‘Once Upon A Time In Venice’ Raises The Fascinating Question Of Why It Exists

Once Upon A Time In Venice isn’t the most inept film I’ve ever seen, and frankly it’d be easier to recommend if it was. But if we’re searching for superlatives, it is possibly the most ineptly made film to ever be occasionally funny on purpose. That it can be both is kind of a compelling mystery. It’s not “so bad it’s good” and it’s certainly not good, but it does inspire a certain kind of wonder — more like a crime scene than a trainwreck, where you feel compelled to invent a story that might explain its existence. Why is John Goodman spilling soup on himself? Why did all these famous people agree to this? Who thought this was a good idea?

Venice reteams Bruce Willis with Mark and Robb Cullen, the writers of Cop Out, here directing their feature debut, which is sort of like reteaming the Titanic with an iceberg. They must’ve had a good pitch though, because it also drew John Goodman, Thomas Middleditch, Jason Momoa, Famke Janssen, Adam Goldberg, Kal Penn, and Ron Funches, among others. With Funches playing a horny transvestite hooker, Goldberg a guy who gets painted sucking off a clown on the side of a building, and Kal Penn getting about 15 seconds of screen time, you wonder what they must’ve been promised to agree to something that feels like a student project.

Adding to the weirdness is the fact that Venice isn’t entirely terrible, just episodically terrible. It just feels like these people were hanging out drinking one afternoon and decided to shoot whatever popped into their heads five minutes earlier. Which is sometimes funny in an off-the-wall kind of way, usually baffling, and above all slapdash, with the actors’ microphone packs clearly visible in some scenes and the sound editing of an afternoon soap.

Willis plays Steve Ford, a Venice Beach private detective who used to be both a pro skateboarder and a cop, which we learn through a Rear Window-style expository shot of his apartment, which pans across framed pictures of his Skateboarder magazine cover and a newspaper clipping about “Disgraced LAPD Officer Opens Private Detective Agency,” respectively, the latter of which doesn’t exactly seem frame worthy.

In the first scene, Steve winds up in bed with a girl he’s been sent to find, Nola Tuisasopo (Jessica Gomes), whose name was almost certainly “hot chick who gets naked” in the original script, since that’s basically all we ever learn about her. Nola’s angry Samoan brothers show up, and Steve bails out the window and down the street, buck naked on his skateboard. It’s actually a pretty funny scene, highlighted by two throwaway lines: a bouncer at The Brigantine yelling “Steve, you can’t have a gun in the bar!” as Steve skateboards naked across the counter; and the owner of a pizza shop Steve ducks into telling him “Hey cover that dick, I got pizza here!”

I laughed again just typing that. Anyway, Steve’s thing, it seems, is getting into wacky adventures, almost always with groups who conform to a pattern of “ethnicity, stereotype.” After the Samoans, he gets mixed up with some Mexican cholos led by Spider, played by Jason Momoa. Momoa is weirdly likable in an idiotic role and, as above, most of the laughs come in the form of weird non sequiturs. Like Steve asking Spider how to get to a certain bar and Spider tsking, “Google it, homes!”

I also enjoyed the film’s almost Dadaist take on Latinos, in which a badly disguised Thomas Middleditch rolls into a “Mexican” saloon telling the bartender “I don’t want no gringo prices” and the guy next to him menacingly takes a bite of an unpeeled avocado and spits out the pit. Venice is at its best when it goes full absurd.

Far less successful is an interlude at a transvestite motel (with the aforementioned Ron Funches playing the aforementioned trans prostitute) where Steve ends up tied to a chair while a different transgender puts make up on him. I guess they’re some kind of Avon cult? Are genderqueer prostitutes really so desperate to recruit? Anyway, Steve punches his way out of the room and ends up getting chased down the street (again) by the transvestite gang throwing shoes and purses at him.

Venice feels like it wants to be a Lebowski-esque shaggy dog tale, complete with John Goodman playing the inept sidekick, only the Cullens’ idea of “wacky situation” rarely goes further than Steve and co. being menaced by a gang of non-whites. It’s like the movie has Tourette’s. Sometimes one of its outbursts is legit funny, other times it’s just sad or racist. Meanwhile, the construction of the film gets sloppier and sloppier as it progresses, almost as if the editor found out he was getting stiffed halfway through the project and did a deliberate hack job on the rest out of spite. It hobbles from one barely explained sequence to the next, with occasionally visible mics and badly synced, poorly mixed sound until it just sort of ends in the middle of a scene.

Once Upon A Time In Venice limps into a quiet limited release and VOD after having been shot two years ago, which seems to suggest that no one wanted to put much money into it. Which in turn gives you some idea of what Hollywood generally thought of it, especially considering the A-list cast. This makes some sense given the final product. The question is what they all saw in it to begin with. A half-assed, sorta racist Big Lebowski set in Venice from the guys who did Cop Out? And that was good enough to score Bruce Willis, Aquaman, and America’s finest actor, John Goodman? I have faith that some day, the full story of Once Upon A Time In Venice will be told, and when it is, that it will be more interesting than Once Upon A Time In Venice.