The Reeler


August 2, 2007

The Ten

Uneven, sketch-y comedy a State of grace for absurdist fans

The reductio ad absurdum of absurdity itself is not for everyone; thankfully the pedigree of The Ten provide ample warning to an unsuspecting public. Directed by David Wain (of the wondrous Wet Hot American Summer) and co-written with Ken Marino, both cast members of the '90s MTV sketch comedy series The State, The Ten’s cast is a two-page list of indie all-stars, including all of The State players and a host of clowns-about-town. The premise -- 10 vignettes, each one based on one of the Ten Commandments, à la Kieslowski’s Decalogue -- is more of a clever excuse to bring some subversive sketch comedy to the big screen, although there are enough overlaps in theme and character, along with a sort of guiding star, to keep up at least the pretense of coherence.

That guiding star is the indispensable Paul Rudd (also a Ten producer). Spanking clean-cut in his cutie-pie sideburns, chinos and light blue button down (looking a little -- dare I say it -- like a cholo on Easter Sunday), Rudd plays host as a guy named Jeff, and introduces each sketch accompanied by a short soft-shoe about his disastrous love life. Standing on a stage before two giant, inscribed tablets, Jeff has stage-y encounters with his unhappy wife (Famke Janssen) and way-too-happy girlfriend (Jessica Alba), a state of affairs that eventually leads to a commandment skit all his own. You know the one.

The sketches themselves are not just absurd but adamantly absurdist in set-up, unrelentingly so in every detail, and their respective successes vary not just according to quality but how tickled you find yourself -- from moment to moment -- by this kind of high-wire comedy. Even the target audience will find their faces falling flat more than once from arch overload. The opener -- an idolatry allegory starring Adam Brody as a man who jumps from a plane without a parachute, becomes embedded alive in the ground, and then famous for being embedded alive in the ground -- is limp cultural parody, though it’s follow-up is unexpectedly hilarious. In it Gretchen Mol plays a virginal librarian who meets a vain, lazy handyman named Jesus H. Christ (Justin Theroux, completely barmy) on her Mexican holiday, and the two have a highly sexed affair. I realize that “Get ready for your own second coming” doesn’t sound that funny in print, but in the context of the multi-clown car pile-up of one-liners and sight gags that make up the best of these sequences, you won’t be able to help yourself.

Other highlights include a very funny Liev Schrieber and Joe Lo Truglio as neighbors one-upping each other -- with the indiscriminate purchase of cat scan machines -- in the film’s most visually invigorated and tightly directed segment. Winona Ryder makes several appearances as Kelly, who is first a fiancé, then a newlywed and then a dirty thief with a penchant for puppet sex that would make Team America blush. Rob Corddry and Ken Marino are wicked silly in their sketch about prison-bitch coveting, although on the whole, The Ten indulges too often in its fascination with/horror over homoeroticism, gay sex and anal rape jokes. Someone declare a moratorium on that shit: You’re funny, you’re straight, we get it. Rudd’s sketch, when it comes, is a briefly ridiculous, anti-climactic delight, and an animated sequence from Aaron Augenblick offers some oddly refreshing grotesquerie.

The film looks better than it has any right to, being ten discrete films shot over 28 days, and the best surprises are the unlikely comic turns from Schrieber, Mol, Theroux, Oliver Platt and Bobby Cannavale. The Ten is topped off by a musical recap gathering the cast for some glitter rock, good fun and bad choreography. Lending itself perhaps more readily to some new-fashioned YouTube co-opting and a healthy following on DVD, with the right audience (i.e., not the one I saw it with, although the stream of irritated “I don’t get it”’s from the young ladies in my row somehow complemented the film and compounded my snickering) The Ten could also be that most transcendent of filmgoing experiences -- and what it most wants to be: a good, collective laugh.

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