Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Will Ferrell/Ben Stiller Comedy No One Ever Told You About: "The Suburbans" (1999)

Will Ferrell was making a name for himself on "Saturday Night Live." Ben Stiller was a rising star, fresh off of "There's Something About Mary." Why did they sign on to this thing?

The Suburbans were a fictional one-hit wonder band from the early 1980's. They appeared on "American Bandstand," but rejected the idea of a cable channel that played nothing but music videos, and their careers were over. Almost twenty years later, the former bandmates are attending bass player Gil's (Will Ferrell) wedding. Danny (director/co-writer Donal Lardner Ward) is a lifeguard and part-owner of a small club. Rory (co-writer Tony Guma) sells insurance and is dating a pregnant Lara (Bridgette Wilson), who has two horrible children and plenty of stories about her bastard ex-husband. Mitch (Craig Bierko) is a skirt chasing podiatrist who still dreams of rock stardom. Danny is dating photographer Grace (Amy Brenneman), who wants marriage (it's been 15 years already), and children.

The group reunites to belt out their hit song, and are approached by Cate (Jennifer Love Hewitt), a young successful executive at a huge conglomerate record company. She is on a winning streak, and decides to pluck the band out of obscurity, set them up in a rehearsal house, have their every move videotaped by MTV, and get them ready for a huge pay-per-view television comeback. The guys decide to sign to Cate's record company, owned by father and son cameos Jerry and Ben Stiller, and then the drama begins. Everything that can go wrong does. Relationships are on the line, alcoholics falter, Cate's true motive is exposed, and the film makers don't let Will Ferrell do anything funny.

This is one of those comedies that had to have read funnier on paper. While the characters are all stock, this could have been the manic cousin to Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do!," but instead, it just lies there. Obvious scene follows obvious scene, and what should have been a can't-miss satire of the music industry instead tries to involve us in Danny and Grace's relationship problems. Guma and Ward took a winning idea and stumbled with it. Ward's direction is stale, as if he is afraid to move the camera or try anything different.

Of all the band members, Ferrell's character gets the least amount of screen time. The few lines and scenes he has are hysterical, and it is too bad no one recognized this in editing. The same goes for the Stillers' extended cameo. Ben and Jerry...hey, like the ice cream guys!...flub lines, sleepily go for laughs, and have no sense of timing, but every second of them possibly shot seems to be included on the off-chance someone would find them funny.

While the Suburbans' pretend one-hit is kind of catchy, the band itself is a little boring. The weird thing here is that half the cast is actually pretty good- Bierko is funny, Brenneman has some good scenes, Wilson tries as an underwritten harpy, and Hewitt is sexy and watchable in an awful role that mostly calls for her to stand around and be sexy and watchable. For every moment that works, there are "wha'?" cameos from the Stillers, Robert Loggia, Antonio Vargas, Kurt Loder, Dick Clark, and even A Flock of Seagulls (which just reminds everyone what a good one-hit wonder was).

"The Suburbans" does exist, I watched it on a DVD that was available in most stores. Ferrell and Stiller are megastars now, and the rest of the cast and crew have moved on to bigger things as well (did I mention this was produced by one J.J. Abrams?). The viewer, however, will just wonder how this misfire was green-lighted to begin with. (* *) out of five stars.