They’re called the Impractical Jokers, four Staten Island man-children whose harmlessly juvenile, undeniably chuckle-worthy prank show began invigorating TruTV back in 2011. A more appropriate name for the foursome might be the Improbable Jokers, seeing as they’ve turned their decades-long friendship into an unlikely comedy empire that encompasses globe-spanning arena tours, an Impractical Jokers cruise and a spin-off game show, The Misery Index, that premiered on TruTV’s corporate sibling, TBS, last year.
Unlike the jackasses of “Jackass,” whose shenangians felt about three steps removed from “Idiocracy’s” reality-show sendup “Ow! My Balls,” the Jokers’ gift is not a lack of shame or a willingness to make others suffer for our delectation. It’s their aversion to embarrassment and the cringe-worthy inevitability of each Joker struggling to perform whatever socially awkward task is asked of him by the other three. It’s this mildly sweeter, more relatable approach to hidden camera comedy that has made them a cult phenomenon. They are, at their core, benign middle-aged guys you can safely invite into your home every week.
In “Impractical Jokers: The Movie,” these childhood friends take their act to the multiplex, where the stakes demand to be raised. Considering there are more than 200 episodes of the series and countless YouTube videos of the group to gorge on, a move to the big screen needs a higher purpose, either in its storytelling or its risk-taking. Under the competent, if anonymous, direction of Chris Henchy (co-founder of Funny or Die, under whose banner, along with TruTV, this film is released), we are provided with no creative justification for the move, unless one is either an Impractical Jokers completist or keenly interested to see whether the boys can successfully read scripted dialogue. “Impractical Jokers: The Movie” is an undistinguished and unnecessary extension of a brand whose primary attributes are likability, authenticity and relative modesty (given the worst impulses of the genre). This limited release is mainly a gift for fans, whereas the uninitiated will be lightly amused if a bit baffled at how the group achieved such fame as to warrant an exhibition last year at the Staten Island Museum.
Joe Gatto, James Murray, Brian Quinn and Sal Vulcano met in high school and eventually formed a comedy troupe called The Tenderloins. Their TruTV show was an outlier on a network better known for reality offerings like “Hardcore Pawn” and “Lizard Lick Towing.” The new film mimics the show’s format while interweaving a thin narrative to justify the hidden camera challenges. Playing off the group’s longtime friendship, the movie begins with a fictional origin story that takes places in Staten Island in 1994 (“a great year and a great place to grow up!”) where the boys hatch a plan to sneak into a Paula Abdul concert (a good-sport turn by Abdul).
While these Jokers won’t make anyone forget Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning turn, Gatto and his friends play their long-ago and current selves in amiable, camera-friendly style, holding their own just fine. Establishing that the foursome is game for anything, they sneak into Abdul’s show dressed as security but eventually get tossed. Thirty years later, the now-famous foursome run into Abdul, who invites them to a party in Miami. When they’re given three tickets instead of four, the competition is on, with the loser forced to sit out Abdul’s shindig.
The challenges here are consistent with those on the show, which adds familiarity but oftentimes lacks the scale needed for the big screen. In one, Sal is forced to be a mall Santa in the middle of summer. In another, Murray wanders around Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool asking strangers if he can read them a eulogy he’s written (“Grandma was a straight-up bitch).” In between hidden camera gags, Henchy, who takes co-writer credit with the group, gives us lackluster, half-improvised moments of business, like the proper way to do “air quotes” (a callback to an episode of the show), a discussion of what the E.L. stands for in E.L. Fudge cookies and a running gag about the strange parties that Murray throws in his various hotel rooms.
The best segments are the slow-build gags where we sense the loser would rather gnaw off his arm than recite the absurd dialogue being fed into his earpiece by the other three. A series of job interviews with the Atlanta Hawks organization is the film’s funniest bit (“Is that stupid mascot of yours a woodpecker?”). The worst segment features the group veering uncomfortably and surprisingly close to homophobia as they ask for roadside assistance down south.
At one point in “Impractical Jokers: The Movie,” Brian proclaims he’s having a blast with his buddies, saying “I’m giggling with my friends. It feels pretty good.” That about sums up the appeal of this group of merry pranksters whose shenanigans, this film proves, are best enjoyed on the small screen. Indeed, later Brian makes a meta-reference to their big-screen debut by proclaiming to his unsuspecting mark that “the movie’s gonna be three and a half stars.” Now that’s impractical.