Could the average person on the street name an American comedy troupe? (Could the average American name any comedy troupe?) This may spark some debate, but there hasn't been a modern American comedy troupe who has transcended into the mainstream consciousness in the way that Monty Python or The Kids in the Hall have. But, that doesn't mean that there isn't an American group who trying very hard to achieve great fame. The five-member group formed at Colgate University and within a decade they had broken into filmmaking. Their latest effort, Beerfest, shows that the group has many talents, but they're still searching for their true voice.
As Beerfest opens, we meet Jan (Paul Soter) and Todd Wolfhouse (Erik Stolhanske), who have just lost their grandfather, Johann von Wolfhaus (Donald Sutherland). In turn, they have inherited a restaurant ("Schnitzengiggle"). Their great-grandmother, Great Gam Gam (Cloris Leachman), requests that the boys take Johann's ashes back to Germany to be placed with the other family urns. Jan and Todd arrive in Germany only to find that Oktoberfest is going on. After insulting the entire crowd, Jan and Todd meet their German guide, Mr. Schniedelwichsen (Bjorn Johnson), who leads them to a hidden location where a secret competition of drinking games is being held. The Americans are rebuffed by the Germans, most notably Wolfgang von Wolfhaus (Jurgen Prochnow), who claims that Johann had shamed the family and stolen the von Wolfhaus beer recipe. Todd and Jan are humiliated by the Germans and find that their drinking skills aren't as good as they'd thought.
Returning home to Colorado, Todd and Jan decide that they will get revenge on the Germans by forming a drinking team and winning Beerfest. They track down their own drinking buddies local glutton Phil "Landfill" Krundel (Kevin Heffernan), scientist Steve
"Fink" Finkelstein (Steve Lemme), and male prostitute Barry "Barry Badrinath"
Badrinath (Jay Chandrasekhar) to join their team. This quintet then begins an intense year-long training regimen to prepare for the competition. They create their own beer and must overcome infighting and relationship issues in order to meet their goal. After all of their work can they defeat the crafty Germans?
Beerfest is the fourth feature film from Broken Lizard and they portray themselves as a group who is caught between two worlds. Their first two films, Puddle Cruiser and Super Troopers were straight-ahead comedies which featured original stories. (I've heard others describe Super Troopers as spoof or satire, but I disagree.) Their most recent films, Club Dread and Beerfest, have fallen closer to the spoof category, as they take on a specific genre(s) and then lampoon it. The problem is that their original films are much better than their spoofs.
With Puddle Cruiser and Super Troopers, the comedy emerged from the story and was very organic. In Beerfest (as well as Club Dread), Broken Lizard is working with a pre-determined set of rules and parameters and the comedy feels very, very forced. With their latest film, the group has decided to take on the sports movie genre. The movie is filled with every cliché from sports movies, from the underdog team out to prove something right down to the slow-motion shot during the finale. This stereotypical underdog team is comprised of a group of lovable losers who can only see their true worth when they work together. (Although, granted most sports films don't have male prostitutes.) The opponents are pure evil and we can't wait to see them get their comeuppance.
So, Broken Lizard attempts to shove as many jokes as possible into these hackneyed plot points. There are some funny moments here, but many of these scenes fall flat. Is the slow-motion shot during the finale clever? Sure. But, it's also very predictable and not all that funny. The truly funny parts of the film come from Broken Lizard simply being themselves.
Most Broken Lizard fans would probably agree that the Farva character is the best part of Super Troopers. But, the guys slipped in Club Dread by having Kevin Heffernan play a sympathetic character. Fortunately, he's back playing a jerk as Landfill in Beerfest and he has some great moments here. (The scenes with Landfill and the puppet had me in tears.) Similarly, Lemme and Chandrasekhar also have fun exploring their parts, and the group proves that they truly have a talent for creating odd characters. The scenes in which the five characters talk or, more often, argue, are filled with some great throw-away lines. The movie could have been much better if the scenes in which the characters interact would have taken precedent over the spoof scenes.
Beerfest is available on tap on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film is coming to DVD in three separate editions, unrated widescreen, unrated full-screen, and R-rated widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the unrated full-screen version was viewed. The original aspect ratio of the film is 2.35:1 (judging by the deleted scenes), so things are very cramped on this 1.33:1 version. There were few examples of overt pan-and-scan, but most shots had a very claustrophobic look, and there were many times where I got the feeling that I was missing other things while the movie concentrated on the action in the center of the screen. The image did show some grain and overt artifacting. On the plus side, the colors were good and the image was never overly dark.
The Beerfest DVD sports a very nice Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects with no obvious hissing or distortion. The stereo effects are quite good, and sound-to-speaker placement is apparently dead-on. The surround sound effects are abundant and loud, most notably during the Beerfest sequences. Subwoofer effects are used sparingly, but they offer a bold presence when they kick in. For a comedy, the audio on this DVD is well-handled and certainly adds to the film.
As with the movie itself, the extra on the Beerfest DVD are a mixed bag. As noted above, the unrated DVD was viewed for this review. This cut runs some six minutes longer than the theatrical cut. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the R-rated cut, so I can't comment on the differences. The DVD features two AUDIO COMMENTARIES. The first is provided by Kevin Heffernan, Paul Soter, and Eric Stolhanske. This is a fun talk as the trio wavers between anecdotes about the making of the film and poking fun at one another. They are quick to compliment their co-stars and give details about the origin of the story. The second commentary has Steve Lemme and Jay Chandrasekhar. This talk is somewhat similar to the first one (why don't all five guys get together for a commentary?), but the pair don't talk as much as the first group. Chandrasekhar
and Lemme do a good job of pointing out scenes which were altered or re-written for the final version of the film. In "Party Foul" (9 minutes), the Broken Lizard gang talk about the inspiration for the film and then discuss the definition of a "party foul". This segment also includes scenes of an actual drinking contest in which the group was involved. "Beer 101" (15 minutes) is a truly odd featurette in which the troupe, along with some limited animation, lecture on the history of beer. This may be informative, but it isn't very funny. With "Frog Fluffer" (5 minutes), Steve Lemme interviews an actual scientist who extracts semen from frogs. Again, not funny. The DVD contains 23 DELETED SCENES, which run about 27 minutes. These can be viewed with or without optional audio commentary. There are some funny bits here. Some of the scenes are simply alternate takes, but there are some deleted subplots here as well. I actually prefer the excised Oktoberfest scene to the one in the finished film. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.
There's no doubt that Broken Lizard is a group of funny, funny men. But, they've yet to create their perfect film. Beerfest had the groups largest theatrical roll-out (opening on nearly 3000 screens), but the film's uneven tone clearly didn't catch on with audiences. The DVD release will allow viewers to give the film a second chance and unearth the classic scenes in this otherwise mediocre movie.