An underrated funny guy in recent films (“Employee of the Month,” “Baby Mama”) and TV shows (“Punk’d,” “Parenthood”), Dax Shepard makes his behind-the-camera bow with “Brother’s Justice.” But this mockumentary, about his fictive attempts to get a martial-arts adventure starring himself greenlit, offers just mild amusement in a biz-insider vein, with even the writer-director-star at less than full onscreen comic wattage. It’s an easy watch that nonetheless consistently feels like a grazing blow rather than a knockout. Pic opens May 13 in Los Angeles, but its future prospects look limited to home formats.
Between his debuting and current broadcast-series gigs, Shepard has had the ill fortune to be excellent in a number of commercially and/or critically ill-received comedies from “Without a Paddle” to “Idiocracy,” “Let’s Go to Prison,” “Smother,” “When in Rome” and “Old Dogs.” (His gift for milking wide-eyed obliviousness that thinks itself crafty was beautifully used in Katie Aselton’s seriocomic indie “The Freebie” last year.) But surprisingly, he’s not that interesting or hilarious in the movie he’s created himself.
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“Brother’s Justice” is the title of the project Dax (Shepard) has allegedly created for himself — a straight-up karate actioner despite his own complete lack of martial-arts training — and which he pitches to a variety of industry colleagues alongside roped-in childhood friend-turned-wannabe producer Nate (pic’s actual producer/co-director Nate Tuck). Others playing themselves here (and invariably turning down what sounds like a dismal project) include a highly skeptical Ashton Kutcher; a mohawked, manic and irrational Tom Arnold; Bradley Cooper, David Koechner and other real-life biz forces to be reckoned with.
But nobody is impressed with Dax’s very hokey-sounding concept, particularly since not a word of actual script has been written yet. He continues trying to lure major-league friends, taxing their loyalty.
Heavy on improv, pic is consistently diverting but seldom more than moderately humorous. Highlights are the several demo reels for fake, failed pitch projects (including “Brother’s Justice”); lowlights are some late homophobic outbursts that aren’t funny enough to succeed as ironic commentary on star egotism.
Throughout, Shepard gamely paints himself as both a very lucky dog in the Hollywood sweepstakes and a clueless B-list loser envious of the comedic A-list. Actual appearances on the “Teen Choice Awards” and “Carson Daly Show” — in which he poses as his karate-kicking dream role — are woven into the mockumentary narrative. His self-parody here is devoid of narcissism, but the situations he’s written for that persona are only mildly amusing. In a sense, the pic’s real lead is Tuck, who plays the best friend much abused (financially and otherwise) by Dax’s ambitious hubris.
Editorial packaging is brisk. Music nicely alternates between jazzy, Muzak-y and Talking Heads sounds. Lensing and tech contributions are smooth while hewing to a faux-verite blueprint.