If you’re a fan of “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis,” the fake public-access talk show that Zach Galifianakis has been hosting online, for three to six minutes a pop, over the last 10 years, then you’ll probably like “Between Two Ferns: The Movie,” the snark-lite 82-minute road movie that Galifianakis and his director and collaborator, Scott Aukerman, have concocted for Netflix. They don’t repeat the mistake made by the “Saturday Night Live” films — to take a character who worked in short bursts and build him up by weighing him down with his own sluggish, gear-clanking three-act movie plot. “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” has a “storyline,” but it’s more like a thin semi-visible frame that barely gets in the way of the main attraction, which is watching Galifianakis tweak and abuse celebrities to their faces in the guise of interviewing them.
In the opening segment, Zach, in his cruddy blue blazer, striped computer-nerd shirt, and cheesy brown Asics, introduces his first guest, Matthew McConaughey (“All right, all right, all right. Sorry, I was just reading the box-office returns for your last three movies”). Glued, with hostile impersonality, to his cue cards, working his way up from annoying to irritating to insulting, Galifianakis hits McConaughey with one of those jaw-droppers that give “Between Two Ferns” its did-he-really-just-go-there? distinction: “Who do you think will accidentally starve himself to death first, you or Christian Bale? You lost so much weight for that movie, I thought you might die from fake AIDS.”
McConaughey doesn’t have to say anything in response (and, in fact, he can’t). His face says it all. Then again, we’re aware, after 10 years of this, that the sight of celebrities taking umbrage at Zach’s Stuttering John inquiries has become its own form of performance. To watch “Between Two Ferns” is to play along with the stars playing along with Galifianakis’ playful skewering-but-hardly-puncturing of the Hollywood PR machine.
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The McConaughey segment ends with a broken ceiling pipe and a studio flood (don’t ask), at which point Zach, by order of his Funny or Die boss, Will Ferrell (playing an amusing executive-tyro cokehead version of himself), is forced to drive around the country hunting down celebrities so that he can shoot 10 episodes of “Between Two Ferns” in just two weeks. If he succeeds, he’ll be rewarded by getting his own network talk show. That’s the whole movie — a bit of concocted fluff that never asks to be taken on the level, and that allows Galifianakis to oscillate, with his stoic myopic cunning, between idiocy and ire.
Flanked by his signature pair of potted fern plants, he asks a benumbed Keanu Reeves, “On a scale of one to 100, how many words do you know?” He introduces the fuzzy-white-bearded David Letterman as the anorexic Santa Claus, and asks Brie Larson how old she was when she first got her period. He asks Paul Rudd what advice he would give “to a young actor who wants to hide his Jewishness as well as you have.” He asks Tiffany Haddish if she misses living out of her car, gets into an exchange with Benedict Cumberbatch over the term “rabid fan base” that turns into a debate worthy of the Marx Brothers, and says to Jon Hamm, “Bradley Cooper co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in ‘A Star Is Born.’ Are you hoping that will open doors for other hot idiots?” During that interview, Hamm responds with guffaws so loud that it isn’t clear whether he’s laughing or choking.
“Between Two Ferns: The Movie,” like the web-episode curio that spawned it, is a specimen of squirm comedy, though with less edge than it pretends to have. The celebrities who come on have no idea what they’re going to be asked, so in a sense they get ambushed. But it’s not like they don’t know what they’re in for. And since the format has always been a knockoff of “Da Ali G Show,” the sketch-comedy bombshell that put Sacha Baron Cohen on the map, it’s hard to watch Galifianakis’s version without being aware of the fundamental difference. On “Da Ali G Show,” the guests really didn’t know that they were on a fake talk show hosted by a devious I’ll-say-anything idiot savant. They were blindsided, stripped of media defense mechanisms. And so they revealed themselves. “Between Two Ferns” is like “Da Ali G Show” made between friends.
At its best, though, the humor can still slice and draw a small drop of blood. Essentially, it’s the cut-to-a-celebrity’s-weak-point humor of a Comedy Central Roast, served up in bite-size nuggets. And Galifianakis is the perfect overgrown delivery boy for these sorts of scathing anti-feel-good yocks; his passive-aggressive disaffection keeps everyone, including the audience, off guard. Galifianakis, who is about to turn 50, remains a bushy-bearded icon of blinkered arrested development, and he incarnates the twin hallmarks of the Gen-X mindset. He’s a walking ironic “Look, I’m putting everything in air quotes!” machine (he makes even a figure of postmodern whimsy like Conan O’Brien look positively sincere). At the same time, he has never let go of that Gen-X belief in elevating the acerbic affection for trash culture into a group ritual, a community of kitsch.
That’s the community that “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” celebrates. The film’s off-camera world is like the old demimonde of “SCTV” or “The Larry Sanders Show” — a family of well-meaning handlers who have to manage, and enable, the petty tyrant at their center. The terrific comic actress Lauren Lapkus is a standout as Zach’s assistant, Carol Hunch; her goggle-eyed belief in him, despite the levelheadedness that defines her every move, makes her a magnetic throwback to screwball-comedy daffiness. Beyond that, “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” has some laughs, but it’s essentially the tossed-together version of a hangout movie. It’s a roast served at room temperature.