As surreal in its own way as the faux talk-show that became a viral sensation on its way to the big screen, Between Two Ferns: The Movie defies description. On the surface, the Netflix film may seem like an unnecessary expansion of a bite-sized idea, a post-modern version of the kinds of movies churned out in the 1990s based on Saturday Night Live sketches. But that post-modern sensibility means that even the streaming film’s shoestring plot is itself a deadpan gag, one more part of the Mobius strip of ultra-dry humor that star Zach Galifianakis and writer/director Scott Aukerman are known for. This movie won’t land on everyone’s wavelength, but for those who fit its style, it’s a delight.
For the uninitiated (though the more uninitiated you are, the more alienating this all might seem), Between Two Ferns was first the name of a talk-show-ish sketch on the comedy website Funny or Die. Galifianakis (who first started the sketch before his breakout role in The Hangover), adopted the role of the most disinterested, insulting host possible when interviewing everyone from Will Ferrell to Bruce Willis to former President Barack Obama. The setup for the film is that Galifianakis is being filmed by a documentary crew about the show, while being tasked by Ferrell (playing himself) to film 10 new episodes in two weeks. The prize at the end of this round-the-clock work? Galifianakis’ own network talk show. So he takes his own small film crew on the road to interact with a lot of A-Listers on his way to stardom.
Clocking in at just 82 minutes, Between Two Ferns: The Movie smartly doesn’t wear out its welcome. The plot mechanics are thin at best (considering the pre-title scene, in which the first of many celebrities we see is nearly killed by a flooded plumbing system, best not to ponder them too deeply). But the new interviews, which constitute a good portion of the film, are incredibly funny. A handful of celebs only show up briefly, within the faux-documentary portion as they enter or exit the public-access network where the film version of Galifianakis shoots his show. But actors like Matthew McConaughey, Paul Rudd, Jon Hamm, Brie Larson, and Keanu Reeves show up for slightly longer stretches, in which they gamely glower at Galifianakis’ always cutting remarks. (His jabs at Reeves, in an interview in the first portion of the film, are particularly funny as the action star hits a second-stage comeback of his career.)
The sections of the movie that surround the interview aren’t as flashy, and feel a bit shakier when focusing more on the character interactions between Galifianakis and his crew than on the inside-baseball humor about talk shows. (When Galifianakis demands his talk show, he states to Ferrell, “I’m a white man and I’m straight, I deserve it.”) The primary joy for any fans of alternative comedy is getting to see skilled improvisers like Ryan Gaul and Lauren Lapkus in major supporting roles as a grouchy cameraman and Galifianakis’ producer/assistant, respectively.
This, of course, is where any recommendation for Between Two Ferns: The Movie might get tricky. Any fan of the talk show will likely enjoy the bits and pieces of interviews with the big-name celebrities (as well as the surprisingly funny bloopers at the end, in which we see both them and Galifianakis laugh at the utterly ridiculous questions he poses). In between that is a dryly funny riff on an underdog story that might appeal most to fans of Aukerman’s consistently hilarious Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and IFC TV show. Moments that would otherwise seem like a necessarily tender break in a laugh-out-loud comedy — such as a late heart-to-heart between Galifianakis and his producer — instead end up feeling like tongue-in-cheek parodies of such scenes.
That’s nothing to say about the parody of the talk show itself, which hits a shrewd and spiky peak when we see what a splashier, audience-heavy talk show with Galifianakis would look like. We only get a few brief glimpses (along with what a more normal, and thus unfunny and boring, interview between Galifianakis and a big-name celeb would look like) of this Hollywood-ized show. It’s to Aukerman’s credit, as well as Galifianakis’, that in just a few short minutes, the basic concept of the modern American talk show ends up looking more soulless than any bit of Ferns.
One of the many celebrities who appears for an interview, as disinterested as the host himself is, is talk-show icon David Letterman. (It’s likely no accident that Letterman’s current project is an interview show on, you guessed it, Netflix.) Perhaps the funniest, most knowing moment in Between Two Ferns is courtesy of Letterman himself, after their tetchy interview ends and Galifianakis admits to wanting a network show of his own. When he says he imagines it will make him happy, just as having a talk show must have made Letterman happy, the legendary host lets out a mordant chuckle. Even if it’s somewhat scripted — Aukerman has said the film’s largely improvised — that chuckle is the kind of laugh that comes fast and furious in Between Two Ferns: The Movie. The storyline is thin, but on its most important, fundamental level as a comedy, this works. What can I say? I laughed a lot.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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