'The Nativity Story'

Obviously the product of minimal effort by all parties involved, "Strange Wilderness" is a slovenly, slapped-together stoner comedy about producers of a ratings-challenged wildlife TV series who go looking for Bigfoot.

Obviously the product of minimal effort by all parties involved, “Strange Wilderness” is a slovenly, slapped-together stoner comedy about producers of a ratings-challenged wildlife TV series who go looking for Bigfoot. That Paramount dumped a pic so clearly aimed at the young male demographic on Super Bowl weekend — without press screenings, of course — spoke volumes about the studio’s expectations for theatrical biz. Pic tallied $3 million over the weekend to land at No. 13 on the B.O chart. Outlook for homevid sales and rentals isn’t much brighter.

An ill-advisedly extended version of decade-old video shorts by former “Saturday Night Live” writers Fred Wolf and Peter Gaulke, “Strange Wilderness” stumbles aimlessly from scene to scene while alternating between episodes of jokey carnage — one character is eaten alive by piranhas; another is found sliced in half — and long stretches where actors try, and fail, to make their lines sound funnier simply by shouting them.

Wolf — who directed from a script he co-wrote with Gaulke — strains mightily to produce an envelope-pushing show-stopper, a la the hair-gel bit in “There’s Something About Mary,” with a protracted sequence involving a turkey that chomps on the private parts of top-billed Steve Zahn. (Insert gag about gobbling here.) Unfortunately, the scene elicits far more pity — for the actor, not the character — than laughter.

For reasons probably best left unexplored, the writers named the two lead characters after themselves. Zahn plays Peter Gaulke, a clueless doofus whose late father was the popular host of “Strange Wilderness,” an equally popular wildlife series.

But even with the help of loyal sound recorder Fred Wolf (Allen Covert), Peter is unable to maintain the quality of the show, mostly due to his own ineptitude as narrator/host.

With cancellation looming, Peter and Fred are just desperate enough to seek Bigfoot in the wilds of Ecuador with a crew of sketchily defined stereotypes best described as the fat guy (Jonah Hill), the pothead (Justin Long), the other fat guy (Kevin Heffernan), the good-sport hottie (Ashley Scott) and the wacko (Peter Dante). They are variously aided or impeded by supporting characters played, at grave risk to their reputations, by Ernest Borgnine, Joe Don Baker, Harry Hamlin and Robert Patrick.

Filmed entirely in Southern California, with the Los Angeles County Arboretum subbing for the Ecuadorian jungle, “Strange Wilderness” (from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company) seems to have been made with scarcely more ability than the production crew of Peter’s series.

Tech credits are, at best spotty. Even the selection of vintage pop tunes for the soundtrack is haphazard: Spirit’s “I Got a Line on You” and Deep Purple’s “Hush” seem especially ill-matched with onscreen activity.

Strange Wilderness

Production

A Paramount release of a Level I Entertainment presentation of a Happy Madison production. Produced by Peter Gaulke. Executive producers, Adam Sandler, Jack Giarraputo, Glenn S. Gainor, Bill Todman Jr., Edward Milstein, Paul Schwake. Directed by Fred Wolf. Screenplay, Peter Gaulke, Wolf.

Crew

Camera (color), David Hennings; editor, Tom Costain; music, Waddy Wachtel; music supervisors, Michael Dilbeck, Bryan Bonwell; production designer, Perry Andelin Blake; costume designer, Maya Lieberman; sound (Dolby Digital), David MacMillan; assistant director, Adam Druxman. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Feb. 1, 2008. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Peter Gaulke - Steve Zahn Fred Wolf - Allen Covert Cooker - Jonah Hill Whitaker - Kevin Heffernan Cheryl - Ashley Scott Danny Guiterrez - Peter Dante Sky Pierson - Harry Hamlin Gus Hayden - Robert Patrick Bill Calhoun - Joe Don Baker Junior - Justin Long Ed Lawson - Jeff Garlin Milas - Ernest Borgnine

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