Land of the Lost (2009)
Does money make something funnier? I have always been hesitant about Hollywood comedies that overspend like crazy, running up staggering budgets. In 2007, Evan Almighty became the most expensive comedy of all time, toppling a $200 million budget thanks to costly special effects and animal wrangling (and those assorted Steve Carell beards couldn’t have been cheap either). Did all that spending make the movie any funnier? Comedy is a cost-friendly enterprise because it all truly starts at conception: the setup, the payoff, the buildup, the delivery. If an idea isn’t funny at its core conception, it’s usually not going to be funny no matter how expensive the window dressing. Here comes a big budget Land of the Lost movie with Will Ferrell in the lead, and I ask again, does more money make something funnier?
Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell) has devoted his life, and taxpayer dollars, to researching time portals that open dimensions that combine the past, present, and future. After an interview on the Today Show with a hostile Matt Lauer, Marshall becomes a laughingstock in the scientific community. Holly (Anna Friel) is a science grad student who believes in his crackpot theories. The two of them use Marshall’s tachyon device to find a cosmic hotpot. It just so happens to be in the middle of a low-rent attraction, “The Devil’s Canyon” run by hick opportunist, Will (Danny McBride). He takes Marshall and Holly along on a tour of the cheap attraction but then suddenly the earth shakes and the people fall off a waterfall into a time portal. They awake in a strange land filled with dinosaurs, primate people like the hairy sidekick Chaka (Jorma Taccone), hissing lizard creatures known as Sleestaks, and all sorts of prehistoric danger. The only way home is to find the tachyon device to open another portal. Too bad the device, too, is lost.
The original Land of the Lost TV show was a dopey sci-fi show for kids that had silly plots, terrible special effects, and the unmistakable feeling that the creators and writers often indulged in psychotropic substances. But let’s face it folks, the Land of the Lost TV show was squarely aimed at kids and does not hold up well. You could seek the zippers on the back of the Sleestaks. I don’t intend to trample anyone’s good time nostalgic feelings, but this show was just not very good. However, the movie almost plays like a loving parody of the material. It doesn’t point out the flaws of the original TV show in a meta-critical manner like the Brady Bunch movies; Land of the Lost channels a childish, goofball tone and brazenly heads along at full-steam. This movie was marketed as a “family” film based on a children’s TV series. Warning to parents considering taking young children: this is not a family movie. This is a raunchy PG-13 comedy with plenty of kid-friendly gross out humor and parent-spooking sexual humor. There are masturbation gags, an F-bomb, an out-of-the-blue Jesus-on-the-cross comparison that could raise eyebrows, and all sorts of crude behavior, including two instances of self-imposed dinosaur golden showers.
The movie is completely juvenile, crude, surprisingly raunchy for a PG-13 movie, and yet it has an absurdist bemusement to be had. If you can catch on to its wonky wavelength that manages to satirize the original series, there are subversive, guilty pleasures to be had. There is a campy and irreverent spirit that I was able to latch onto and enjoy. I’m not saying Ferrell dousing himself in dinosaur urine is witty in any regard, but I laughed. When he does it a second time I laughed some more. This is like a gonzo update of a Saturday morning children’s series, like what would happen if Terry Gilliam took a crack at writing an adaptation (not to sully Gilliam’s creative integrity, the poop and pee jokes will be added by a screenwriting hack in a re-write). The jokes seem aimed at kids, like the bodily function stuff, but then there are jokes that will certainly go over the kids’ heads, like a drawn out sequence where the boys partake in a drug trip thanks to a local narcotic fruit. The TV series has been adapted into a big budget Will Ferrell comedy, a mixture of juvenile gags and goofball hijinks with a wink, which will alienate fans of the original series. It’s not sophisticated high comedy for adults but then the jokes can also be too wordy for small kids to understand why it should be funny. The opening scuffle between Marshall and Lauer is a good setup and also provides a satisfying payoff by the movie’s conclusion. Not all of the jokes work and there are too many scenes that drag on, long after the joke has already been given a burial ceremony. Many jokes are one-sceners and don’t build into something stronger and more satisfying than an in-the-moment chuckle. Land of the Lost is a somewhat muddled, somewhat confusing, somewhat chintzy, somewhat bizarre movie, which makes it an oddly fitting adaptation of its odd source.
The plot is a thin strand to tie the comedic setup together, but the movie also has dashes of adventure and action. Marshall insults a T-rex by ridiculing its brain size, and the T-rex becomes an ongoing antagonist, chasing the trio all around this so-called land of the lost. Usually every action beat is tied into some form of a comic setting, like when Marshall has to rescue his special tachyon machine by singing and dancing to “I Hope I Get It” from the Broadway show, A Chorus Line. Director Brad Siberling (Lemony Snicket, City of Angels) and production designer Bo Welch (Batman) make this movie look downright gorgeous. The trippy production design is Oscar-worthy. I enjoyed the visual landscape of this cosmic dumping ground, where a desert could be strewn with odd fixtures like a Viking ship or a gas station sign or a motel pool. The special effects are fairly good as well, especially adding detail and personality to the T-rex. This is a high-gloss comedy that might appeal to Salvador Dali if Dali had a secret love for defecation humor and boobs (maybe not as much with the latter).
The actors make the material better; thanks to Ferrell and McBride I was able to laugh at churlish humor that I might otherwise have scoffed at. This movie had me laughing at the basest humor, jokes chronicling the assured comedic assets of the female mammary and, well, dino pee. But you know what, context and an appealing actor with good comedic command can make anything funny. Ferrell and McBride have great comedic chemistry and the two of them know how to take a semi-lame joke and give it life with just the right delivery. Granted, Ferrell is playing the same character he has been for years, the sweet-hearted idiot man-child, and McBride (Pineapple Express, TV’s Eastbound and Down) is playing a toned down version of his blustery insincere jerk, and Friel (TV’s Pushing Daisies) is there essentially to be a love interest/straight man/source for boob groping. At one point, Holly rips away her pant legs for no good reason other than it allows the camera to get some high-grade butt shots of Friel in her short shorts.
I had fun with Land of the Lost and I’m not too ashamed to admit it. I enjoyed most of this psychedelic adaptation and grooved to its absurd, antisocial, irreverent spirit. It’s loosely based on the 1970s TV show by Sid and Marty Krofft, but this is a positive given that the original series was dumb. Not that this movie is intellectually riveting. This isn’t a daring movie or a cleverly diverting comedy, and it has unnecessary moments where they cram six pages of scientific nonsense into a one-minute exposition dump, but Ferrell and his time-traveling companions kept me smiling more often than not thanks to their camaraderie, improvisation skills, and ability to transcend the sophomoric material. It’s a silly mess but Land of the Lost is an entertaining time as long as you lower expectations and know what you’re getting into, dino urine and boob groping and everything.
Nate’s Grade: B