Now three seasons into the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch have developed terrific chemistry as tech-world outsiders — the former a gaseous stoner, the latter a quivering bundle of anxiety. That same dynamic is more or less on display in “Search Party,” a woeful road comedy that was produced before “Silicon Valley” but is only now sputtering out into the world. Stepping behind the camera after partnering with director Todd Phillips as a writer on hits like “Road Trip,” “Old School,” and “The Hangover: Part II,” Scot Armstrong bros out again with a lewd-and-loud blockbuster comedy in the Phillips tradition. A binge-drinking session away from being a fourth “Hangover” movie, the film is a non-starter in theaters, but a who’s-who of alt-comedy talent may give it a boost on VOD, with attendant morning-after regrets.
Patching together elements of his previous scripts like refrigerator-magnet poetry, Armstrong sends his gifted cast on a cross-country misadventure that starts with an out-of-control bachelor party and botched wedding, then continues with frat-friendly pranking and bonding, car crashes and pyrotechnics. The relative modesty of the mid-sized budget doesn’t matter, but the paucity of the inspired, original comic situations does. “Search Party” is a pedal-to-the-metal road trip that aims for spontaneity, but stays within the lines—even when it goes off on wacky tangents, there’s never any doubt what direction it’s actually headed.
In the waning hours of a bachelor-party bacchanal, groom-to-be Daniel “Nardo” Narducci (Middleditch) expresses some misgivings about getting married, but his best friends Jason (Miller) and Evan (Adam Pally) interpret his garden-variety cold feet as a serious crisis. At the wedding, Jason decides that he cannot forever hold his peace, and his boorish intervention throws a perfectly happy union into chaos. Nardo’s fiancée Tracy (Shannon Woodward) flies off alone to the Mexican resort where they had booked their honeymoon and Nardo follows after her by land, only to get carjacked and left naked in the desert. (Middleditch’s commitment to the premise is admirably Exarchopoulos-esque.)
With their buddy in trouble, Jason and Evan embark on their own circuitous route from Los Angeles to a spot just south of Tijuana, where they hope to deliver him to Tracy and get back home in time for Evan to make an important meeting. In the process, they get waylaid at a casino, where a pair of kidney thieves (Krysten Ritter and Jason Mantzoukas) try to seduce Evan out of an organ, and run afoul of Mexican drug dealers (led by non-Mexican JB Smoove) who accuse Nardo of sabotaging a cocaine run. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“Search Party” traffics in more south-of-the-border stereotypes than could be squeezed on the Tijuana Trolley. Within the space of a minute, Nardo hijacks a pickup truck that plays “La Bamba” and “La Cucaracha” at top volume before springing down the highway on hydraulics. There’s bits of business about corrupt cops and Mexican jails, gold machine guns and mountains of cocaine. The only flicker of clever self-awareness is two drug-runners discussing the finer points of Sandra Bullock’s hairstyle in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”
Armstrong also devotes a peculiar chunk of time to fretting over Evan’s precarious situation at work, where he’s trying to impress his boss (Lance Riddick of “The Wire,” playing it straight) and a co-worker (Alison Brie) he not-so-secretly desires. “Search Party” has trouble enough making the audience care about the search for Nardo; any emotional investment in Evan’s career or romantic future hovers dangerously close to nil. Few will worry about whether Evan will make it back in time to catch a steam with the boss.
Then again, maybe Armstrong needed the extra subplot to make it to the finish line. As it stands, there are only enough comic ideas here, most of them bad ones, to reach 82 minutes; the other 11 are taken up by a postscript scene, a blooper, and closing credits that move, in the words of Scarlett O’Hara, as slow as molasses in January.