SXSW Review: 'The Slammin' Salmon'
Broken Lizard returns to peak form with this frequently hilarious ensemble comedy
I sort of like Broken Lizard as underdogs. I remember walking into the first screening of "Supertroopers" at Sundance, and no one in that theater knew what it was or who they were. The film absolutely killed as a result, blindsiding everyone there. By the time it hit theaters, enough advance buzz existed that there was a bit of a "prove it" attitude from fanboys, and I don't think they gave the film a fair shake. And then with "Club Dread" and "Beerfest," there's been a feeling that people were almost lying in wait for the films, determined to prove how much smarter they are as an audience than Broken Lizard are as filmmakers. And at Sundance this year, I heard many people in the press grumbling about how "The Slammin' Salmon" must be awful because it wasn't even being shown to the press.
I'm sure the guys who make up Broken Lizard would prefer not to be underdogs at this point. I remember being on set for "Beerfest," talking to Warner Bros. about signing BL to a long-term deal that would allow them to not only make their own films but to also produce for other rising comedy talent, and that optimism was very encouraging. It also seems to have evaporated after "Beerfest" actually came out. While Jay Chandrasekhar, who directed the first four features for the group, stayed busy with episodes of "Knight Rider," "Chuck," and "Lipstick Jungle," it was Kevin Heffernan who stepped up to direct this one, and the result has a different energy. It's also the best overall film they've made since "Super Troopers," and I hope it gets a wide enough release to be a significant hit for the guys. It's such an appealing, silly, easy-to-like film that it would be a shame if it wasn't given a chance to reach the widest audience possible.
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The idea of setting a comedy in and around a restaurant isn't particularly new, but I'm hard-pressed to think of any examples of the idea that pull it off with the same sort of energy and wit that "The Slammin' Salmon" manages. Set in Miami, the film takes place over the course of one long night at a five-star restaurant owned by Cleon Salmon, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, the former heavyweight champion of the world. When Steve Lemme talked at the Q&A after the film about how they originally wrote the film thinking of Mike Tyson in the role, it gets even funnier. Duncan reveals a wicked improvisational wit in this major role, and he's consistently funny at every turn. It reminds me of the work that Tracy Morgan does on "30 Rock" every week, a sort of grinning non-sequiter madness, but with Duncan, that's underscored by the general knowledge that he could kill you with one punch any time he chooses to. He terrorizes his staff, particularly his general manager Rich (Heffernan), who also happens to be married to Salmon's sister. The Champ treats Rich like garbage, and when he comes up short playing back some gambling debts, he orders Rich to make him $40,000 in one day, or else. Rich turns that terrifying threat into a contest among the waitstaff, telling them that whoever makes the most money for the day will win a prize. The Champ turns up the stakes by promising to punch the face off of whoever ends up in last place at the end of the night. And that's pretty much all there is to it.
What works is the cast, and in a big way. They all are given plenty of room to sink or swim, and everyone seems up for it. The Broken Lizard guys work so well together at this point that it's sort of a given. I love the way they mix up the dynamic each time, with a different person playing "the lead" and a different person playing "the wack job" and a different person playing "the playboy," instead of the guys having one dynamic that they hammer over and over. Heffernan's the ostensible lead here, since the film is really about him learning to stand up to The Champ, and as a result, he's probably the closest thing in the movie to a straight man. He does it well, too, proving to be fairly sympathetic. Eric Stolhanske plays a complete lech, but he's also able to make it sympathetic. Cobie Smulders, known to fans of "How I Met Your Mother," is really appealing as Tara, the most grounded member of the wait staff, and a real contrast to the lunacy of April Bowlby as Mia. She's also a sitcom star, evidently, on "Two And A Half Men." Since I don't watch either of those shows, these are just new actors as far as I'm concerned, and they both do really strong work. I like how the film is about people who are actually very good at their job, since it seems like that's almost a negative in most movies these days. Even when people are supposedly good at what they do, we rarely see them doing it. But these are really sharp professionals, and their competition is a good one because they're all able to turn up the charm when they need to. Steve Lemme plays the guy who got cast in a network series, left the restaurant, got fired from his show, and has now had to come back, and he wears it well. He isn't bitter, but he's certainly not thrilled about being back where he began. Paul Soter gets to play two different roles, as an angry chef and as his twin brother, starting at the restaurant that night as a busboy. He seems to really relish the twin stuff, and it's done well enough technically to let it work as a joke and not just a stunt. Jay Chandrasekhar's work as "Nuts" is pretty spectacular, especially when he forgets to take his meds during the dinner rush. It's permission to be as big and as bizarre as he wants, and he takes full advantage of it. Even people who show up in smaller roles get a chance to register. Will Forte in particular comes in and absolutely kills in a role that builds and builds in a very sly way, and Lance Henriksen gives good Hollywood scumbag in his brief appearance.
The film's got a bright, big-budget look, and no doubt keeping it confined to one or two locations gave them room to focus on performance, and it's got a great energy all the way through. So far, I haven't heard of any distributor picking the film up, but I would hope it happens soon and that they cut a great trailer. If they're smart about when they release the film, it could turn out to be the biggest, easiest hit for the guys so far. It's really accessible, and even in its dirtiest moments (and the guys can't help but indulge themselves a few times), it's so gleeful about it that I can't imagine anyone taking offense.
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