Stupid Is As Stupid Does
As a college kid, even more so than now, I was deeply unlikable. That’s normal and it’s always been normal. After getting booted out of high school, we all take our first trembling steps toward adulthood. We all make stupid mistakes that, in retrospect, were easily avoided. We all want the adults around us to be very aware that we, too, are adults. To some degree or another, at that time of life, we’re all kind of annoying.
That’s also the time when we figure out who we are and try on personas the way that others try on shoes. My persona for a moment was the cynical artiste, the one who’s telling it like it is, the kind of person who would have gone online and loudly complained to anyone who listened that the real problem with cinema was Marvel movies. Looking back, it’s kind of incredible that I still have friends.
I had a compulsion toward EXTREME cinema. Movies that didn’t so much push the envelope as they shredded the envelope with a chainsaw. Body horror like Tetsuo the Iron Man? Yes, please! Deeply uncomfortable indie dramas like Kids? Certainly! It wasn’t enough to streak toward those movies like a pretentious heat-seeking missile, I had to drag others with me. Looking back, it’s an honest-to-God miracle that I still have friends.
My bread and butter at the time were deeply transgressive comedies like Pink Flamingoes or Meet the Feebles. It was like the cinematic equivalent of punk rock, and here’s the thing about that. When you’re nineteen, punk rock feels like it pulses with dangerous energy. When channeled intelligently, that energy can actually do something. When it’s not channeled toward anything, it’s nothing more than noise. The new Belgian comedy Mother Schmuckers wants to be a trashterpiece like Pink Flamingoes. It likely won’t be since it’s not really rebelling against anything.
The film begins, as most great films do, with two young men grilling feces. Our heroes are Issachar (Maxi Delmelle) and Zebulon (Harpo Guit), a pair of brothers who seem to share a shrinking amount of brain cells. They’re pure id, running on the most childish impulses possible. Their mother Cachemire (Claire Bodson) is done with them. So, so done.
You’d think that Cachemire would know better, asking her boys to take their beloved dog January Jack on a walk. Shouldn’t she know by now that Zebulon and Issachar are magnets that attract chaos?
Naturally, January Jack is lost. Naturally, madness ensues. The story, such as it is, follows Issachar and Zebulon’s efforts to recover the dog before they’re thrown out of their mother’s flat. Along the way, their quasi-friend and frustrated filmmaker Choukri (Habib Ben Tanfous) will join them. There will be running, slap fights, weird sex parties, ill-advised art films, and what the hell, jokes about necrophilia.
Look, you might assume that I’m coming at this from a deeply snobby, holier-than-thou film critic perspective. I’m more than okay with a comedy that aspires to nothing more than being funny. Comedy is hard, a hell of a lot harder than drama. Part of that is because comedy depends on surprise. The problem with Mother Schmuckers is that it primarily relies on shock instead.
Right from nearly the first frame, directors Harpo Guit and Lenny Guit show us that nothing is off-limits. They’re clearly going for an aesthetic like Pink Flamingoes, where nearly every joke exists to be bigger and grosser than the last and each gag is designed to make you gag. The problem is that a good ninety percent of their jokes take only that approach,* and the Guits focus so hard on being shocking that they forget to be surprising. Classic comedies like Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail feature scatological humor, dick jokes, physical comedy, weirdly random bits, and highbrow humor. You never know what’s coming next but you always know you’re in the hands of smart and creative filmmakers. Instead, the Guits only throw us off-balance a few times. After a while, I’d anticipate something disgusting was coming and as sure as night follows day, something disgusting would happen.**
Another serious problem lies with the characterization of Issachar and Zebulon. The script by Harpo and Lenny Guit makes a fatal mistake — both Zebulon and Issachar are essentially the same person. That means there’s no conflict and no friction between them. Look at the best comedy teams, such as the guys from Friday, the titular leads in The Blues Brothers, or the bridal party in Bridesmaids. Each of those characters has a distinctive point of view and personality, even if they’re broadly drawn. Here, the Guits never really distinguish between the brothers, which means their schtick wears out fast.
Someone, somewhere, is going to watch Mother Schmuckers and giggle their ass off. That person would have been me a bunch of years ago. I haven’t grown up much, but at least I’ve learned that comedy works best when it has equal amounts of balls and brains.
*It’s the “Cards Against Humanity” rule. That game tries so hard to be offensive, and it is…for maybe twenty minutes. Then the novelty wears off…fast.
**The next time you hear Europeans mocking Americans for being a bunch of uncultured savages, just remember that this film was made in Belgium. By Belgians.