Teddy Bear's Picnic
March 29th, 2002
Experimental improvisational movies. In theory, it is a wonderful idea open to great potential. You come up with an idea, you grab a camera and some friends and you just go shoot it. No studio politics. No pre-testing of the idea with a group of people recruited from some mall. No studying of the Q Report to find out who has the best rating with twelve to sixteen year old suburban girls from New Jersey. At the pinnacle, we have the likes of Mike Leigh, Christopher Guest and especially John Cassavetes, who have brought a wealth of both tragic and comedic material to cinema. Then there are the Blair Witch type films that substitute continual cursing and screaming for any kind of orderly storytelling, from young Turks who have little knowledge about life outside of the constant flicker of projector intermittents and cathode ray tubes.
So when one hears Harry Shearer is going to make his debut as a film director by getting a bunch of talented comedy veterans and mocking power-broker retreats, one would hope for the best. When one scans the cast list and sees names like Henry Gibson, Fred Willard, Robert Mandal, George Wendt, Kenneth Mars, Howard Hesseman, Bob Einstein, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, one would expect to be rolling in the aisles from the opening fade in to the last cut. And when one noticed the running time for the film is a scant 84 minutes, one would believe all the fat has been trimmed and the viewer will be left with nothing but the lean, juicy meat of comedy merriment.
One would be somewhat disappointed.
In the hills outside of San Francisco, the richest most powerful white men in America gather each summer at the idyllic Zambesi Glen to act like a bunch of frat boys, away from the prying eyes of the world. Leaders of business, politics, the military and entertainment are free to drink and swear in abundance, urinate communally while frolicking naked in the woods, execute clandestine sacraments and concoct immoral scenarios that could instigate public destruction, and croon dreadfully while sporting women's clothing. But times are changing. Due to public pressure, the Glen is being opened to outsiders for the first time, if only to the wives and girlfriends of this year's participants for part of a single day. After being welcomed by Glen patriarch Porterfield Pendleton, the ladies are given brief tours of the copiously appointed rustic cabins, state-of-the-art infirmary and the Dionysian Bowl's theater before ending the day before the sun sets.
Six weeks later, the men have returned to Zambesi Glen under the watchful eyes of a group of protestors huddled at the main gate. Deep in the woods under the cover of darkness, the opening ceremonies begin as cloaked members engage in their secret ritual of "the killing of time" to signal the commencement of the festivities. In the kitchen, head waiter Joey Lavin is fussing over every detail of keeping the Zambesians well fed and drunk. And at the edge of the grove, two women wait in rooms at the Bella Rio, where they will earn their keep for the year servicing the men in ways they cannot or would not serve each other.
As the first evening comes to a close, one of the men must return to the real world to deal with the operations of his failing semi-pro summer basketball team. He accidentally takes some Poloroid photos out of the Glen, which he later leaves unattended at a press conference the next day. A sharp eyed reporter notices the photos, which end up as the lead story on the evening news. After much deliberation and many drinks, the emergency council of the Glen decide to beef up security so more breaches do not occur.
Back in the kitchen, Joey announces to his staff that a case of Sanka coffee has gone missing, and that he will be deducting the cost of the case from everyone's paycheck until the guilty party comes clean. Danny, one of the workers who is a waiter in the city, contacts a member of the same TV station who ran the photos and works out a deal to tape the Glen's happenings on a Mini DV camera for a small fee. After getting some incriminating evidence of the vile things that happen between men of power when the world isn't watching, he is discovered as a spy, which leads to a series of greater and greater perils which threaten the very existence of the Glen.
The main problem with Teddy Bears' Picnic is that, despite its miniscule running time, there are too many people and situations to follow. No less than 25 characters are involved in the main thrust of the story, none who are ever given much time to develop into any kind of dimensional character. It may be unfair to compare Shearer's work on this film to the works of fellow Spinal Tap castmate Christopher Guest, but there is no quicker way to illustrate how much further Shearer needs to go as a filmmaker to equal his work as an actor, author, comedian, musician, radio personality and political satirist. In both Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show, Guest knows there is a limit to how many characters a story can juggle at the same time before everything comes crashing down. As an example of how scattershot and under thought out much of this film is, I did not realize that Jennifer, one of the ladies in waiting at the Bella Rio, was the crappy comedienne seen earlier in the film at a nightclub trying to entertain several of the other peripheral characters until I reviewed the production notes I was given at the screening I attended. Jennifer mentions to one of her customers that she is trying to break into standup, but since there is not enough focus on her in the nightclub, there is no way to make the connection. Or another scene late in the film, as several Zambesians are trying to figure out how things got so bad so quickly, with banking magnet Stanton Vandermint and General Gerberding are each on cell phones talking to others about the situation, where because the way the sequence is edited together, it takes several minutes to realize they are speaking to one another. Shearer and his editor have so many other things going on at the same time, cutting from one man to something else to the second man to one or two other items before going back to the first man. We only realize the extent and gravity of their discussion once all the other happenings are left at the wayside and focus is put on these two men, where it should have been in the first place.
However, this does not mean the is a complete waste of time. There are a number of scenes where I was very much buckled over in laughter. Some of the humor is infantile at best, while other times you might feel guilty chuckling at scenes where men are being shown as the disgusting pigs they are. But as a comedy, it does what a comedy is supposed to do, which is to make you laugh. And that is more than I can say about a lot of films that are allegedly in that same genre which have been forced down our throats by the major studios over the past several years. And I must admit I liked how Shearer brought back a number of underutilized comedic actors and personalities. In addition to those previously named, we get to be reacquainted with former "Hollywood Squares" host Peter Marshall, who makes what little time he is given work so well. And most shocking of all, Alan Thicke comes off the best of the bunch, milking the role of himself to full farcical tilt. The scene where Thicke deals with his fears of burning to death should keep you laughing long after the scene is over.
I look forward to seeing whatever Shearer comes up his next time out as a director. As for this time, I give him an A for effort, a C- for execution and a hearty thank you for helping show some of these older guys still have a lot of good humor in them.
My rating: C-