PARK CITY - Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant addressed the fact that they seem to have two very distinct careers that they are enjoying simultaneously when they stood in front of the packed Library on Sunday night a few minutes before midnight to introduce their directorial debut, "Hell Baby."
Lennon and Garant are incredibly talented, incredibly funny guys. The work they do that is pure comedy, like "Reno 911" or "The State," tends to be very funny, and Lennon is one of those comedy character actors who works pretty much non-stop, and he's able to weave minor miracles out of weak material at times. I say all this so that when I say that the films that have most defined them and their success are largely terrible, you'll understand that it's not an all-or-nothing proposition with me. I really don't like the "Night At The Museum" films or "The Pacifier" or "Herbie Fully Loaded," but that's pretty unimportant. Those are big broad mainstream movies, and writing two "Night At The Museum" films is what gives Lennon and Garant the freedom to do things that they want to do. So be it. Especially if the end result is something as non-stop filthy, crass, and funny as "Hell Baby."
Leslie Bibb and Rob Corddry play a couple who purchased a fixer-upper in the "Lower Lower Lower Lower Garden District," an old crumbling New Orleans home that is priced to move. That's probably due in some way to the fact that the house is haunted and has served as the site for many murders over the years. What Lennon and Garant do so well with "Hell Baby" as a script is that they've got studio formula down so cold at this point that they are able to both mimic that structure and also subvert it at the same time. "Hell Baby" wastes no time in setting up that Bibb has been possessed by the devil, and the twin babies she's about to deliver are going to turn out to be some sort of demons that will destroy the world. The rest of the movie is just the acceleration of that one idea until we get to the big moment, and the first thing that I love about "Hell Baby" is that they're not doing specific film parody at all. Corddry and Bibb are well-suited for their central roles in the film, and they both earn plenty of big laughs.
This isn't one of those "jukebox" comedy films. They set up their own weird rules, define their own weird world, and they just turn their characters loose to bounce off of each other. Lennon and Garant plays badass priests sent from the Vatican to take care of Bibb's child and prevent the Apocalypse, and it's like someone cloned Father Guido Sarducci, grew two of him, and then made a "Matrix" movie with him as the lead. In other words, great. Michael Ian Black has a perfect five minutes onscreen, and Kumail Nanjiani has the single greatest exit from a movie possible.
Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer plays cops who keep turning up at the door to investigate various incidents in the film, and unsurprisingly, they are hilarious in the parts. Riki Lindhome makes a striking entrance in the film, naked in ways I did not know you could be naked, but she has comic chops as sharp as anyone else in the film. She's Bibb's sister who comes to the house to do a Wiccan blessing ceremony. I've seen her perform live a few times as part of Garfunkel and Oates, and she is disturbing in the "Last House On The Left" remake, but this is probably the most fun she's ever been in a film, and the movie benefits from the way she turns up and how she's used in the rest of the film.
If you want to know who's going to really break out from the film, though, it's got to be Keegan Michael Key. I watched both seasons of his sketch comedy show, "Key & Peele," and I'm a fan. I think they're very sharp. Key plays a guy who is living in the crawlspace under the house that Corddry and Bibb purchase, and he's constantly just letting himself in, standing at windows, eating their food, taking showers. He makes some big choices in playing the character, and he ends up being just broad enough. It's a really winning, funny performance, and integral to the overall success of the film.
Hats off to Lennon and Garant as both writers and directors here. The script is like a blunt object, shaved down to just the funniest stuff and the lightest touch concerning character material, and it is aggressively funny, constantly packing in laughs both visual and aural. They allow themselves to digress when it makes sense for a joke, and making literal sense doesn't seem to be high on their list of priorities. Doesn't matter. That's not the kind of film this is. The whole enterprise is absurd, and if you're offended easily, it's not for you. If you have trouble with horror comedy where the laughs are more important than the scares, it's not for you. I laughed long and hard last night at the Library, and I think this is incredibly commercial. It's an easy premise to set up visually, and it's a huge cast of talented comics that you can use in a trailer. It should be a wide release, and it should have an aggressive marketing push to show people that they're not going to get burned. Enough terrible "Scary Movie" knockoffs and sequels have poisoned the well, but "Hell Baby" is a long cool drink, the real thing after a slew of pretenders.
"Hell Baby" is, to the best of my knowledge, still for sale. Distributors, what are you waiting for?
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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