Nerdland was the first film to stand out to me when I first signed on to cover the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Everything about it appealed to me. It’s the first full length feature from Titmouse, an animated company most associated with Adult Swim’s works, it stars Patton Oswalt and Paul Rudd, and it’s about two slacker creatives who’re trying to find their way in Hollywood.
On paper Nerdland sounds like the ultimate indie project. Feature length animation for adults is few and far in between and out comes an edgier cartoon comedy from a place that understands edgier material. But how the hell did we end up with this mess? Nerdland is full of terrible ideas that only terrible people will enjoy.
Director: Chris Prynoski
Release Date: April 14, 2016 (limited)
At the heart of Nerdland is veritable slacker stereotypes, Elliot (Patton Oswalt), an aspiring screenwriter who’d rather spend his days masturbating than write, and John (Paul Rudd), a film blogger who dreams of pursuing an acting career. When the two of them lose their jobs, they decide they’ve had enough with failure and venture on a last ditch effort to get their work recognized. The two slackers are willing to literally throw their lives away blindly hunting for fame and they’ll do whatever to whoever to get what they want.
Nerdland has a strong core concept. Initially setting out to be a parodic take on the new wave of entitlement that’s come from the digital age and increased publicity for the ‘nerd’ archetype, the film shines an ugly light on an ugly subset. This take works for a while as every aspect of the film contributes to this ugliness. The grungy art style and gross out humor establish an icky setting, Oswalt and Rudd adopt darker tones for their voice acting (but Rudd borders on being completely absent), and every character is a vapid shell of some kind. The style is a grand pastiche of the Hollywood/Tinseltown thought era, but all of that goes out the window the second a character speaks. Clearly the film’s style and writing weren’t developed jointly. There’s definitely a better, or even good film lying underneath all of the garbage but it’s being crushed.
Nerdland is trying its best to be a quirky dark comedy, but it reaches so far it becomes unintelligible. For one, there’s no cemented plot. It’s just a set of disjointed scenes with plot points capable of carrying several movies. The main story arc is intended to highlight how far Elliot and John fall, but even that arc is sullied by how nonsensical the plot seems. The character decisions are no longer informed by desperation but by how twisted the plot needs them to be at any given moment. Rather than a sign of devolution, their growth lacks fluidity and always breaks the flow of whatever plot Nerdland wants to cook up at the time. In a weird way, it’s like the film realizes its own faults and resorts to just throwing whatever idea they have at a dartboard and hope one of those ideas leaves a lasting impact.
Treating your film with reckless abandon may be worth some credit, but it’s absolutely worthless to the viewer. When the film literally becomes a veritable orgy of bad ideas, it’s debilitating. There’s a scene in Nerdland, about an hour in, so devoid of thought or even dark humor it sapped all good will I had. Since there’s no natural progression of character or plot, the scene sticks out so much it’s almost as if they created an entire film just to show two minutes of pure inanity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the concept I have a problem with it’s the execution. There’s an difference between mining a dark subject for humor (and the original thought behind it seems to be exaggerating violence in animation would merit a laugh) in a mature way and focusing on the most juvenile, low hanging fruit of a subject.
I’m not sure where Nerdland went so wrong. It’s such a complicated mess of a film, so juvenile, so low reaching that it sets back adult animation for several years. You know, it’s not even egregious enough to be offensive. It just kind of happens to you whether you like or not. It’s so boring, so paper thin, that Nerdland is offensive to the very people who made it. It’d be a blight on everyone’s career if it weren’t guaranteed forgotten a few days after its release.
At least Hannibal Buress is good in it. Love that guy.