To say that Strange Wilderness offers up no laughs whatsoever is an overstatement, of course. But not much of one. Part road movie, part stoner comedy, part gross-out set-piece collection of loosely strung-together and half-reasoned sketch ideas, the movie by and large wastes the talents of a game ensemble, and stands ready to slip into lasting cinematic anonymity except as the answer to the following trivia question: In what film does Steve Zahn find his member latched onto by a giant, angry, animatronic turkey?
Zahn stars as Peter Gaulke, the somewhat dimwitted host of a PBS nature show that he inherited from from his now deceased father. Faced with cancellation and desperate to stay on the air, Peter hatches a plan to purchase a map purporting to show the location of Bigfoot from Bill Calhoun (Joe Don Baker), a friend of his dad’s, and squeeze out several whatever-we-find-along-the-way episodes of his show en route to South America. Peter’s crew of misfits includes serious stoner Junior (Justin Long), tubby nutjob Cooker (Jonah Hill), idiotic soundman Fred (Allen Covert), newly hired animal trainer Whitaker (Kevin Heffernan), map master Cheryl (Ashley Scott) and driver Danny (Peter Dante).
Along the way, Peter and his crew discover themselves in a race with rival TV animal show personality Sky Pierson (Harry Hamlin), so they enlist the assistance of expert tracker Gus Hayden (Robert Patrick), a friend of Bill’s. Nutty misadventures ensue, involving shark attacks, angry gang-bangers with low-riders, stolen nitrous oxide, killer pygmies and guys named Dick. Jeff Garlin and Ernest Borgnine also figure into the proceedings.
The penile humor factor here is high; a bit involving Patrick’s mangled junk joins the aforementioned turkey bit, which may be the surreal high of the movie. There are also increasingly tedious voiceover narrations of nature footage, seemingly designed to pad out the movie’s already slim 84-minute running time. So things are pitched at a lowbrow degree — that’s fine. A big part of
the problem, though, is that the movie never decides on a fixed, firm point-of-view for the character of Peter; sometimes he’s smarter than his charges, other times he recedes into the background, letting their stupid antics or decisions decide the course of events.
Strange Wilderness (which for a while had the brilliant spec title of of The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang) is actually scripted by Peter Gaulke (yes, the name of Zahn’s character) and director Fred Wolf (Without a Paddle, Joe Dirt), who waste a decent enough concept (or at least backdrop for a comedic story) on jokes and set-ups that are dispiritingly obvious. Wolf, meanwhile, doesn’t elicit any consistent tone; sometimes his actors wildly overact (Hill affects a nutty accent, to wearying effect), sometimes they play a scene fairly straightforward. That the movie just ends by letting its last scene unwind into a giggly blooper says everything one needs to know about the care and thought put into this flick. “Stupid” is quite fine in comedy, as long as it’s thought through, and presented consistently, establishing the parameters of a silly world (as in, say, Billy Madison). Strange Wilderness doesn’t do that, though. It’s dumb and lazy, a tiring combination, especially since there’s enough talent here to make the movie a much, much better thing.
Putting an awful lot of lipstick on this pig, the DVD release of Strange Wilderness comes with a solid slate of bonus material, at least quantitatively. Housed in a regular Amray case with snap-shut hinges, the DVD is presented in 16×9 widescreen, preserving the aspect ratio of the movie’s original theatrical presentation. Audio comes in Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound tracks in both English and Spanish, with optional subtitles in each of those languages, as well as French. A featurette billed as “Cooker’s Song” is actually five-minute-45-second extended take of a musical sequence with Hill and Long, including long lead-in before filming begins. A seven-minute bit on the movie’s turkey sequence starts out with a look at the effects work involved, but then just spends its last four minutes or so loitering between takes, with Hill and Long goofing around. There’s also a 21-minute “Reel Comedy” episode with Zahn, hosted by Lisa Arch. The high point probably lies in some of the movie’s 13 deleted scenes, running 22 minutes in total; many of these feature improvisations that are much funnier than what’s in the movie, and there’s even a scene where Long (who gets his eyelids tattooed in one bit in the movie, doted on in a six-minute featurette/extended rehearsal sequence) reveals fake boob tattoos as well — an attempt to woo back his girlfriend after she left him for another woman, he explains. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. D (Movie) B- (Disc)