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Strange Wilderness DVD Review

Strange Wilderness movie poster Strange Wilderness

Theatrical Release: February 1, 2008 / Running Time: 85 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Fred Wolf / Writers: Peter Gaulke, Fred Wolf

Cast: Steve Zahn (Peter Gaulke), Allen Covert (Fred Wolf), Jonah Hill (Cooker), Kevin Heffernan (Whitaker), Ashley Scott (Cheryl), Peter Dante (Danny Gutierrez), Harry Hamlin (Sky Pierson), Robert Patrick (Gus Hayden), Joe Don Baker (Bill Calhoun), Blake Clark (Dick), Justin Long (Junior), Jeff Garlin (Ed Lawson), Ernest Borgnine (Milas)

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Adam Sandler is one of today's few major movie stars who regularly make a certain type of film. It's worked well for him; with just one exception (2000 flop Little Nicky), all of his signature vehicles since 1998's The Waterboy have earned between $120 million and $165 million domestically, no matter how disparaging critical response has been.
And so Sandler's production company Happy Madison Productions, established in 1999 and named after his first two protagonists, needn't have a financial worry anytime soon.

But as reliable a draw as Sandler-topped comedies have been, Happy Madison's Sandler-less efforts have had limited success. Efforts to evoke the Sandler brand with his 1990s "Saturday Night Live" buddies in leading roles have yet to eclipse mid-range profits. Least attended of all was the 2006 stoner comedy Grandma's Boy, which gave starring parts to Sandler's recognizable but unknown co-stars/friends. Earning just $6 million in U.S. theaters and barely anything overseas, the movie nonetheless went on to sell moderately well on DVD and achieve mild cult status.

Recreating the gradual, modest success of Grandma's Boy appears to have been the goal of Strange Wilderness, which inherits a mid-winter opening, several core cast & crew members, and a drug-oriented, R-rated sense of humor from that earlier film. In fact, Wilderness was filmed back in late 2005, in the short period between Grandma's Boy wrapping and releasing. Taking two years to reach theaters isn't always a warning sign, but it's an appropriate one for Strange Wilderness, which appears to have escaped no-distributor shelving only due to a rise in some cast members' familiarity.

In a rare top-billed role, Steve Zahn plays Peter Gaulke, inept nature show host. With remote control in hand, network executive Ed Lawson (Jeff Garlin) shows the chief creative forces of "Strange Wilderness" what's wrong with their work.

Steve Zahn stars as Peter Gaulke, whose father entertained audiences for years as the host of "Strange Wilderness", a nature TV series centered on wild animals. Inheriting the duties of his late father, Peter hasn't maintained the same level of quality or success. He doesn't have the drive, wisdom, or expertise to produce something of worth, even by the relaxed standards of a 3 A.M. timeslot.
A network executive (Jeff Garlin, "Curb Your Enthusiasm") calls in Peter to tell him the end is nigh for the drivel-laden show. But until the plug is pulled and the network hires a more resourceful competitor (Harry Hamlin), there is still hope.

On a tip from an old pal (Joe Don Baker), Peter and his ragtag crew become excited to film something they think will save the series: a show on Bigfoot. With a large RV, a map and plenty of drugs, the "Strange Wilderness" team heads for the elusive apeman's Ecuadorian location. Comprising the crew: mustachioed soundman and all-purpose aide Fred (Allen Covert), mutton-chopped drawler/production assistant Cooker (Jonah Hill, Superbad), stoner nepotism hire Junior (Justin Long, "Mac" of Macintosh commercials), and an unqualified animal handler struggling with sobriety (Kevin Heffernan of the Broken Lizard comedy troupe). Oh and to offset all that testosterone, there's Cheryl (Ashley Scott), the requisite hot girl and closest thing to a sharp-witted person in the group.

The road to Ecuador is windy and unfocused; jokes certainly claim a majority of the film, with plot remaining unimportant and secondary. It is a bit of stretch to actually call the unpolished humor "jokes." The success rate of the comedy is so miniscule that the almost-chuckles provided in the most amusing moments feel like some great relief.

Outside the Strange Wilderness RV, Danny Gutierrez (Peter Dante) prepares to play a seal to aid in filming access. Junior's tattooed eyelids would rank among the film's biggest almost-chuckles, but only if you haven't already been exposed to the gag in ads.

At this point, you might assume that, like most critics, I must write off non-intellectual comedies. You'd be wrong. I'd be more apt to call Adam Sandler a genius than just about any other funnyman in Hollywood; I consistently enjoy his drubbed but appealing fare. Clearly, his talents come across more readily as performer than producer. While not expecting enjoyment on par with his best, I did enter Strange Wilderness knowing the cast enlisted was enough to excite. Just about every leading actor has proven himself to be funny with the right material, like Covert and Peter Dante in roles supporting Sandler
and Justin Long in most things he's done. None of them, however, can rise above the mess they're dealt here.

