Review: Patton Oswalt and Johnny Knoxville deliver sporadic laughs in uneven 'Nature Calls'
Todd Rohal had an unnaturally long period of time pass between the production of his first film, "The Guatemalan Handshake," and his second, "The Catechism Cataclysm." Five years between movies can seem like a lifetime for a filmmaker, so it was nice to see that after "Catechism" played the festival circuit last year, just now arriving on home video, Rohal's already got a new film ready and it premiered here on Saturday afternoon. He has definitely picked up the pace, and I'm glad he's managed to shake that awful inertia that can be really tough on a filmmaker, so I feel kind of bad when I say that my main criticism for Rohal right now would be "please slow down."
Both of these recent films, "Catechism" and "Nature," are built on strong simple ideas that easily could have been used in a big-budget mainstream comedy. They're both driven by character-driven comedy and blatant absurdity, and there's definitely a consistent voice from film to film. I like his sensibilities and there are many things in both of the films that made me laugh. But both films also strike me as deeply undercooked in some essential way, like we're watching a rough assembly instead of a finished edit. They are shaggy to the point of sloppy, and I feel like one more pass at each of the scripts might have teased the great ideas into an actual great execution.
"Nature Calls" tells the story of two brothers, Randy (Patton Oswalt) and Kirk (Johnny Knoxville), who were raised by their father as Boy Scouts. Their dad took it incredibly seriously, and so did Randy. He wanted to be just like his father when he grew up, while Kirk just plain rejected the entire thing. He couldn't even pretend to care about Scouting, and as soon as he could, he got out and never looked back. Now that their father is old, frail, and in a home, Randy feels like a failure. He's got a handful of kids in his troop instead of the 90-something his father had, and the furthest they can go for a camping trip is the parking lot of the church where they meet. The kids are bored, Randy is desperate, and it looks like the whole thing is on the verge of collapse. Kirk doesn't care, because he's got his gravy train, an ATM business, and his wife (Maura Tierney) and his adopted black son, and he doesn't have anything to do with his brother. That's probably what pushes Randy over the edge, leading him to take matters into his own hands. He takes Kirk's son and all of his friends who are gathered for a "One Year In America" slumber party, and he heads out to the woods with them for some real camping.
There are a number of good ideas set up along the way. Rob Riggle is Knoxville's chief of security for his ATM company, and he's a total meathead weirdo. They're joined on their hunt by the late great Patrice O'Neal, who plays the father of a member of Patton's troop who has a very particular and funny reason to be angry. Add in one kid in the group who doesn't go along because he's romantically obsessed with Maura Tierney and a whole bunch of scary soccer moms in identical mini-vans, and you've got plenty of material and chess pieces to play with. I just wish the film knew what to do with all of this once it's in motion. Rohal scores any number of weird left-of-center laughs, and even someone like Darrell Hammond who shows up in a small role as a demented park ranger lands a fair number of his jokes. But it doesn't really feel like a movie. It's something about Rohal's aesthetic that just feels like he has no sense of when to get in or out or how to polish something. It's raw, but not in a way that adds any immediacy.
I do like that he thinks in wide widescreen compositions, and I am surprised by just how far he's willing to go with certain ideas in the movie. Like "Catechism," I'm glad I saw it. I just don't know that Rohal is really giving us the best he can right now, and I'd like to see him work with a DP and an editor and a producer who can help take him to that next level of polish so I could whole-heartedly endorse one of his movies. As it is, "Nature Calls" is a frequently funny mess, but a mess all the same.
"Nature Calls" does not currently have US distribution in place.