Allan Katz’s daffy, low-budget, family-friendly mockumentary “Bucky and the Squirrels” is so self-effacing in its slight, sweet silliness, that it practically seems to ask, “Who, me?” It’s as though, just seconds before the opening credits rolled, it was backstage whistling, mop in hand, before being hustled, blinking, into the spotlight as a last-minute replacement for the real act. But in the best wish-fulfilling tradition of Hollywood, this understudy steps up to the mic and, against considerable odds, delivers: If “Bucky and the Squirrels” is far too modest to truly bring the house down, the goodwill it generates out of a “plot” so rote it doesn’t really deserve the name, is at least enough to keep the audience in their seats. Everyone just seems so nice.
The prologue is a pretty good acid test for the kind of loopy, victimless humor that Katz’s script abounds in. Mike Farrell, a TV star best known for his regular role on “M*A*S*H” introduces the “incredible true story” with stonefaced sincerity, closing with the ringing endorsement, “It is with great pride that the producers… well, not all of them, but some of them, or at least one of them, is, or are, proud” of the film. The admittedly “more incredible than true” story it follows is of the title band, a one-hit wonder in the late ’60s, hailing from Appleton, Wisc., whose plane crashed in the Swiss Alps as they were embarking on a European tour.
Fifty years later, their perfectly preserved bodies are discovered (the live coverage of the rescue operation is relayed to us cost-efficiently, as footage of an impenetrable blizzard) and they are shipped back to Appleton to be defrosted in a cryo-facility headed by a fully trained professional, whose actual training is later revealed to have been in motel management. The misadventures of the four doofuses — gamely played with the chemistry of a close-knit improv group by Matt Cook, Josh Duvendeck, Kyle More, and Matt Shively — make up the rest of the snappy run time, as they relearn basic walking and talking skills, finally being restored to full cognitive and motor capacity in the barest nick of time to outwit the IRS. Yes, this is a film so genial, it picks as its villain the only branch of the government that everybody reliably loathes whatever their political stripe.
The backstory is relayed to us by eager Appleton newsman Steve Schmidt (Henry Dittman), who like everyone here oozes generous “Parks and Recreation”-style civic pride. And the elastic mock-doc format makes a virtue of the randomness of having Jason Alexander, Richard Lewis, and pop starlet Raquel Castro appear as talking heads. Alexander issuing multiple qualifications to his brazen initial statement that the Squirrels were the “best band of the 1960s” is particular gold, a “what have the Romans ever done for us” litany that ends up incorporating “…Gladys Knight and the Pips, Gladys Knight without the Pips, the Pips without Gladys Knight…”
The unshakable perkiness of the whole endeavor, its blithe lack of topicality, edge or satirical intent (it’s not even a spoof, just a goof) would be irritating if it didn’t work so hard to remind us that you don’t have to be mean to be funny. Even so, it’s the sort of film where you go into every new scene expecting it to be the one where the joke finally wears thin (and some of the more extended physical comedy bits do overstay). But it just keeps winning you back with its unassuming, wholesome nuttiness. There’s not a whisper of anything skeevy or smutty, bar a gentle sight gag about the hereditary nature of Class 2 division malocclusion (buck-toothedness). The four bandmates inexplicably share the one, quadruple-width hospital bed, but so innocently it makes Bert and Ernie’s sleeping arrangements feel positively sordid by comparison.
The often brilliant ensemble comedies of Christopher Guest are an inescapable (and unassailable) comparison. But the film’s closer touchpoints are “The Brady Bunch Movie” and the Brendan Fraser/Pauly Shore vehicle “Encino Man,” neither of which casts a particularly long shadow, and both of which are artifacts of the 1990s. That’s no coincidence, as the early/mid-’90s were also Katz’ heyday, with his decades as a TV writer and producer stretching back to “Laugh-In,” “M*A*S*H” and “Sanford and Son,” culminating in stints on “Roseanne” and “Blossom.”
His pre-Peak TV background definitely shows: There’s nothing cinematic about “Bucky,” with even the ’60s styling of the flashbacks, and the Squirrels’ drab single rather failing to convince. But if Katz hasn’t learned many new tricks in the interim, there’s an undeniable, undemanding pleasure in watching such a consummate pro run through the old ones, with a giddy optimism that looks a lot like joy. The sweetly dummkopf “Bucky and the Squirrels” is out of date — but not like a relic, more like a souvenir.