Crass, vulgar, and mindless can sometimes work well in comedy. But they generally don't inspire laughter on their own; there has got to be characters, scenarios, or a tone for the humor to work. Strange Wilderness serves up none of those three elements effectively and in fact squanders a potentially potent premise mixing the great outdoors with minds that aren't so great. The couple of good ideas made it into the trailer and TV ads, leaving the majority of the film's brisk 85 minutes feeling tired, long, and joyless.

It is abundantly clear that the movie wasn't adequately conceived. The majority of it is given the loose framework of being told as a telephone conversation. It's never clear who it's being told to or why. Nor for that matter does it feel like things were ever thought through in advance, granting the proceedings an uneven and aimless feel. The 2006 copyright date in the end credits suggests that no one took a moment in the past two years to try to fix the film with editing or reshoots. That's somewhat tragic with the talent on hand here, which includes nonagenarian Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine in his biggest theatrical credit in a decade.

Earning 500 thousand dollars more than Grandma's Boy in 800 less theaters, Strange Wilderness was still a box office dud by most standards. To date, I haven't been able to find a single professional review of the movie that was favorable. Having long been out of theaters, it comes to DVD next week, without the "Unrated Edition" gimmick most of its kind resort to.

Buy Strange Wilderness on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Spanish),
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish;
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: May 20, 2008
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99 (Reduced from $29.99)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase with Side Snaps

VIDEO and AUDIO

Picture quality looks terrific in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, especially considering the shoestring budget one imagines this was shot on. The one exception is the wildlife photography, for which no effort is taken to disguise the fact that it's grainy stock footage from probably the '70s. Is that supposed to be funny? I guess?

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is fine, but unspectacular. For a movie with the word "Wilderness" in the title, you'd expect more atmospheric nature sounds, but I hardly noticed any. Naturally, dialogue is the main element in this front-oriented track, though a few prerecorded pop songs also get played.

In "What Do We Do?", the actors are gripped with laughter. How come none of those feelings come across to the viewer? The Comedy Central "Reel Comedy" special for the film livens up Lisa Arch's interview of Steve Zahn with a capuchin monkey. More of Fred and Peter's interviews of prospective animal handlers are found among the full serving of deleted scenes.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The first three bonus features offer footage from the set. "Cooker's Song" (5:45) merely presents long, painful B-roll of Jonah Hill's character singing on the RV. "The Turkey" (6:45) gives us a behind-the-scenes look
at the practical effects needed to bring a drawn-out, lowbrow gag to fruition. The most candid, "What Do We Do?" (6:03), showcases the filming atmosphere of widespread laughter and rampant ad-libbing. There are a few improvised references here that are funnier than material in the film, so we can assume some of the blame lies in editing.

Next up is the Comedy Central special "Reel Comedy: Strange Wilderness" (21:12), which along with the trailer duped me into expecting a funny movie. Like other installments of the irregular promotional series, this one is heavy on film clips and repetitive plot synopses. On DVD, it is the rest of the episode that's more noteworthy. Host Lisa Arch interviews five major cast members and there are photogenic animals on hand to further sustain interest.

Finally, we get 13 deleted scenes that run 22 minutes and 10 seconds altogether. Spending more than one-fourth the feature runtime on material deemed not good enough to make the cut surely sounds like a daunting prospect. Some of the material, however, is funnier than anything in the film and the rest isn't noticeably worse. Among the deletions are more animal handler interviews, Junior showing off two additional tattoos, Cooker's full song (again), and Peter & Fred annoying separate receptionists.

The disc opens with full trailers for Mike Myers' lousy-looking The Love Guru and Owen Wilson's Drillbit Taylor. They can also be viewed from the bonus menu's "Previews" listing, where they're preceded by a Cloverfield promo.

The DVD's menus aspire to the same plain feel as the cover, putting basic character composites against crude lime green nature backgrounds. The only sign of life comes from the main menu, which spices up its straight reformat of the cover art with some instrumental music. There is no insert inside the case.

With enough drugs, hand buzzers are hilarious, at least to these six Strange Wilderness crew members portrayed, left to right, by Allen Covert, Steve Zahn, Justin Long, Ashley Scott, Kevin Heffernan, and Jonah Hill. Buried near the end of the film, the looped laughing shark gag that figured so largely in certain previews doesn't even feel like an ample reward for endurance.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I wonder if writer-director Fred Wolf and co-writer Peter Gaulke regret naming the lead characters of Strange Wilderness after themselves. Then again, I wonder if the former "SNL" scribes have many regrets over this film or are just grateful to have gotten work and eventually had it seen.

Strange Wilderness is one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time and as someone who watches 5 movies in a slow week, that's saying something. I can't foresee this film garnering as much attention as Grandma's Boy or being embraced much by connoisseurs of stupid stoner comedies. That said, Paramount has equipped this disc with an hour of bonus features that repeatedly surpass the movie in entertainment value. Even so, this is one to avoid.

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Reviewed May 17, 2008.



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