With Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, writer/director Eli Craig wants to take the idea of the killer hillbilly and turn it upside down, but sideways is about as far as he can muster. The gag is pretty simple: Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) aren't actually murderous mountain people, but a couple of friendly, innocent guys who end up victims of a series of misunderstandings. Although there are definitely laughs to be had here, the film struggles to sustain the requirements of its concept for even a scant 89 minutes.
The two groups first encounter each other outside a local grocery story in the middle of Anonymous Hicksville, USA, where the teens have stopped to buy beer. Dale, always the shy one, tries to talk to Allison (Katrina Bowden) after Tucker eggs him on, but his stammering comes off as creepy, and Chad (Jesse Moss) steps in to "defend" her. Later that evening, while Tucker and Dale are fishing, they see Allison slip off a rock and fall into the water, but their heroic rescue looks to the kids like two guys snatching their friend up and rowing away. By the next morning, Chad's worked the entire gang into a lather believing that Tucker and Dale are going to murder Allison -- or worse.
The idea that dim-bulb big-city kids who have watched one too many Wrong Turn movies can't see the Tucker and Dale for the harmless dopes that they are is pretty funny, particularly because Tucker and Dale themselves are exceptionally likable. Labine's strangled shy-guy stuff might be a little more awkward than Craig intends it to be (it's hard not to wonder sometimes if Dale's not genuinely a bit...slow), but his scenes with Bowden have a pleasing charm, and he's got a lovable-puppy-dog presence that's hard to resist. Meanwhile, Tudyk has his friendly but hapless character down pat, scoring some of the movie's biggest laughs with just the right levels of baffled exasperation as more and more bodies keep piling up on his property.
However, the film's concept requires both parties to remain oblivious to the other's true intentions for nearly an hour, and even in a heightened film like this, there's a limit to how much the audience can suspend their disbelief. Chad's hatred of Tucker and Dale clearly springs from something deeper than misunderstanding; as the film goes on, he turns from a popped-collar douchebag into guy with not-really-hidden, seething anger at the idea that hillbillies or rednecks would even exist near him, and the result feels less like slapstick and more like satire. Sadly, the same can't be said for the other kids, who end up in a series of elaborate, strained physical setups (boards with nails sticking out of them, characters not looking where they're going, poor spear technique) to keep Tucker and Dale's "killing spree" alive. The process quickly wears thin, requiring an increasing amount of setup for a diminishing payoff.
As the film shambles to a close (meandering more than a little in the final lap), Craig's control over his movie feels weaker and weaker. This is a film that wants to be a romance, a horror parody, a ribbing of prejudice, and a relatively scary slasher movie all at once, and even when the film is enjoyable, there's no sense of anyone guiding these elements in and out of the driver's seat. Tucker & Dale has a solid premise, but what it doesn't have is a punchline, resulting in a movie that doesn't know what to do with its central joke except start it over, scene after scene.
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