Cian Geoghegan gets under the cheap laughs.
‘Heartwarming’ and ‘life-affirming’ are unlikely descriptors for a comedy whose two leads at one point get their genitals stuck in a Chinese finger trap. Kitao Sakurai’s hidden-camera comedy may seem shallow at the outset, but it has more to offer than cheap laughs and gross-out humour.
The film stars Eric André (wearing many hats here as co-writer and -producer), and much of the crew is carried over from his Adult Swim anti-chat show and absurdist art piece The Eric André Show. André plays Chris, a hapless Floridian unable to hold a job, who brings his best friend Bud (Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery) on a road trip to New York to track down his high school sweetheart Maria (Michaela Conlin). They drive a pink Cadillac belonging to Bud’s sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish) an escaped convict bent on revenge who follows their trail in a stolen police car.
If the plot sounds like something you’ve seen countless times, that’s kind of the point. The derivative plotline provides an undergirding structure to the film’s gimmick – all these plot points are happening out in the open, with the input of unknowing pedestrians caught on hidden cameras. This prank show formula is the bread and butter of André’s Adult Swim show, but here the pranks take on new life as narrative rather than non-sequitur.
The humour carries the trademark absurdity you would expect from this creative team – the aforementioned finger trap sequence draws some of the film’s heartiest laughs, and some of its harshest public reactions. Golf clubs loom menacingly overhead as André and Howery sidle around looking for assistance at the local country club. The entwined pair are later chased out of an inner-city barbershop at knifepoint. The film revels in its spontaneous reaction shots – early on, a musical number in a shopping centre causes onlookers to mug for a camera they don’t even know is there, pulling faces a trained actor would have a hard time landing. Some may find this setup repetitive, as they are hit with similar responses of shock, frustration and terror with each scene. Yet the cast sell these repetitive pranks with committed performances that hone in on and bounce off of the most eccentric personalities in a given room.
Another element keeping the comedy here fresh is the warm positivity underpinning certain scenes. Keeping with the cliché storyline, there are moments where characters turn to those around them not for slacked jaws, but for sage advice and moral support. A scene at a bus stop finds André’s Chris asking an old man if he should ditch his job and go after the girl of his dreams. The bystander, a real person unaware of the hidden cameras, gives the most movie-like response imaginable. “Go for it,” he says, “If you don’t, the rest of your life you’re gonna be sitting here saying, “What if I woulda?”” A swelling score tips its hat to the unoriginality of it all, but it’s hard not to find the moment genuinely touching. The film contains many moments of similar honesty and human kindness. For fans of André’s borderline-sadistic TV pranks, this will feel like new territory.
These brief glimpses of humanity broaden the film’s emotional range and elevate it within its genre. The prank show format provokes ethical questions without easy answers. Are the filmmakers exploiting the people they film with only retroactive consent? In the reveal of an intimidating camera crew and the quick signing of a consent form, is the subject coerced into publicizing moments they’d rather keep private? Answers will vary depending on who you ask. Traditional documentaries often struggle with this, while ‘prank’ shows seem ideologically opposed to informed consent by their very nature. Eric André’s stuff is good, breezy fun, which is why most would forgive themselves for not taking it too seriously by asking hard ethical questions.
Bad Trip’s ‘positive pranks’, where onlookers are called to be helpful or to de-escalate conflict, therefore subvert and resolve the ethical contradictions of the format. Even when Sacha Baron Cohen provokes kindness in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, he is still pointing out some form of ignorance or condescension. Bad Trip takes a different approach, where going for the biggest laugh can be beside the point. When Chris and Bud come to blows at the end of act two, a concerned civilian is on hand to break up their argument before it gets physical. He puts himself between the pair and encourages them to take a seat and talk it out. The setup of the prank doesn’t call on him to scream or pull a face, but to offer help to complete strangers. The results include a few laughs, as our good Samaritan’s patience is tested by a belligerent André, but this reviewer finds the scene more touching than funny. The lack of informed consent is to the film’s credit here, as the selflessness on display would lose its effect had the participant known they were in no imminent danger and a security team were waiting in the wings.
Viewers may find the humour crude. Not every scene lands – the heroes’ VFX-coated drug trip in a supermarket springs to mind. The look of the film leaves a lot to be desired at points, with some of the tinier hidden cameras capturing muddy, low-res images that would be excusable on a TV show, while tasking the eyes on a cinema screen. Not a huge loss, as its Netflix release ensures audiences will catch Bad Trip in their living rooms, but it’s surprising emotional depth would be lost on viewers half-watching the film while checking Twitter. André and his co-stars delight with quick timing and great gags, all while capturing moments of organic beauty that couldn’t be further from the sterile studio comedies the film lampoons.