In this month’s edition of TFINYW, I was excited to declare Fool’s Paradise as the “Redemption Reel,” as it appeared to potentially be the only shred of quality in a weekend filled to the brim with the artistic and cinematic equivalent of rancid feces. And I was right about the output itself, which averages only 55% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you remove the two highly-rated indie films with limited releases (The Starling Girl and Monica), the average sinks to 41%. Sadly, that’s about all I got right on this one, as it is, critically-speaking, the worst of the bunch, clocking in at a dismal 17%, dragging things down even further.
But is it really that bad? I wouldn’t necessarily say so. There are some enjoyable moments here and there, even a few that border on inspired. And I still stand behind my initial pre-endorsement from the standpoint that writer/director/star Charlie Day had a tremendous concept on his hands. However, this is clearly a case where he tried to do too much, both in the story and in the meta aspect of his creative control. You don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen, but this is definitely an instance where having an outside voice or two to help guide the project would have helped immensely. Instead, what begins as a solid idea quickly runs out of steam and goes completely off the rails, to the point that I started mentally checking off all the big name actors listed in the opening credits when they appeared, a sort of informal countdown to the end of the picture.
The biggest problem of the film becomes apparent very quickly. In all marketing and trailers, the story is presented as being about a homeless and silent mental patient (Day), who gets accidentally swallowed by the whirlwind that is Hollywood, contrasting his simple, Charlie Chaplin-esque curiosity with the hustle and bustle (not to mention shallowness) of the entertainment industry. That’s all well and good, and there is a decent amount of time spent on that, but the movie actually begins with the sleezy and incompetent Lenny, played by Ken Jeong, getting fired by his sole client as a publicist (comedian Andrew Santino) after he fails to get him any work. Desperate to find anyone he can take advantage of, Lenny then bribes a security guard at a studio to get onto the lot so he can mooch and look for a gullible rube.
It’s only at this point that we’re introduced to Day’s character, diagnosed in a mental hospital as having some form of age regression, to the point where he doesn’t speak or really understand basic concepts, and is estimated to have the mind of a five-year-old. Because he has no discernable identification or family, and because the state won’t pay for his treatment, he’s immediately kicked out and put on a bus that dumps him off in downtown Los Angeles, where he’s quickly swept up by crowds of day laborers and children.
This is the fundamental flaw of the entire affair. When we get to see Day do his best impression of the Little Tramp, it’s charming and endearing. But before that we have to suffer through several minutes of pure cringe from a character that basically becomes the co-lead. I’m sorry, but that’s not what ANY of us signed up for. I adore Ken Jeong. He’s one of the funniest actors in the world. And I feel deep sympathy for the fact that he works on The Masked Singer, where he as a medical doctor has to sit next to anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy and pretend her opinion on anything is valid. But this is just a complete misfire of a character. He has no redeeming qualities, his character development only extends to a really bad looking pencil mustache and an addiction to energy drinks, and he has this insane inferiority complex where all of his slimy dealings are in the name of proving to the world that he’s a “somebody.” It’s disgusting, and yet the movie tries to wring pathos from this waste of a human being and make us feel sorry for him, even though literally every problem he has is of his own making. THAT is what Charlie Day decided to open the film with, rather than his own protagonist. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film begin with active bad faith and then try to buy back its own credibility.
Anyway, through sheer dumb coincidence, a producer (the late, great Ray Liotta) is driving around the city when he’s informed that the star of his latest movie refuses to leave his trailer. Seeing Day’s character on the streets selling oranges, he realizes that the mute simpleton is a dead ringer for the ultra-method actor Sir Tom Bingsley (also Day, and yes, this is about as subtle as the parody names get), and takes Day to the set as an emergency stand-in. Unable to speak, much less act, Day constantly looks directly into the camera, which annoys Liotta and the crew but somehow ingratiates him to his sudden co-stars, the immensely self-absorbed Cristiana Dior (Kate Beckinsale) and Chad Luxt (Adrien Brody). After a successful day of filming, the producer (he’s one of many nameless characters) tells Day he did a good job, and yells at a production assistant for a “Latte, pronto!” Standing right behind him unseen is Lenny, who swoops in and introduces himself to Day, mistaking the coffee order for the silent actor’s name, and thus Day’s character is known as Latte Pronto for the rest of the movie. When Bingsley unexpectedly dies, Latte is conscripted to finish the film for him, becoming an overnight sensation due to what everyone believes is intentional and charismatic fourth-wall breaking as part of his acting style.
If this was the movie, I’d say we have a winner on our hands. Beckinsale and Brody are fully committed to their over-the-top personae, and many of the periphery characters have strong moments that fuel the farcical satire. Edie Falco as Latte’s instantly-appointed agent is definitely a highlight. But after a while they start to pull focus, to say nothing of Lenny getting way too much of the story. The idea that Beckinsale’s character would become instantly smitten with Latte, sleep with him, marry him (without his ability to consent, mind you), adopt three children from other countries, schedule an appointment with a snake oil shaman, and divorce him in a matter of days is funny and well-executed, because we all know that there are a good number of celebrities who have no self-awareness and think way too highly of themselves. It’s low-hanging fruit.
