It's got to be tough when you make your break out piece of work early on. It sets up expectations for your future work that may never be matched again. This is the problem I've been having with the guys of Broken Lizard. As a comedy troupe with a uniquely skewed vision, they scored big with Super Troopers, their take on the shenanigans of bored highway cops in Vermont. With their follow up, Club Dread, I tempered my expectations thinking that it would be hard for them to hit the bulls-eye twice in a row, but I still wasn't prepared for just how far off the mark that unfunny slasher parody turned out to be. Next they gave us Beerfest with its pitch for competitive drinking as an underground sport. While a significant improvement over Club Dread, it still felt like unfocused sketches in search of a cohesive story. Their newest release The Slammin' Salmon addresses those concerns head on by giving us a focused and barely contained look at restaurant culture that almost reaches the heights of lunacy found in their best work.
Cleon Salmon (Michael Clarke Duncan) tends to rule with an iron fist, or shall I say iron glove. After achieving fame and fortune in the world of boxing, highlighted by events like 'the Fracas in Caracas' and 'the Dispute in Beirut', he has opened a classy seafood joint called The Slammin' Salmon. His fine establishment is managed by Rich (Kevin Heffernan) who oversees the staff ranging from the sweet waitress Tara (Cobie Smulders) to the rage-filled chef (Paul Soter). When Cleon falls in debt to a Yakuza boss for $20,000 he is quick to shove the stress into Rich's lap, telling him that the restaurant needs to earn that money over the course of a single night's service. The motivation is simple. The top earning member of the wait staff gets $10,000 while the bottom earner gets a broken rib sandwich, courtesy of the champ himself.
Working off a concept like that, it's easy to see why the Broken Lizard crew succeeds with this film. It gives them an opportunity to set up plenty of smaller scenarios and populate them with quirky customers (Will Forte, Vivica Fox, Morgan Fairchild to name a few) who can interact with the equally quirky wait staff to great effect. At the same time, restricting all the action to the restaurant reigns in the proceedings, while allowing numerous tiny catastrophes to snowball towards a frenzied finale. This helps the film's pacing immensely since it gives us more time upfront to familiarize ourselves with the characters during the calm before the storm. Considering the poor pacing of past Broken Lizard films, I find the well modulated orchestration of chaos within The Slammin' Salmon to be a feather in the film's cap.
I've already mentioned a couple of the members of Salmon's wait staff but let me delve into this a little more because not all of them were equally successful in tickling my funny bone. Starting with the Lizard crew, Steve Lemme and Jay Chandrasekhar were easily the standouts. Lemme plays Connor, a waiter who quit the restaurant when he had a shot to be on the prominent TV procedural, CFI Hotlanta. When a poorly timed nose-job ended his career, he had to return to his old stomping grounds after eating a slice of humble pie. His bruised ego helps him come across as the most well-rounded character of the bunch. Chandrasekhar's character, Nuts, is for lack of a better word, nuts. When he is on his meds, he is sedate and strange but when he forgets to take them, his alter ego Zongo comes out to play. Even though the character is underwritten, Nuts is successful due to Chandrasekhar's wild-eyed performance.
Although I normally find Heffernan to be the best part of any Broken Lizard venture, here he seems more restrained. He tends to stay in the background except for a swallowed diamond ring subplot that lets him dabble in potty humor. This might be because this film is Heffernan's directorial debut, taking the reigns from Chandrasekhar who directed all the previous Lizard films. Soter and Erik Stolhanske can't use that excuse. They just have one-note characters to fall back on. Soter plays the dual roles of the angry chef and his brother, Donnie. Donnie is a gentle idiot who is tired of living in his brother's shadow. His character doesn't have any real defining traits other than being nervous and drunk for much of the movie. Stolhanske's character, Guy, might be gay and is a bit of a jerk. It's a real shame because that's all he gets to play with.
In a show of generosity, the guys from Lizard allow themselves to be outshined at their own game by actors who aren't even part of the crew. I've already mentioned the sweet-natured portrayal of Tara by Cobie Smulders. Tara is putting herself through medical school and this comes through in her professionalism. She also may be the closest thing to a normal person in a movie populated by cartoon characters. Smulders shines in the role, relying on her smile and comedic chops which have been honed on How I Met Your Mother. With mostly TV credits to her name, April Bowlby is a revelation as the ambitious and cut-throat Mia. She wants the top prize and is willing to use her feminine wiles to get bigger tips. Bowlby also shows herself to be fearless by letting her character get increasingly unattractive (a bowl of soup to the face will do that to you) over the course of the film.
Two people really bring this film home and that's Michael Clarke Duncan and Kevin Heffernan. Duncan is simply incredible as the intimidating boxer who can't quite find the right words to say but will decimate you if you dare to correct him. Despite having an imposing presence, he gives Salmon a childish petulance that is both scary and cute (I just called Duncan cute. I'm a dead man.) He interacts with the entire cast and never seems out of his element. If you've only thought of Duncan as a dramatic actor, this role will make you re-evaluate him. Finally, I want to give credit to Heffernan for an assured directorial effort that feels too confident to be a debut. Even though he has some paper-thin characters to work with, he ramps up the insanity at a reasonable pace while ensuring that the laughs never stop coming. This film is a step in the right direction for the Broken Lizard guys and fills me with hope for what they will come up with next.
Hellish Kitchens: Art Imitates Restaurant Life (6:51) turned out to be an informal conversation with the guys as they reminisced (not always fondly) about their days in the food service industry. Lemme seemed to have the most experience and so he dominated this segment. Rounding things out was a Theatrical Trailer for the film.