Misanthropic vision of fame-obsessed Hollywood finds some moments of darkly insightful comedy.
Nerdland (Tribeca Review)
Gangly-armed or thick-necked with off-colored skin tones or noses—the harshly drawn inhabitants of Nerdland don’t have the benefit of beauty to mask their ugly insides. They’re off-putting even when appealing. Like many of the character designs on Adult Swim cartoon shows, the characters’ distinctive features are sharpened and exaggerated in ways that makes their appearances unsettling. It should be no surprise that Nerdland comes from Chris Prynoski (Metalocalypse, Motorcity), veteran of the late night Cartoon Network universe, where absurdist and divisive humor has thrived for the past couple decades.
In the heart of the entertainment industry, nearly 30-year-old roommates John (voiced by Paul Rudd) and Elliot (Patton Oswalt) feel their shot at world fame is dwindling. At first, both seem like familiar characters repurposed for Nerdland’s grimy, stoner sketchbook aesthetic. The pair live together in a rundown Hollywood apartment with old beer bottles and pizza boxes strewn across the floor. Elliot, a would-be screenwriter, who spends more time on the couch playing video games than writing (a depressing familiar conceit) ends up penning a script about a vengeful Rip Van Winkle waking from his slumber to shotgun blast open the skulls of strip club patrons. His roommate John—an aspiring actor—is the gentler, naïf, Lenny Small-type. When John tries to pass off Elliot’s script to a well-known movie star, John fumbles the pages and rips his pants in an effort to pick them up, exposing his puckered anus to the crowd.
The hand-drawn feature animation is the first feature from animation house Titmouse, Inc., a smooth transition to the big screen that borrows animated TV comedies’ fast-paced style. Quick cutaways pepper the dialog-heavy moments with visual gags. They reveal the protagonists’ dreams of red carpets lined with adoring fans or boob-filled, heavenly utopias, many of which feel ripped from an angsty teenage boy’s fantasies. But like a random episode of Family Guy, these jokes range in quality from shocking and fun to predictably cynical. Its misanthropic charms often redeem Nerdland, but John and Elliot’s aversion to productivity can become grating to watch for the duration (even if that length is only 83 minutes).
John and Elliot’s pursuit of fame at any twisted cost makes the pair progressively harder to like. Nerdland‘s mocking vision of LA is short on any redeeming personalities. Filled with silly caricatures of the fame-worshipping underclass, it’s clear that the director Prynoski as well as the screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker hate just about every person in this world. And yes, that’s the same Andrew Kevin Walker who wrote Se7en and contributed an uncredited rewrite to Fight Club—a film with similar nihilistic social satire. With a considerably scattershot plot, one which has a somewhat episode design, Nerdland lacks some of the narrative momentum that comes from more cohesive stories.
While a majority of scenes revolve around the funny duo at the cartoon’s center, recognizable voices make cameos throughout. Comedians such as Molly Shannon, Paul Scheer, as well as Garfunkel & Oats’ Kate Micucci & Riki Lindhome make extended appearances. Among the funniest roles, Hannibal Burress’ discomforting slant on the standard, slovenly Comic Book Guy pairs well with his wry delivery. Like many of the notable comedians that lend their voice to Nerdland, Oswalt and Rudd don’t alter their voice for their roles—they’re each well-suited to the characters and make for an amusing, albeit unlikely pairing.
Victims of a media-driven culture, John and Elliot ultimately determine that their shortest path to recognition is through notoriety—though as a hapless pair of unskilled, intermittently unemployed slackers the duo’s ability to accomplish anything is questionable. Some of their antics are hilarious but as the film progresses, many of the bits drag on too long. Prynoski and Walker find some strange insights on their race to the moral bottom with John and Elliot—a commentary that often acts more searing and urgent than it is—but like a developing TV comedy, Nerdland is often best in small patches.