To pull off a feature-length version of their loosely sketch-based (and brilliant) Adult Swim show Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, Dada-comedy auteurs Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have repositioned the crosshairs of their scope. For their first movie, no 10- to 12-minute series of impeccably shoddy gags and mind-bending satire about television would have done. To continue to insane-ify TV within the context of a movie might have been characteristically transgressive of them, but, at least by the perverse scale on which all of Tim and Eric’s work must be judged, they’ve taken what could be considered the rational path and made their Billion Dollar Movie a movie about movies.
More or less. It isn’t hard to see that Tim and Eric work within a pretty loosely codified framework. For the uninitiated, this pretty much means that when they begin a sketch, you should probably not expect them to end it on the same wavelength. Jokes morph and balloon into something else with these guys, usually something grotesque and oddly meaningful. So while some episodes of Awesome Show are based around an entirely coherent theme — their MTV-ish Jim and Derrick alter-egos being the best example — more often than not, they let fly with whatever bizarre concepts spill out of their dual subconscious. That works in a shorter format, but it seems they’ve decided that, with a longer format, you just have to tighten up.
So, amazingly, the most bizarre element in Billion Dollar Movie is how traditional it turns out to be. Of course, it’s full of the requisite Tim and Eric business — John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell lending their famous faces to gloriously sick caricatures; long and involved jokes that exist for no other reason than to make you uncomfortable — but it also begins with a story that isn’t hard to follow and never strays too far from it. That may sound like a small compliment to pay a movie, but when that movie is made by two guys who have a passionate aversion to traditional forms, it should register as some kind of impressive feat.
The story is this: Tim and Eric, playing versions of themselves who’ve wholeheartedly sold out to Hollywood, land in hot water with an evil businessman who wants back the $1 billion he fronted them to make a feature film. The film they turned in runs three full minutes and consists of a Johnny Depp impersonator walking down a street in a diamond-covered disco suit. The cost of the real diamonds that make up the suit mostly accounts for the film’s huge price tag. The businessman wants either his money back or blood, and, opting for neither, Tim and Eric go on the run. After a lot of absurd(ist) business fleeing across the country, they find refuge at a decaying California mall whose owner (Ferrell) promises them $1 billion if they can fix the place up and make it profitable.
And here’s the crazy thing about Billion Dollar Movie: they take over the mall and fix it up. Like dutiful comedians who need a structure from which to launch a 90-minute series of jokes, Tim and Eric have come up with a run-down mall, thus providing themselves with a hermetic location they can populate with as many characters and as much craziness as possible. Expected non-sequiturs aside, what happens in the mall takes the form of a real movie. Who would have thought Tim and Eric would have made a coherent film?
Except that a coherent film ends up doing Tim and Eric wrong. Maybe I was expecting too much (or too little; it can be hard to say whether you want these guys to ramp their weirdness up or down), but to my mind the ability to make a feature should have presented Tim and Eric with the opportunity to stretch their comedy beyond the breaking point: to create something genuinely surreal and inscrutable, without losing the funny. That may sound like a tall order to have expected, but Awesome Show set the bar pretty high. Instead, what they made isn’t much different, really, than something like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, in that both movies grind to a frequent halt to indulge walk-on comedians in bits that gleefully overshadow the main story. The only real difference is that Tim and Eric aren’t afraid to go a few notches darker. They could have gone much farther.