Adding a full act to something that wouldn’t have exceeded an hour way back when on HBO, Netflix presents Between Two Ferns: The Movie — an 82-minute expansion of comedian / actor Zach Galifianakis’s long-running satirical web series for Funny or Die.
Since 2008, Ferns has skewered the sycophantic and superficial nature of contemporary conversation between celebrities in the late-night talk-show format. Presented in a purposefully low-rent public-access style, these vignettes pit Galifianakis against famous people portraying themselves — often Galifianakis’s friends and co-stars like Steve Carell or Bradley Cooper or, more recently, President Barack Obama.
Introduced with their names misspelled and their claims to fame perverted into jokes, each Ferns guest arrives allegedly unaware of exactly what Galifianakis will say. What begins as a series of non-sequitur nudges often devolves into some bear-poking belligerence that’s perhaps quasi-legitimate. He once asked Brad Pitt if it was tough to tan living in then-wife Angelina Jolie’s shadow, then made a pointed reference to Pitt’s other ex-wife, Jennifer Aniston.
Trafficking in surreal improvisation similar to Bill Hader’s Saturday Night Live character Stefon, Ferns finds its allure partly in the escalating asininity of what Galifianakis is going to say (either as himself or his twin brother, Seth, whom Sean Penn once hilariously threatened to knock out). It’s also watching the usually cool and composed match his menace, however jovially — like Pitt spitting gum at Galifianakis or President Obama’s classic rejoinder to a question about a third presidential term: “If I ran a third time, it would be sort of like doing a third Hangover movie.”
Great in small doses but prescribed in tiny amounts since Galifianakis’s post-Hangover fame peaked in 2011, Ferns has now morphed into a film comedy with a cameo around every corner — written and directed by series co-creator and Comedy Bang! Bang! host Scott Aukerman.
The movie covers territory tread with more big laughs per minute in Wayne’s World and with a more persuasive layer of pathos in the Comedy Central TV series Review (one of the greatest shows you’ve probably never seen). The actual interviews, which are what everyone is here to see, often lack the teeth you’ve come to expect from the bite-sized segments — although there are a couple of incredible digs at an Oscar-winning actor. Attempts to expand the world beyond Galifianakis into additional Ferns personnel and their life’s regrets don’t land. And for all the genital gags, only hearing a certain American icon of humor use the word “penis” several times over in dulcet tones really lands. But Galifianakis’s gift of gab about gab is too strong for Ferns to suffer too much, even at a length padded by superfluous subplots.
Framed as a behind-the-scenes documentary, the film follows Galifianakis as he shoots his show at a public-access station in Flinch, North Carolina. It’s the sixth-most-popular public access series in the Southeastern Carolinas. But Funny or Die has made Galifianakis a hit that people laugh at, not with, and lined the pockets of co-founder Will Ferrell (playing himself to his usual absurdist hilt).
After Galifianakis’s diva behavior prompts a plumbing catastrophe that floods the station and halts production, Ferrell demands Galifianakis deliver 10 full shows in two weeks to keep the website clicks coming. In return, Ferrell promises to fulfill Galifianakis’s lifelong dream of a contract for a late-night talk show on the Lifetime Network. So he sets out on the road to find 10 celebrities in their natural habitats with his crew — meek producer Carol (Lauren Lapkus), camera operator Cameron “Cam” Campbell (Ryan Gaul) and suffer-no-fools sound woman “Boom Boom DeLaurentis (Jiavani Linayao).
No major spoilers here, but the famous faces include those with their own Netflix endeavors (maintaining the web series’ tradition of sponsored content), enough Marvel Cinematic Universe personnel to prompt speculation on which character Galifianakis will one day play, and — of course — Jon Hamm, always first to arrive for this sort of party but reliable at livening it up. The second you see one actor, you know Galifianakis will lamely mangle his name. But he recovers with a gag about the riotous extremes afforded by that performer’s facial features. Another one incorrectly credited as “Tyrone” feels most at ease playing an exaggerated version of himself.
“You have no capacity for empathy or embarrassment,” says one of Galifianakis’s guests in a stern admonishment. Ferns loses its way when straying from these combative segments into a story of redemptive persistence that frames Galifianakis as a well-intentioned Michael Scott-ish galoot. Galifianakis played that role just fine on his bittersweet FX series Baskets; it just feels out of place here, even if it’s ultimately dashed away in a bit of a piss take.
More shapeless than even the film compiled from Anchorman outtakes, Ferns still has something smart to say about challenging someone well-known to reveal something relatable rather than simply sitting them down for silly, sophomoric games with all the other cool kids.