‘Bad Trip’ Review: Good Vibes and Existential Angst

There are many, many ways to be eventually corralled into the non-event film. Maybe it’s the only thing on TV, or the one choice on a friend’s shelf that not everyone has seen five times. Maybe nothing else is seating for like 30 minutes and it probably only started a couple of minutes ago when you factor in the trailers anyway. But regardless of how you may have ever found yourself in front of such a film, you will almost certainly recognize in Bad Trip the shopworn tools of the medium: the shorthand montage, the “I quit” scene, the mildly climactic reconciliation.

In some other context, maybe that would be a criticism, but Bad Trip is designed to lean into that familiarity every step of the way. Accompanied by his pal Bud (Lil Rel Howery), Chris (Eric André) takes an impromptu road trip from Florida to New York, hoping to woo his high school crush Maria (Micaela Conlin) with little more than the power of grand romantic spontaneity. Maria curates an art gallery there, because “art gallery curator” is exactly the sort of inoffensive, vaguely classy job that fills out the details of these stories, filed somewhere near “baker” and “architect” and “works in advertising.” Eric André became a cult comic figure on the back of his Adult Swim talk show’s confrontational absurdity, where he subjects unwitting celebrity guests and random people on the street to a surreal sight or situation. For Bad Trip, André and various staff from his self-titled TV show hang those antics on the eroded skeleton of a nondescript, three-act-structured studio comedy to hilarious and unexpectedly illuminating results.

Which isn’t to suggest an absence of bizarre conflict; Bud’s terrifying sister Tina (Tiffany Haddish) has broken out of prison and pursues the friends because they have absconded with her vehicle, a hot pink car with “Bad Bitch” emblazoned on the license plate and also the entire back window. But rather than the sheer audacious invention of its stunts, the film’s masterstroke is in how the hidden camera structure ropes real bystanders into boilerplate plot beats, to the point where they become extras and bit characters themselves. Chris decides on his journey after soliciting advice from a bench-sitting Wise Old Black Man who is not an actor at all, and in one scene, Chris chases down a bus to make a heartfelt public apology among unsuspecting passengers who proceed to do exactly what such a crowd does in such a movie scene: applaud.

Bad Trip

When “We’ll Be Right Back” is a Threat

On The Eric Andre Show, the hidden camera gags play like a bizarre escalation of the average late-night talk show’s man-on-the-street segments, documenting the reactions of passersby to André when he inevitably makes a scene and/or a mess in public (outrage and horror tend to be the big ones). Sometimes, however, the joke is predicated on bystanders’ tendency toward genuine concern, whether because André himself appears injured or because he appears to be doing the injuring by attacking an actor while dressed as a TV news reporter or a giant potato, often abruptly cut off with a freeze frame and the text “We’ll be right back.”

With a few notable exceptions (one involving a gorilla that you may, uh, want to be prepared for), the bulk of Bad Trip setups run with that tendency, casting Chris and Bud as largely innocent guys having bad things happen to them through either wide-eyed stupidity or intoxication. The occasional job of confrontation tends to fall (quite successfully) to Haddish’s Tina, though even these scenes rely on the public — one of the film’s funniest scenes finds her popping out from under a parked prison bus once its driver walks off, generating tremendous internal conflict for a city worker unlucky enough to be standing right there. He doesn’t want to be an accomplice, but he also doesn’t really want to just turn her in when the driver comes back around asking if he saw anything.

This may, on its face, seem like a wholly less bold approach, a willful de-escalation of what we are aware this creative team can do, all in order to supplement a film’s creaky comedy template. After all, the object of The Eric Andre Show is to dismantle via shock and experimentation with format. In an essay for Film School Rejects, Brianna Ziegler summarizes the show’s effect on its famous guests: “Celebrities spend their entire careers sculpting themselves unseen, turning into a person that exists only to be watched by a television camera and by the millions of people who look through it. But on Andre’s show, we observe them tricked, embarrassed, pranked, and humiliated. Andre created the talk show equivalent of finding a candid photo of yourself online. Celebrities finally become visible, in all their naked silliness and stupidity.”

But at enormous risk of over-intellectualizing a film where a distraught Chris beseeches a stoic army recruiter, “I’ll suck your dick if you kill me,” Bad Trip stands in a weird spot, departing from André’s show while remaining in very direct conversation with it. Both, after all, seek to cultivate an authenticity from its unwitting (or semi-witting) participants, and in the process they emphasize the lack of that authentic emotion in the formats they occupy, even if to markedly different (and surprisingly complex) ends.

Ziegler examines The Eric Andre Show as a brilliantly headache-inducing rabbit hole of viewing and being viewed. She cites David Foster Wallace’s (rather concerned) 1993 essay about TV’s relationship with irony, E Unibus Pluram: “Wallace goes on to write that ‘television looks to be an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.’ Andre exploits both of these ideas in his show, allowing audiences at home to revel in witnessing celebrities being put into distressing situations that force them to shed their perfectly crafted personas, while still upsetting those same audiences by putting them in his uncomfortable on the street bits. The watchers become the watched, and vice versa.”

Bad Trip

“You’re So Funny”

Wallace’s essay is frequently cited for discussions about the larger problem of regarding everything with an ironic remove, where “flatness, numbness, and cynicism in one’s demeanor are clear ways to transmit… stand-out-transcendence—flatness and numbness transcend sentimentality, and cynicism announces that one knows the score.” He writes of irony as an exclusively negative force, able to tear down a façade but inapplicable to whatever is left and the larger project of constructing a better alternative. Too much irony contributes to a directionless malaise; the shield against a society that is always lying to us becomes a crutch, a certainty that none of it is real and nobody cares and the only logical defense is a bulletproof disbelief augmented by the absolute certainty that you shouldn’t care, either.

