If that ain’t masterful mise-en-scéne, I don’t know what is.
Hell Baby (2013)
Written and Directed by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon
Today’s review was slated to be Blue Jasmine, because I saw that last week and I certainly have a lot to say about it (sorry, next Monday, I promise) but then I realized that I’d somehow forgotten to ever write about Hell Baby, which I saw a few weeks ago when it came out on VOD and enjoyed a great deal. I suppose I could’ve written about Hell Baby next week, and stuck to writing about Blue Jasmine today, but fuck it—the mere moment the words ‘Hell Baby’ were back in my head, I couldn’t stop giggling. In fact, I’m still smiling, as I write this. And if that ain’t the textbook sign of a perfect summer comedy (and of a more fun thing to write about) I don’t know what is.
However, I honestly have no idea if you will have the same reaction to this movie as I did. I can very easily see people hating it, because basically, you’re either on its humor wavelength or you aren’t. Garant and Lennon have a very specific way of thinking, and speed to their thinking, and if you need a handrail, it ain’t there. This isn’t your typical summer comedy where studio execs have obsessed over it having ‘something for everyone’ in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic and make damn sure everyone from little Billy to little Billy’s grandfather has something to laugh at. (And I’m not just talking about family fare—this happens with faux-subversive films like The Hangover as well.)
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with those kinds of movies. There’s certainly a time and place for them—traditionally, in theaters, with a packed crowd hungry for a good time. This is because movies like these tend to have pretty low shelf lives (I wrote an essay about this phenomenon) whereas wholly artisanal products, like Hell Baby, only get better with time.
I’ve only seen Hell Baby once, but I already know I’ll like it more the second time than the first, and the third even more than that, and so on, because this has happened to me with all of Garant & Lennon’s work. When I first saw the show Reno 911!, I thought it was just okay. It’s now one of my favorite TV comedies of all time. The movie, Reno 911!: Miami, I found kinda funny, but mostly a let down. Now, I think it’s pitch perfect.
Usually when people talk about a film ‘growing on them’, they’re referring to a complex and serious art house drama. People tend to afford these sorts of movies extra consideration and time because they believe they inherently deserve it. With comedies, however, people can be very quick to dismiss them outright if they merely aren’t laughing as often as they would like to be. This can be a mistake.
Not laughing at a joke doesn’t necessarily mean a joke isn’t funny—it may just mean you’re not yet riding the wave of the joke. Not that you don’t understand its content per se, but that maybe you don’t understand its flow or its reason for existing. Some of the funniest things I’ve ever said on Facebook have gotten maybe 1 or 2 likes, sometimes none. Does that make them not funny? Of course not. It just means they were only on a few people’s wavelengths at that very specific and very brief moment in time.
Watching Hell Baby, some stuff I laughed really hard at, some stuff I chuckled at, some stuff I barely cracked a smile, and some stuff I thought was completely unfunny. But I know that the next time I watch it, these will all change. It’s like listening to jazz or classical—each time, your brain focuses on different parts it likes, until one day, after many listens, you’re in full alignment with the thing, you’ve cracked the whole mathematical code, and you’re in bliss from start to finish.
A word of warning: I’m not advocating rewatching all comedies that you’re lukewarm about. But, in the case ones with a cohesively zany, individualist vision (off the top of my head: Freddy Got Fingered, Kung Pow, Cabin Boy, The Brothers Solomon) a rewatch might be called for. (Hell Baby certainly falls into that category, so, if you’re already a fan of those movies, you might dig this one right off the bat.)
Being that Hell Baby is a wild and wholly unpredictable ride, I don’t want to give away any details. Just watch the thing and be transported to a world where summer comedies are handcrafted with love like a jar of local honey—for this is the world of the future. First run VOD releases are becoming more and more of a thing, which is a godsend for niche filmmakers, and specifically niche comedy filmmakers, which in turn means more silly fun at home for us film fans, gathered around something people actually cared about while making (rather than silly, overpriced ‘fun’ in a big, stranger-laden room watching the demented collage art of studio execs and script doctors and screenwriters, all of whom don’t even give a shit).
Hell Baby hits theaters September 6th, and I have my doubts as to how well it’ll play to a traditional theater audience comprised of people who aren’t already familiar with their vibe. On the other hand, there are a few scenes in it that I think will play much better on a big screen, with blaring sound, than a TV. So who knows. It might work. What I do know is that it plays just great at home, with some friends, some drinks, and the AC on. And if you split the $9.99 VOD price amongst the crowd, that’s just about the cheapest and best fun you’ll have watching a thing all summer. Enjoy!
4 out of 5 Codys.