It’s fitting that the sociopolitical comedy “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” should arrive in theaters the same day as “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” as it could carry its own possessory credit: “National Public Radio’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” Written and directed by the indefatigable Harry Shearer, pic is such a rapid-fire current-events assault — taking sardonic potshots at everything from the exploitation of foreign labor to the Enron scandal — that you need your daily dose of “All Things Considered” or, at least, your weekly fix of Shearer’s own NPR gig “Le Show,” just to keep up. But despite its intelligence and a great, funny concept for a movie, this “Picnic” never gets past the appetizers; pic lacks the development needed for a full-length feature and, following a hilarious opening sequence, it becomes tiresomely one-note. Shearer’s cult popularity — as radio host, “The Simpsons” cast member and Spinal Tap alum — should give niche item a small boost before word of mouth rains on this “Picnic.”
Set at the fictional Zambesi Glen resort in the redwood forests of Northern California, “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” is inspired by the real Bohemian Grove resort, a summer camp-style retreat for the super-elite that reportedly has played host to every Republican president since Herbert Hoover; it’s even credited by some as being the birthplace of the Manhattan Project.
Allegedly, for two weeks each summer, an all-male coterie of some 2,000 members and guests, drawn from the upper echelons of world power and influence, descends on the Grove for unchecked frolic, merriment and shady business dealings. Because attendees are sworn to secrecy and journalists are barred from the premises, the goings-on at the Grove have given rise to a wild assortment of rumors and conspiracy theories. (There is even an anti-Bohemian Grove activist group that regularly stages protests outside its gates.)
On paper, a parody of Bohemian Grove sounds like a plum ripe for picking, and for the first 20 minutes of Shearer’s film, as he depicts Zambesi Glen’s first opening of its gates to the wives and significant others of its members, the film seems to be on the right track. There’s a sprinkling of bright, comic ideas, as these men of large egos and larger wallets bashfully give their ladyloves a tour of the distinctly adolescent facilities. Had “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” quit there, it would have been a perfectly amusing short, ideal for inclusion on “Saturday Night Live” (where Shearer once worked as a writer). But by the time pic flashes forward six weeks to depict the actual men-only encampment, it has already run out of comic steam.
Most of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” details the events leading up to the Glen’s big, closing-night revue, intercut with the efforts of a rogue kitchen employee to smuggle out home-movie footage of Glen debauchery. But while pic adopts the style of the superior mockumentary films by Shearer’s Spinal Tap bandmate Christopher Guest (and borrows several of their cast members), it’s difficult to grasp the thrust of Shearer’s satire. Is he lampooning the idea that respectable men functioning in major power positions would delight in cavorting about in the woods like sloshed frat boys? Or, is the joke supposed to be on us, on our expectation that “adults” should have their fun in more “sophisticated” ways than the ones depicted here? Shearer wants to have it both ways, but his characters are so uniformly unlikable and self-important (even the kitchen staff is self-important) that there’s no one to root for, no voice of reason.
The unintended victim of its own satiric intent, “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” is a bunch of talented artists who should know better fooling around in the woods with inferior material. Too many of the film’s jokes feel more like intellectualized ideas for jokes than real jokes. Shearer is so bent on excoriating everyone and everything in sight that he does a huge disservice to his arsenal of talented character performers (Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins and Fred Willard among them), feeding them polemical dialogue and denying them the wonderfully distinct characterizations that fuel the Guest pictures.