Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2009

'Lost' in time and space

The improv troupe of Ferrell and McBride hits a dead end in 'Land of the Lost'

Land of the Lost
Universal Pictures
Director: Brad Silberling
Screenplay: Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas, based on the television series created by Sid and Marty Krofft
Starring: Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride, Jorma Taccone, John Boylan and Matt Lauer
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 41 minutes
(out of four)

Universal execs couldn't have envisioned this when they acquired the Land of the Lost property a few years back. Then again, maybe that's exactly what they wanted - a movie that they couldn't envision, a movie authored and reinvented on the fly to pull the franchise out of its '70s roots and into something . . . well, different.

That might explain why they went after the distinctly improvisational team of star Will Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay in the first place - both sketch-comedy veterans and the brains behind Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. Idiosyncratic indie vet Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Spy Kids, El Mariachi) was reportedly in talks as well - and surely would have put his own spin on it.

In the end, Brad Silberling took the reins, with Ferrell in tow as his leading man. The result is not so much a reinvention as it is a comedy sketch that happens to take place on a Land of the Lost set. The basic set-up is still there - dinosaurs, Sleestaks, time-travel, what have you. But those elements are virtually incidental to the film's driving force - Ferrell and his good buddy Danny McBride improvising and brainstorming their way through a series of disconnected comedy sketches, at the expense of pretty much everything else.

That's not to say the film would have worked better in another form or with a different cast - this certainly could have been worse. But while its blatant disregard for structure and plotting is almost charming, the material just isn't very strong. This is like Ferrell and McBride on autopilot. There's a scatological sketch here, a stoner sketch there, pop culture references and sex jokes scattered throughout - and not one fastball amongst them.

Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, a disgraced paleontologist who was run out of the science community for his theories about traveling between dimensions. Years later, he has been recruited by his lone supporter, Holly (Anna Friel), to complete his life's work - and together the two go out in the field to test his theories in a rundown roadside attraction run by the innocuously sleazy Will Stanton (McBride).

Needless to say, the three get sucked through a time warp and into a parallel world, and proceed to half-heartedly explore, evade danger and fall in love in the middle of a Bo Welch-designed land that a critic friend of mine described as a "surreal, retro wasteland" - a description I'm stealing because I couldn't have said it better.

The characters seem gleefully unaware of - or at least indifferent to - their CGI-enhanced surroundings. The movie sometimes plays like that old Whose Line Is it Anyway? sketch in which the performers had to improvise their way through a "scene" without seeing what was being projected on the screen behind them. There's never any sense of danger, but the actors try to use that to their advantage by playing along with the artificial silliness of it all.

Unfortunately, most of what they have to offer is C-minus material. Despite the sequences that do work, Silberling proves unable to harness that creative and improvisational energy into something more fulfilling. Maybe someone like McKay - a guy without the pure filmmaking chops but who may have felt more at home with this type of movie - could have pulled it off.

As it is, the resulting film is so disjointed and confused that not even the natural charisma of its three leads can save it.

Actually, this is an interesting test case for Ferrell, an actor who typically towers above a film rather than blending into it. When he's at his funniest, that's fine; in Land of the Lost, it's a handicap. There's so much of Ferrell doing Ferrell that it hijacks everything else, leaving most of the movie - particularly the talented Ms. Friel, who has the thankless task of playing everything straight - without any room to breathe.

Even when he's not doing a variation on the types of roles he perfected in Anchorman, Ferrell has proven he can blend seamlessly into a role and deliver a strong performance - Stranger than Fiction, Elf and Melinda and Melinda spring to mind. In Land of the Lost, however, the seams are showing all over the place.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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