Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
We all have movies we love despite all urges to the contrary. Maybe it came along at the right time in your life. Maybe you had a unique viewing experience. Maybe it features a memorable performance despite the rest of the film not entirely working. Maybe it reminds you of somebody special. Conversely, we all have movies we hate, no matter how well made or smart or effective they are, possibly for the exact same reasons as listed above. This is just a small part of what makes movies, and movie criticism, so enjoyable.
Strange Wilderness undoubtedly falls into the first category for me. Question my credibility if you must. Disavow any future work I put forth into the world. Take away my parking spot at work. I can’t deny who I am and who I am is somebody that enjoys this film, regardless of all the evidence. That’s not to say that I believe Strange Wilderness to be a perfect film. There are stretches and gags that are just plain dumb, even by the very dumb standards that the film itself sets.
Yes, the law of diminishing returns proves itself once again after the ninth instance of a man getting hit in the groin, and I just can’t defend those decisions. Nor can I defend anything that involves Steve Zahn and an unfortunate turkey. Or any occurrence in which Zahn attempts to speak Spanish. Everything else, though, I’m on board.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Peter (Zahn), the son of the host of a one-time hit nature TV show that has dropped off considerably under Peter’s watch after his father’s death. Faced with plummeting ratings and a network that wants him out, Peter and his ragtag crew of stoners and rejects sets out on the search for Bigfoot. It’s worth noting, of course, that at no point do any of the characters debate the very improbable existence of Bigfoot. To do so would be a frivolous gesture because the plot in Strange Wilderness does not matter. Even less integral to the plot is the titular nature show or its survival. At no point are we expected to invest in the careers of Peter or any of his friends. Rather, the film is simply an excuse for the characters to get into wacky situations of their own doing, smoke some weed and make more and more ill-advised decisions. So why does this film feel so different from similarly plot-less films in this series?
For starters, Strange Wilderness has an impeccable cast, including Zahn and Justin Long, two of our generation’s most underrated comedic actors. Long in particular is fantastic, managing to make his one-note stoner character, who’s perpetually almost too high to function, hilarious at every turn. Round it out with Jonah Hill, surely improvising at least half of his lines, and Kevin Heffernan, the secret weapon of the Broken Lizard films, and you have something that The Animal or Deuce Bigalow can’t come within ball-tapping reach of. Is the cast’s clearly superior improvisational ability enough to push the film above the mediocre standards set by earlier films? I always find it more enjoyable to see a group of actors improvising and exhibiting their natural comedic abilities to enhance a film. And I can’t express enough how much of a breath of fresh air it is to see a “hot girl tag-along” subplot that doesn’t end with her and the main character romantically involved by the finale.
In spite of my praise for the film, Strange Wilderness is far from an extreme outlier amongst the rest of the Happy Madison films. The film’s structure is so similarly crude and conventional that it could almost be copied and pasted into nearly any Sandler or Spade vehicle. I think what really sets the film apart from other entries is the cast’s lack of ego; with Sandler or Schneider’s films, it’s clear from the beginning that they’ll end up on top. But Zahn and company play their characters with nothing to lose and nothing to gain. Does this rob the film of any emotional investment from the audience? Probably, but sometimes it’s just as enjoyable to turn your brain off and watch a group of grown men shoot Bigfoot with automatic weapons.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Oliver Hudson shows up for a moment as part of the rival film crew. I don’t think has any lines. My wife has a crush on him.
- Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. A key plot point involves a man printing a high-resolution printout of a map that he retrieves from a home security video.
- Fart Joke Counter: None, but plenty of gags involving men getting hit in the groin.
- The Walkout Test: An easy fail. Too much doobie-smoking!
- NEXT TIME: Film Twitter’s favorite Secret Masterpiece: You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.