Named for the comically failed efforts of an aging singer to be heard above the din, “The Marc Pease Experience” stands to fall on deaf ears itself. Dropped sans fanfare into fewer than a dozen cities, the Paramount Vantage pic — with Ben Stiller as an absurdly arrogant high school musical teacher — must’ve seemed au courant when it was shot. But, more than two years later, the finished product appears particularly stale, with an unfunny script that squanders its game cast, including a valiantly emotive Jason Schwartzman in the title role. Only eagle-eyed Stiller fans seem apt to sample this “Experience” in ancillary.
Sporting Tom Cruise’s ponytailed ‘do from “Magnolia,” Schwartzman is Marc Pease, a marginally talented twentysomething crooner who still hasn’t gotten over a humiliating event from eight years before, depicted in the film’s first scene. Cast as the Tin Man in a high school production of “The Wiz,” young Pease acts more like the Cowardly Lion, fleeing the stage in a flop sweat and infuriating the show’s cooler-than-thou director, Mr. Gribble (Stiller).
Almost a decade after graduation, Pease’s arrested development has him dating cute high school singer Meg (Anna Kendrick, “Rocket Science”) and performing a cappella in Meridian 8, now down to four members. Naively believing his group’s demo album will be produced by Gribble (who sleazily flirts with Meg during private lessons), our limo-driving hero plans to finance said recording through the sale of the condo where he has lived since childhood.
The movie’s painfully long 84 minutes chart Pease’s slow realization that he wasn’t meant for stardom, and peak near the end during his slapstick tussle with Gribble — one of co-writer/director Todd Louiso’s few bits of physical comedy, such as it is.
Louiso, whose “Love Liza” followed a pathetic protagonist more somberly (and effectively), lacks the nerve to shoot his fish in a barrel a la Alexander Payne. By default, the pic’s strongest moments are also its strangest, observing Pease’s obsessive-compulsive manner of housecleaning and toast-buttering, as well as his quiet breakdown during a hotel meeting room performance with Meridian 8.
In moments when Louiso aims to up the comic ante, as when a pissed-off Pease cuts his ponytail with an electric razor while driving some obnoxious kids to prom, the gulf between intent and effect appears almost embarrassingly wide.
The climactic scene of Gribble’s latest “Wiz” production — with an unscheduled appearance by Pease — works reasonably well, though it serves to remind the audience of how little music has survived the final cut of an ostensible musical. Schwartzman has several opportunities to warble, but Stiller gets only one brief vocal turn, which seems an obvious waste of potential humor.
Like Schwartzman, Stiller devotes aptly excessive attention to the portrayal of a character too invested in trivial pursuits himself. It’s the movie’s one decent joke, but, in the absence of laughs, the most the actors can draw from it is a mere grin or two.
Tech credits are fine all around, including bright, clean lensing from “Little Miss Sunshine” shooter Tim Suhrstedt.