Rick Alverson’s 2012 The Comedy takes this brand of irony to an extreme, casting weirdo Adult Swim alum Tim Heidecker as a yuppie dirtbag who constantly prods at the edges of social acceptability, his “ironic” behavior spilling into outright misanthropy. The film is calculated for discomfort not just through painful dialogue but in the way it is filmed and edited, in shots that take forever to resolve, how long “jokes” go on; the absence of laughter grows conspicuous. Emotion of the unscrutinized sort is dead in this person, non-refundably exchanged for a pure detachment that does nothing to balm a hollow existence.

Irony does not rebuild, and there’s some question of whether its function of tearing down has much of an effect when we are all so willing to selectively apply notions of truth and belief. After all, the things that have been so thoroughly ridiculed stick around; the talk show still persists, its hold loosened more by the simple fact that if we want to feel like we “know” a celebrity, we just go online. The failure extends through varying degrees of importance, too; no amount of needling politicians about their hypocrisies from behind the desk of The Daily Show managed to cut off the further escalation of American fascism. When we already know all the tricks, already know how to look underneath, irony becomes a dull blade because we already know what they’re all saying anyway.

Wallace dismisses grotesquerie, shock, and irreverence on TV as no more than novelties to stand out from the pack, as “tiny transparent variations on old formulas.” And yet, the abrasive surrealism of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (no relation) has nevertheless emerged as its own kind of response. As Melissa Weller observes for Movie Mezzanine, “Heidecker and co. condemn creative corruption…and put cultural mediocrity to shame by parodying institutions to death, ramping up stereotypes to the point of surreal absurdity, and blasting them into the sun.” But for as much as their work follows the trajectory of irony-as-destroyer, there do not appear to be any illusions of actionable critique, whether from Tim & Eric themselves or the various formal comedic experiments that their company Abso Lutely Productions is credited on, from Nathan for You to, well, The Eric Andre Show. 

This brand of comedic anarchy plays out more like a conscious response to its very impotence, a noisy and violent destruction that is pushed so far in order to prove that nothing is actually far enough to fully, finally take down even the most banal institutions. In this way, it expresses the disorientation of being simultaneously confronted with the knowledge of how all the big machines work as well as the knowledge that your knowledge changes nothing; the apparatus long ago grew too powerful, capable of subsuming whatever was deluded enough to attempt its polite subversion.

After all, while the opening of every Eric Andre Show episode features its host screaming and violently dismantling its set, it is always put back together once his outburst is finished, his resistance irrelevant. Even total, absolute rebellion and destruction doesn’t really kill the problem. This has become the tenor of the wider internet itself, whose sense of humor tends to fall along similarly dadaist lines and who have turned phrases and images from various Abso Lutely shows into a communicative shorthand. It is a defeated exasperation: what do you do when revealing the fakeness of a thing doesn’t matter, because deep down everyone already knows and doesn’t care? You freak the fuck out.

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Bad Trip

Life With Eric

However we choose to deal with the brick wall of irony, there is no ability to un-know, to simply go back to an earnest sincerity that people would now characterize as naive. And this is what makes Bad Trip so fascinating, a sort of alternate perspective against the primal scream of surrealism as reflection of larger impotence. Bad Trip does not make any attempt to disguise its narrative tools and in fact leans into them, not as a rejection of self-awareness but as a way to demonstrate it (the buddy character in this buddy comedy is named Bud) and then show that, despite the audience’s awareness and the film’s awareness of that awareness, the broad emotions persist.

There are a couple of “what would happen if this type of movie was real,” jokes like a musical number that alarms mall patrons, but the persistent answer tends to be “actually not that different.” And that’s a terrifying thing to consider. Not only must we adhere to the skeptical purview of questioning how much of Bad Trip is real, but we have to wonder how much our modern conception of what is “real” and/or “authentic” is informed (or, to dabble in some of Wallace’s alarmism, tainted) by the media that saturates our lives. Either the most regurgitated hack stories reflect the breadth of human experience much more accurately than we’d care to admit, or our collective fluency in cinematic cliché is such that it bleeds into our everyday interactions with the world, to the point where we can manipulated to follow the script even when we don’t have the script and we can’t see the cameras.

André and Howery’s Chris and Bud are not really characters. They are more of an idea, a concept of friendship sold entirely by their inoffensive earnestness and the audience’s pre-calibrated expectations for such a narrative, where we are accustomed to being on the side of the main characters. We like them because they make us laugh and, because it feels good to laugh, we project the positive response right back at them. We hope they make it because we have filled in the blanks, as the various helpful bystanders have filled in the blanks already: these are friends, they’re doing their best.

And we feel a genuine warmth for those bystanders, too, because although we know they are essentially being tricked, although we know the situation they’re responding to is not real, their response is real. Regardless of how much we recognize and maybe initially disdain Bad Trip’s consistency with a crappy movie on varying levels of consciousness, the obvious artifice does not hinder our ability to feel. In an effusive New Yorker essay about the finale of Nathan for You, filmmaker Errol Morris writes that the show is “ultimately about our unfettered capacity for credulity—not just the suspension of disbelief but the acceptance of the preposterous.” This, quite unexpectedly, is exactly where Bad Trip lands.

We see the seams, and we push forward. Obliquely, it’s that same trajectory of continuing to watch Nicolas Cage movies; we think of something like the ability to see those seams as bad, and perhaps we even engage with them from an ironic distance at first, but we come around because the appreciation is the appreciation, no matter where its roots are. And in Bad Trip, no matter how much we’re thinking about the circumstances of the film’s creation, the editing process, the details of staging its pranks, the basic ethics of doing so, or the daunting horror of the existential angst it unearths, the overriding feeling is simply that it is nice to see people running to the aid of other people, still caring. Despite it all.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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