At the very least, give Eric André credit for trying something new. Known mainly for his surreal anti-talk show The Eric André Show on Adult Swim, which is sort of like Tom Green’s old MTV show on mescaline, André’s willingness to push boundaries seems to be his defining characteristic. This time around, André’s Bad Trip co-star Lil Rel Howery (The Carmichael Show, Rel) doesn’t seem to have entirely bought into this concept. Which would be devastating to most projects but here just seems kind of relatable. Can you blame Howery for not wanting to torture random bystanders?
So what is the concept? In short, imagine Dumb and Dumber shot guerrilla-style, where none of the ancillary characters know that they’re being filmed for a movie. A stock plot, with genuine reactions. It’s a wild concept, that offers both big laughs and big cringe in almost equal measure. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film vacillate so wildly between borderline unwatchable and irresistibly watchable.
André and Howery play Chris and Bud, slacker buddies working demeaning jobs who dream of something bigger. They perform the requisite exposition of this concept in public spaces, like a city bus and the local mall, while the locals rightly gape open-mouthed, wondering just why this scripted playtime has invaded their reality. It turns into a buddy road movie when “Chris” sees his high school crush, Maria Li, played by Michaela Conlin, show up at his Jamba Juice-type job. André and Li perform this rendezvous, again, before an audience of dumbfounded juice bar patrons. Supposedly distracted by his crush, André puts his “hand” into a spinning blender blade, shooting a geyser of fake blood all over the juice shop.
The reason Bad Trip waffles so drastically between painful and thrilling is that it basically combines execrable Improv Everywhere-style stunts, in which performers assault people just trying to live their lives with hokey shtick, and Borat-style stunts, in which the performer is a wild card clown making a surreal spectacle of themselves in front of those same normal people — often playing on their prejudices and expectations of what that clown is meant to represent in the process (Borat was using people’s assumptions about the “backward former Eastern Bloc” to explore their own cultural blindspots and stock prejudices). Which is to say, Bad Trip is great when it’s staging stunts. It’s awful and kind of gross when it’s staging shtick. Those poor people. Though I suppose it is some kind of meta-commentary on the boundaries between movie reality and reality-reality.
For their Dumb and Dumber-style road trip to track down Maria at her art gallery in New York, Chris and Bud “borrow” a car from Bud’s ex-con sister, Trina, played by Tiffany Haddish in cornrows and fake lady mustache. Trina is probably Bad Trip‘s most successful Borat-style character, everyone’s nightmare of a “ghetto thug” come to life, who shakes down her brother for cash at his iPhone repair store and drives a hot pink hoopty with “BAD BITCH” written in giant script on the back window.
André’s biggest asset is his complete lack of shame and willingness to make an utter fool out of himself in front of virtually any audience, having his clothes ripped off by a rigged car wash vacuum and singing musical theater numbers in a mall food court. He has the soul of a stunt man, staging same-sex kisses and acting suicidal in between legitimately dangerous-looking pratfalls like the demon spawn of Steve-O and Super Dave Osborne. Eric André is basically the xanny rap Super Dave.
Yet “Chris” isn’t a very well-designed character. He’s just sort of a stock slacker in a dramedy inserted awkwardly into real life, with surrealist elements. Trina is much more clearly defined, playing on people’s assumptions about, and fear of, this profane, wild-eyed ex-con, offering not just spectacle but oddball insight. It helps that Haddish herself is also genius, with a Sacha Coen-esque facility for improvising and an uncanny ability to insert perfectly-timed, perfectly-crafted one-liners into high-risk situations. She’s either raising the stakes of a situation by adding a new complication or adding in an element of the absurd, sometimes both. She combines André’s panache with a mastery of craft. She is clearly a monumental talent.
Howery, meanwhile, a talented and versatile comedic actor, doesn’t seem to have known what he was getting himself into when he signed up for this movie. Virtually all of his lines were clearly filmed as scripted inserts into André’s unscripted guerilla ambush comedy. Again, this mostly comes off relatable. Performing a loud, expository stock comedy scene on a crowded bus, cowboy bar, or mall food court before an audience who didn’t pay to attend or ask for any of this seems like my worst nightmare too. You can practically hear him telling André off-camera, “Uh uh, I’m not doing that shit.”
But once again here, André is pushing the boundaries of scripted until it fuzzes out and seems to distort reality itself. Which isn’t necessarily funny (and is often painful) but is definitely doing an art.
Much of the comedic gold in Bad Trip (and I laughed heartily and uncontrollably at various points) comes from the bystanders themselves. The speed with which they switch from trying to help a fellow man to “get away from me motherfucker” is particularly fascinating.
Oftentimes you just have to sit through excruciatingly uncomfortable situations in order to get to that. Maybe that’s just Eric André giving us a taste of what it’s like to be Eric André, in which comedy can only be wrung from pain and discomfort, and with strenuous effort. Whatever you think of Bad Trip, and your mileage will likely vary, it’s hard to deny that Eric André is the hardest-working man in comedy.