Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bad Johnson / 1/2* (2014)

Nothing gets a man in trouble quite as often (or as severely) as his penis. While some members of the male species have successfully mastered that ever-so-daunting task of taming the mischievous trouser beast in all things sexual or romantic, countless others have allowed it to roam free and wreak havoc just about everywhere it goes without regard to consequence. The source of the problem is, I suspect, a linkage failure between anatomical functions; because neither the brain nor the groin are exactly eager to communicate with one another in such regards, they create perplexing gray areas in which destructive patterns often manifest. A good man will allow an enlightened mind to dictate his actions; a bad one will abandon reason and get caught up in the rush of a cheap thrill. And as always, there’s also those conflicted types – guys who indulge in the pleasures of the flesh but are conscious enough of their efforts to stand back and examine their place once it becomes apparent that their brash chutzpah is leading them down very unforgivable paths.

All things considered in the maddening affairs of human sexual urges, I seriously doubt that any guy above the average line of intelligence ever pondered for a second what it would be like if their anatomy literally had a personality of its own. So what in heaven’s name gave anyone the idea to make a movie in which a penis is allowed to literally detach from its host and become a living and breathing being with college level language skills? The premise of “Bad Johnson” is a whopper of a bad idea, made all the more disheartening by the notion that someone thought highly enough of it to see it as a feasible outlet for movie comedy. If that impulse is indicative of where film has come in its more recent sensibilities, then now is the time for some sort of creative revolution. This is the kind of plot that plays though your nightmares after a night of excessive binge drinking.

Admittedly, a premise this stupid might not have been an issue beyond initial knee-jerk perceptions had the story (or the directing) been under the thumbprint of more motivated filmmakers. Some of the best recent comedies materialized from ideas that seemed like exercises in deplorable taste, essentially because they were in hands capable of seeing in between the gross-outs to catch a glimpse of an occasional moment of inspiration. Think of the great Farrelly brothers comedies, like “There’s Something About Marry” and “Shallow Hal” – those pictures worked because they saw their ideas as just a momentum booster. Director Huck Botko and writer Jeff Tetreault, on the other hand, are totally alien to any concept beyond one-note setups, and they fill the screen with moments that not only defy explanation, but basic human awareness. A more interesting movie would be a documentary about their working relationship, if only for witnessing a scene in which someone on set could ask them if they were ported here from an alternate dimension that is devoid of wit.

The plot is a one-note clothespin of cheap punchline setups. The lead character is Rich Johnson (ho ho), a physical trainer whose life consists of the same routine day in and day out: he meets a beautiful woman, woos her with his words, beds her, and then moves on to the next conquest without regret or acknowledgment. He is like Don John, except lacking in self-awareness. What do women find so fetching about him, then? I suspect his chiseled body and piercing blue eyes are effective lead-ins – and hey, if the story is about his penis, that’s probably quite a magnet in itself too. But inevitably his shenanigans get the best of him after his new girlfriend  (Jamie Chung) finds bite marks in his penis on the eve of their first physical encounter, and she angrily throws him out (angry in the typical teen comedy way, mind you, and not in a way that is relative to basic human reaction). That night, Rich reflects in regret for a very brief moment that seems to inspire the universe to the heights of a colossal joke, and the next morning he wakes up with nothing in his pants… and a man on the other end of his cellphone claiming to be that precious piece of anatomy, walking and talking all on its own.

The human form of Rich’s penis is played here by Nick Thune, in a role that sits comfortably somewhere between the vulgar sentiments of John Belushi in “Animal House” and the premeditated cruelty of Rik Mayall in “Drop Dead Fred.” Because it is his nature to satisfy sexual cravings – which are quite abundant – he spends two thirds of the movie not only sleeping with women, but even manipulating his way into the pants of them like some sort of predatory trickster. The opposing outcome of this, of course, is that Rich now thinks with a more clear head since his penis is no longer attached to his body, and that in turn will inform the direction a new exciting romance will start to take when he meets a woman at the gym (Katherine Cunningham), becomes her instructor and begins to see her for her infectious personality rather than for her appealing curves. Alas, the human penis is not content to sit idly by and watch its master turn over a new leaf, essentially because romantic feelings have their own negative effect on his performance (the movie basically implies that they share a psychic bond, even in a detached state). That in turn leads to other devious shenanigans, including stealing Rich’s best friend, wooing his potential girlfriend, trashing his apartment and racking up absurd charges on his master’s credit card. Here’s an interesting question: what bank in their right mind would give a $30 thousand credit limit to any guy working as a fitness instructor at a local gym?

Somewhere in this maddening display is, I guess, a lesson: the literal manifestation of one man’s personal struggle with balancing the demands of his manhood with the logistics of his brain, especially when it comes to a girl he may come to care about. When the plot provides him the obligatory good girl, there is a familiar series of setups that in any ordinary movie would progress the conflict; here, however, they come off as profound lapses in judgment. It’s one thing for a comedy to be void of laughs, but another for it to inspire dislike. The talking penis is such an unruly and unpleasant creature that it does nothing progressive with the story, other than to (perhaps) highlight the utterly vapid nature of his owner. Cam Gigandet, who plays Rich, is probably a very capable actor when given the right material, but not here; “Bad Johnson” turns him into an everyday simpleton, as if plucked from a fashion runway and told to stand in front of a camera while a director manipulates his choreography. The jokes that surround him for 88 minutes, meanwhile, are all splinters collected from the remnants of more effective comedies about sexual dysfunction, and the movie’s entire existence depends so heavily on lame puns and forced dialogue that there is never a moment when we can detach from the situation enough to relax into the subject. Both writer and director are so removed from basic comedic insights that one wonders how deplorable their frame of reference really was prior to this undertaking.

There is one isolated chuckle in the movie, albeit a very brief one: after Rich shows his best friend Josh (Kevin Miller) what has befallen his groin, he lets out a very horrific gasp of shock before announcing that it “looks like an Asian man’s armpit.” Not limiting itself to suggestion, however, the movie inevitably shows us the sight of Rich’s barren crotch in a later scene – and does so in a context that is not only calculated and cruel, but to no narrative purpose. Why is it even there? The same reason, I guess, that every other unfunny moment is: to emphasize the desperation these filmmakers possess in tossing as many jokes at the audience as possible, hoping something will eventually fly. Did they learn nothing from life to assist in their decision-making? Were they inebriated beyond belief when this idea came to them, and did they ever sober up long enough during filming to wonder what they were doing? Did no one above them take the initiative to suggest script changes, or at least shout out in protest at the undoubtedly deadening story conferences? Did the actor’s bother questioning their reputation for doing becoming involved, or were they too concentrated on paychecks to notice? “Bad Johnson” joins the dubious company of “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” as one of those excursions into the insufferable world of the male ego that leave us weeping for the future of the human race.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Comedy (US); 2014; Not Rated; Running Time: 88 Minutes

Cam Gigandet: Rich Johnson
Nick Thune: Rich’s Penis
Katherine Cunningham: Lindsay Young
Jamie Chung: Jamie
Kevin Miller: Josh Nelson

Produced by Huck Botko, Reid Brody, David Fox, Paul Kim, Danny Roman, Bill Ryan and Traceigh Scottel; Directed by Huck Botko; Written by Jeff Tetreault

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