The problem is that, just like with Triangle of Sadness, the script can’t fix on a target, and as such treats everyone as if they’re pieces of shit trying to claw their way to a spot adjacent to fame. For example, there’s a scene with a nice background gag where PAs offer Latte and Chad a chair to sit down, only for Chad to constantly refuse, even though Latte actually wants one. When the conversation ends and Chad walks out of frame, the fourth PA in the scene enters and brings a chair with him, allowing Latte to sit down at last, only for the Liotta’s Producer to tell him that his break is over and it’s time to shoot the next scene. That’s classic slapstick with a modern twist, where the only assholes are the money-grubbing producer and the conceited actor. That’s fine.
But then you get these scenes where three makeup artists (Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Drew Droege, and Artemis Pebdani) constantly pin Latte to the chair to get him ready and harangue him with massive gossip and shit-talk, and still others where Latte’s eventual stand-in on a different movie (Austin Zajur from Clerks III) introduces himself nervously and humbly before becoming famous himself and calling Latte a “has-been” not worthy of his acknowledgement. I know success can go to people’s heads, but it makes no sense in the context of this character, especially when you consider that the film the two work on is a failure, which somehow sets Latte back but propels the stand-in to A-list status. Throw in doctors who care more about selfies than their patients, corrupt politicians, and absolutely abhorrent cameos from Common and John Malkovich as parodies of Wesley Snipes and Ed Koch respectively, and we’ve now reached the point where literally everyone except Latte is just a dick for no reason regardless of station, and that’s just not fun. It’s also pretty mean-spirited, given the fact that the vast majority of people who work on sets (myself included) are just normal, everyday professionals who want to do a good job and pay their bills. The Angelinas of the world? Fine, give ’em what for. They’re public figures, they signed up for this, and their foibles are well-documented. But PAs? Really? Don’t they get shit on enough?
Again, this could work in small doses, where the jokes are quick and punchy. There’s a bit where Jason Sudeikis plays a Michael Bay-type director who’s making a superhero movie called Mosquito Boy, and he wants Latte to star in it. All he does is wear a bad insect costume and get pelted with tennis balls (fired by Jason Bateman as the Effects Technician) while standing in front of a green screen. That’s perfectly adequate for two minutes. Comic book movies have hit the point where they’re becoming increasingly creatively bankrupt, and the only “filmmaking” is done in post with CGI, led by clueless hacks who just sit back and count their money. It’s an easy gag, you can get a few laughs from the physical nature of the comedy, and be in and out lickety-split.
If these funny moments continue in succession, it not only keeps the audience engaged, but it feeds into the overarching theme of how fast-paced the movie industry can be, which in turn lets us connect more with Latte as he reacts to the strange world unfolding around him. Instead, Day seems to almost short shrift his own hero in favor of these relatively cheap shots.
And that’s a real shame because, love him or hate him, Charlie Day absolutely shines when Latte gets to be the center of attention. His ability to mime and mimic the gestures of those around him is stupendous, really selling the homage to the comedy kings of the silent era. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd would be proud to see how he confidently he moves to set up the physical moments. There’s a scene where he dances to the Surfaris’ “Wipeout” that is just a moment of pure joy, capped off (literally) by him falling into a pool and his hat delicately sinking down to rest on his head underwater. Give us more of this and a whole lot less of Lenny, and you’ve got something truly special, a loving throwback to the origins of film set against a modern backdrop, like the Three Stooges starring in a remake of The Player. It could have been magical.
Unfortunately, though, it appears as if Day couldn’t get out of his own head, which is a real shame, especially considering one of the morals of the story is about how some people can’t see the big picture. By the time Common shows up as “Dagger” in the last 15 minutes (an obvious nod to Blade), the jokes have gotten lazier and lazier (not to mention annoyingly repetitive), any chance at meaningful commentary is out the window, and the technical flaws become increasingly noticeable (the continuity editing, for example, is just terrible, to the point where I honestly wonder if Day bothered to shoot coverage). There was a ton of potential here, but it just wasn’t realized. The script needed at least two or three more rewrites to make the parodies more focused, and to keep the spotlight on Latte. Lenny needed to be relegated to the sidelines for a couple of one-off jokes rather than undeservedly getting an almost equal share of the screen time. A solid timeline needed to be laid out so that the escalations made sense (the fact that Latte seemingly makes two movies and grievously injures himself in the span of what looks like a week is absurd in all the worst ways). And most importantly, in an age where “Flavor of the Month” celebrities still exist across multiple forms of media, there needed to be just a bit more creativity in showing just how far the winds of fate could blow Latte all over this city.
I give Charlie Day massive credit for the ambition of this idea, but in the end, the execution plays more like Eighth Grade to me than anything else. It’s a bad movie made with good intentions, and I’m okay with that in principle if not in the viewing experience. If we’re going to have them, these are the kinds of bad movies I want out there. Even when it comes up so very short of what it could have been, I will always be more thankful for the spectacular failures than the so-called “safe” entries that are just lazy cash grabs. Like Lenny’s energy drinks, Fool’s Paradise starts with a jolt that eventually makes you feel more tired, not to mention remorseful for what you just put your body through. That said, I’d still rather see this ten more times than Fast X once.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you appreciate a swing for the fences that misses entirely? How would Chaplin’s Little Tramp survive in modern Hollywood? Let me know!