Eric Andre and Kitao Sakurai’s Bad Trip, a loosely-narrativized prank film, was a casualty of theaters closing in 2020. Now, what was originally planned for theatrical release has landed on the front page of Netflix. It is a common fate for films nowadays. But, perhaps unexpectedly, this mid-budget comedy is one of those lost 2020 films which would probably have played best in a crowded theater environment. So…you could call it the Tenet of comedy.
The film strings together a thin plot involving Chris (Andre) who, after being starstruck by the re-entry of his high school crush Maria (Michaela Conlin) into his life, brings his friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) on a roadtrip to New York City to win her heart. Meanwhile, Bud’s sister (Tiffany Haddish), who recently escaped from prison, hunts Bud and Chris down for stealing her car. However, the real selling points of the movie are the elaborate pranks in which unaware bystanders are subjected to extraordinary, outlandish, and occasionally abject stunts—think Jackass and its spinoff Bad Grandpa, Borat and its recent sequel, or Andre’s own gleefully anarchic The Eric Andre Show.
And many of these pranks/stunts would indeed be the most effective when experienced alongside a crowd (ideally, a crowd populated with fans of The Eric Andre Show). The gut reaction to this type of set piece can be knee-jerk, which could make the communal experience more exciting.
That said, some of these set pieces are effective regardless. The high point is a montage sequence in a grocery store, in which Chris and Bud find themselves high on hallucinogens. This scene, which is filmed with cinematic techniques to emulate the effects of mind-altering drugs, mixes the possibilities of the film medium and the “candid camera” prank show atmosphere in a novel and fun way.
The film, early on, makes good use of generic tropes. Combining the artifice of fictional genre narratives with the extra-diegetic “reality” of the stunts creates some clever subversion. Instances of Chris being dumbstruck by the sight of Maria and an elaborate musical number play out surrounded by people who don’t know they are in a movie, giving a different perspective on the romantic comedy framework. It’s smart, and just a tad more subtle than, say, the scene with the gorilla (the film’s low point, I would say).
The effect of Bad Trip is twofold. It involves both the crude, bodily reaction to sudden, startling events and the genuine reaction by real humans in the aftermath of such events. On a technical level, I question the veracity of some of these reactions (particularly given that certain lines from the principle cast appear to be ADR, which is to say recorded after the fact). But there is something to seeing people attempting to act sincerely and empathetically in the face of overblown antics that is somewhat life-affirming. At least, it appears life-affirming when juxtaposed with Eric Andre vomiting excessively onto a group of bar patrons or Howery getting stuck in the hole of a porta-John.
On the flip side, the undeniable reality of the emotional manipulation that underlie these stunts makes some set pieces a more bitter pill to swallow than I think the film and its players know how to deal with. This is a comes-with-the-territory sort of problem with these hidden camera films. And while it seems evident in certain instances that the bystanders to the events of this film realize midway through that they are being filmed for something fictional (and the end credits montage shows the smiling reactions of prankees as the cameras come out of the woodwork), there are instances where the stunts appear genuinely life-threatening enough to cause some detrimental emotional side effects on the unsuspecting people.
Andre and Sakurai, though, have been doing these stunts for years on Eric Andre Show, where Andre will walk around New York in a parachute telling people he jumped off a building as his head bleeds or dress up as a parking enforcement officer and urinate on people’s cars. And they tend to strike a good balance of can’t-help-but-laugh deviations from normative behavior and unhinged absurdism. With Bad Trip, the absurdism is tempered in favor of farce. But the effect in a number of cases remains can’t-help-but-laugh.
Bad Trip: B
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)