfigured catacomb vocalist. Ripped Spartan warrior. Machine gun preacher. Secretly sweet lothario. Donut-housing cop. Dragon-slaying hero. HMS Devonshire crewman. Angry little leprechaun. Stalwart hunter killer. Geostorm-stopping scientist. Vengeful Egyptian god.
That’s but a small sampling of this Scottish export’s quarter-century run — whose body of work will be highlighted biweekly this month in a retrospective series.
We bring you …The Butler Did It.
If ever there were feature-length proof of an extensive, insidious Hollywood blackmail operation, it’s Movie 43 — an eighth-baked Kentucky Fried Movie wannabe that stitches together several short sketches. The film gathers a distressingly large passel of talented actors who, unlike most of us, seem to have been exploited for the secrets they’d rather keep hidden.
Yes, producers Charles B. Wessler and Peter Farrelly (who also directs one of the 15 segments) say they relied on guilting talent into abiding by promises made to make the movie. The results, filmed over the course of several years to “accommodate actors’ schedules,” feels more like the fulfillment of multiple ultimatums.
Movie 43 features Dennis Quaid looking like Steve Buscemi’s Lenny “How do you do, fellow kids” Wosniak from 30 Rock — sweatily pitching these patched-together shorts to a studio executive (Greg Kinnear) and offering fellatio to anyone else on the studio lot who can provide him access. (Quaid, by the way, portrays a character named Charlie Wexler, and the clear wordplay on the film’s producer — and Wexler’s insistence that these shorts will win the Oscar someday — make Wessler and Farrelly’s eventual Oscar triumph for Green Book even more upsetting, and indicative that we are in the darkest timeline.)
Then there’s Kate Winslet trying to act nonplussed across the table from Hugh Jackman, who has giant testicles dangling from his neck. Halle Berry makes tableside guacamole with a giant prosthetic breast and then feigns squirting hot sauce into her vagina via turkey baster. Richard Gere stars in “iBabe,” a segment concerning a sex-doll mp3 player with a cooling fan in its genital region that is malfunctioning and chopping off users’ penises. It’s no coincidence that Gere’s facial expression would seem to welcome a bullet in any second he appears on the screen.
Indeed, there is even money on a man with a gun lingering just outside the camera’s frame at any given moment during Movie 43 … or at least all of them except those contained within “Happy Birthday.” That’s because Gerard Butler looks legitimately excited and elated to portray a pair of foul-mouthed leprechauns whose desire for protecting their gold is matched only by their thirst for mangling people’s balls.
Certainly the five most surreal minutes of Butler’s career (a minute passes before he shows up) and arguably the most consecutively unpleasant, “Happy Birthday” was, at some indeterminate point, squeezed into the schedule of king shitbag-supreme director Brett Ratner. Its script comes from Jacob Fleisher, a staple of children’s-cartoon writing rooms who undoubtedly pounded this out as some sort of counterpoint to prove that he, too, could write a terrible script intended for adults. Butler’s co-stars are Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville, the latter looking particularly gaunt, sad and desperate to do whatever has been asked of him so he can move on from this unpleasant, difficult time.
Butler has described “Happy Birthday” as “just the most bizarre story,” perhaps in part because he’s a Scotsman giving augmented, pitched-up voice to a pair of Irish-folklore figures — one of whom plummets a knife into Seann William Scott’s testicles while the other shoots him in the eye. Perhaps in part because the lewd phrases emitting from the leprechauns’ mouths sound spat out from a random profanity generator. Perhaps it’s just because Butler looks like he’s enjoying himself here, which can’t be said for 90% of the other actors in Movie 43.
It certainly sounds like a lot of other Butler films, given that “Go fuck yourself, asshole” are the first lines heard in the short. Scott and Knoxville play friends on the outs after Knoxville sleeps with Scott’s girlfriend. As a make-good, he’s gotten him a birthday gift of a leprechaun — bound and gagged in the basement, whom they intend to torture until he gives up the location of his pot of gold. The reveal of Butler’s face is like some horrifying Aphex Twin shit mixed with near-Polar Express levels of dead-eyed computer-generated ineptitude.
From there, things get macabre and gruesome — as a second leprechaun with Gerard Butler’s face shows up, hidden within the pot of gold and armed with a gun and a knife. Scott loses an eye. Knoxville loses his nipples. But eventually the “full-growns” get the upper hand, kill and dismember the leprechauns, and take their gold before Knoxville remembers the other half of his gift — a fairy who “sucks cock for gold coins.” At this moment, you’ll understand why Ratner might have felt this material speaking to him at a personal level.
“The last thing you’ll see is my cock skull-fuckin’ you!” Leprechaun One shouts before things get bad for him, prompting a response of fists. He then spits blood back into Knoxville’s face. Or maybe it’s Scott’s face. I watched it twice. It doesn’t matter. Butler’s leprechaun then asks if they want the lights off as he “fucks them with a pair of rusty scissors” and entreaties them to “lick my crusty Irish taint, you yeast-breeding cunthole.” and, for those keeping score: In five minutes of screen time, Butler says “balls” six times, “fuck” seven and “cunt” twice. He also threatens to stretch Scott and Knoxville’s dicks over a fire hydrant. Delightful.
There’s certainly a world in which “Gerard Butler as profane leprechaun” would have worked. It’s just not the one in which we live. You get the feeling, though, that while most people in Movie 43 staved off participation as long as humanly possible, Butler was a statue by the phone awaiting the call. (He apparently jumped in after Colin Farrell — the envy of everyone else in this movie — was able to wriggle free from a commitment.) And in that sense, “Happy Birthday” is a sloppily wrapped, thoughtlessly gifted reminder of all that for which Gerard Butler’s career has come to stand: the arrival of his rogue’s smile, sailor’s mouth and girthy gumption to whatever is asked of him, often with little regard to quality.