THE STORY – A down-on-his-luck publicist gets his lucky break when he discovers a mute man recently released from a mental health facility looks just like a method actor who refuses to leave his trailer.
THE CAST – Charlie Day, Ken Jeong, Kate Beckinsale, Adrien Brody, Jason Sudeikis, Edie Falco, Jason Bateman, Common, Ray Liotta & John Malkovich
THE TEAM – Charlie Day (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
“Being There” is one of the most significant cultural satires ever filmed and contains one of cinema’s greatest performances: Peter Sellers as the simple-minded gardener Chance, who only speaks in gardening tips and lines from television that people take as gospel truth from a deep thinker. The film’s shadow over comedy in the years since is long, and it’s understandable why a triple-threat actor-writer-director like Charlie Day would take inspiration from it. But playing in Hal Ashby and Peter Sellers’s playground is far more difficult than it looks, and while the talented Day’s concept might be solid, trying to hold a candle to those earlier comic geniuses is a fool’s errand. “Fool’s Paradise,” Day’s feature debut as a director, is a slog to get through, with all of the whip-smart wit that makes for good satire replaced with inside-Hollywood-baseball jokes that are clearly much funnier to the film’s cast and crew than to the audience.
Day stars as a mystery man described by his doctor at a mental institution as selectively mute, with the intelligence of a five-year-old. Given the lack of resources at the state-run institution, instead of investing the time into the man to attempt to heal him, they put him on a bus to downtown Los Angeles, where in short order, he’s picked up by a perpetually cranky producer (Ray Liotta). The method actor star of his latest film is refusing to leave his trailer, and the mystery mute man looks just like him. In no time at all, the man is latched onto by his drunken male costar (Adrien Brody), his image-obsessed female costar (Kate Beckinsale), and the bottom-feeding wanna publicist Lenny (Ken Jeong), who mishears the producer’s shouted order for a “latte, pronto,” as the man’s name, and gets swept up on the wild ride that is fame in modern-day America.
Nothing wrong with the concept, an appealing mixture of the aforementioned “Being There” with the Hollywood satire of something like “Bowfinger,” but the overwhelming majority of the jokes at Hollywood’s expense just don’t work. Sometimes it’s the jokes themselves, but it’s just as often the fault of the actors – nearly the whole cast is playing a heightened version of some Hollywood stereotype. Still, they feel too broad and obvious outside of Brody and Beckinsale’s characters. Jason Sudeikis seems to be having a blast as a full-of-it action director, but that fun doesn’t translate due to the actor’s one-note delivery. Edie Falco’s crisp superagent has some cutting lines but is mostly just made up of a lot of actorly business to distract from the fact that there’s no actual character for her to play. Only the sycophantic, fast-talking hair & makeup team (played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Drew Droege, and Artemis Pebdani) make an impression. Still, since the joke is that all three of them usually speak at the same time, you can’t hear most of their dialogue. Even Brody and Beckinsale can’t quite figure out what to do with themselves in the most fleshed-out supporting roles. Brody goes full-on crazy but somehow isn’t fun to watch, and while Beckinsale lands on the right tone of clipped, almost forceful insouciance, her lines lack the proper punch to land with raucous laughter.
Not that there aren’t moments of laughter! Beckinsale’s announcement that she’s leaving “Latte” for a weekend getaway, flanked by a wall of luggage, is the most well-executed, and Day’s reactions to everything happening around him have just the right amount of silent clown-style mugging to elicit a chuckle most of the time. We’ve seen all this before, however, and done better. Combined with poorly conceived and/or executed jokes, it renders the film’s attempts at satire completely toothless, robbing it of its most apparent raison d’être. It doesn’t help that the largest presence in the film outside of Day is Jeong, who has decided to lean into Lenny’s pathetic qualities in a wholly unappealing way. While Day’s mugging is charming in part because the actor keeps it in check, Jeong lets his mugging run completely unchecked. The unfortunate side effect is that the performance gives off the same desperate, flop-sweaty vibes the character has, making even the character’s inevitable “redemption” feel uncomfortable and unearned. It’s the performance equivalent of a giant cringe.
It’s all so unfortunate. Day has been an underrated comic talent for years, and he assembled an incredible ensemble of A-list comic assassins for this film. But something just feels off in the finished product. Watching “Fool’s Paradise,” you get the sense that everyone involved was laughing at each other constantly – whatever they’re doing, they’re all obviously having a great time doing it – but whatever they found funny doesn’t carry over to the audience. Being in the audience for this film is like being at someone else’s high school reunion. Everyone else is having a blast hanging out with each other and laughing at all their old in-jokes, but being on the outside looking in, all you can do is throw a chuckle out once in a while in the hopes that acting like you’re having fun will eventually cause you to have fun. In this case, unfortunately, it won’t work. Trying to have fun while watching “Fool’s Paradise” is largely a fool’s errand.