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February 7, 2008

Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show

Vaughn's funny valentine to heartland values is a laugh- every-other-minute affair

Like a low-brow Prairie Home Companion for bros, Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show aims to take us on tour, like the subtitle says, "From Hollywood to the Heartland." Vaughn is a terrific comic performer, but he's definitely not a stand-up comic: as presented in Ari Sandel's functional documentary, he's a surprisingly earnest, upright dude who just wants to bring big-city comedy to small-town lights.

With that in mind, Vaughn assembled four of his favorite stand-up comics to tour the country in September 2005, with Sandel on hand to document not just the shows, but also the humanity. "You know what I hate about New York and L.A.?" asks comic Bret Ernst. "They forget there's this space between the two of them where the rest of America lives." Wild West Comedy Show sets out to remedy that disconnect, providing the missing link between Vaughn and the loyal fans who confuse critics by turning even his weakest vehicles into box office hits.

The comics: John Caparulo, a less-repugnant sort of Larry The Cable Guy who greets audiences with "What's up, fuckers!"; Ernst, a self-proclaimed Guido ("That's my shit"); and Sebastian Mansicalco, another alpha male ("What the fuck happened to macho guys?") on reprieve from his day job as a waiter and praying not to have to go back. Ahmed Ahmed is the stand-out: all of the other comics in the group work with fundamentally tired material (Ernst gives the "You'd have to be on drugs to like club music" bit a workout), redeemed through energetic delivery and good timing. They're unoriginal comics with appeal, but Ahmed, if by default, provides the closest thing to edge: the indignities of being an Arab-American in post-9/11 America (e.g. getting arrested in a third-anniversary sweep of 10,000 Arabs in airports nationwide) are the staples of his material.

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There are also some hangers-on -- Mac-dude Justin Long, Vaughn's producer and "best friend" Peter Billingsley (of A Christmas Story fame), Keir O'Donnell, recognized solely as "the gay dude" from Wedding Crashers -- and special guests (Dwight Yoakum, Jon Favreau). But one not-so-covert agenda is to make the comics as famous in their own right as Vaughn is in his; the first half gradually sifts Vaughn out of the material altogether, leaving us to bond with the comics. The problem is timing: Ernst points out that in stand-up's 1980s heyday, comedians with their credits could have headlined at this point in their career. Bringing life to the insecure comic stereotype, Caputo laments that "If I'm not funny, I'm just underdressed," and all four seem to suffer some kind of postpartum depression after every set.

There's also a visit to Alabama's Oak Mountain State Park -- an ad hoc trip when the show learns that Hurricane Katrina refugees are there and could use good cheer in the form of free tickets. This is where the documentary's boldest conceit emerges: it's not just a tour of the heartlands, it's a representation of heartland values. Ernst announces "That's how Americans roll"; i.e., we always come together in crisis.

That's not the picture Spike Lee gave us, but it's the strongest merit this documentary has: Middle America would like to conceive of itself this way -- generous, engaged, with a good sense of humor but still with some sacred cows, tentatively liberal but still taking glee in mild gay jokes, more fond of Dwight Yoakum and country roots than Hannah Montana. Slack of pace (slimmed down by some 15 minutes from its Toronto premiere, the film's still too long) and genially low on originality, Wild West Comedy Show is a funny valentine to an area badly in need of one.



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