Bad Trip

Bad Trip is hidden-camera prank comedy taken to its logical extreme

Eric André and Lil Rel Howery star in a formally innovative — and extremely stupid — gross-out comedy.

I would say that hidden-camera prank shows have a bad rap the world over, but they have a particularly thorny history if you’ve grown up, as I have, in Quebec. The omnipresence of JFL Gags for most of my life has made the very concept automatically corny and overplayed. Watch enough JFL Gags and you’ll be able to pinpoint practically every kind of reaction that might come out of a particular gag, eventually rendering them into bite-sized humiliation sessions for people who just want to walk down the street. Don’t get me wrong: I love a great prank, but watching person after person just jump out of their skin as some loud and improbable situation unfolds gets old.

In recent years, of course, the hidden-camera concept has been refined. Sacha Baron Cohen is particularly adept at using it to get people to willingly and blindingly embarrass themselves with the smallest iota of an excuse for their abhorrent behaviour, but even he has sort of rounded the bases on what the concept can be used for. All this to say that I was a little hesitant about the premise of Kitao Sakurai’s Bad Trip, which more or less appears on paper to be the Jackass crew’s Bad Grandpa tailored to the Dadaist anarchic aesthetic of Eric André. It seemed unlikely to me that there was anywhere to go with this premise that was not already well-trod ground — but I was wrong. I was extremely wrong.

Bad Trip exists not to trap unsuspecting people into embarrassing themselves or having outsized reactions to things but in fact to use their normal reactions to abnormal things as the fabric of the story itself. The premise is pretty clear: Chris (André) is a 30-something loser working dead-end jobs in Florida. His only friend is Bud (Lil Rel Howery), a cellphone repairman who lives in constant terror of his psychotic criminal sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish). When Chris coincidentally runs into his high school crush Maria Li (Michaela Conlin) at work, his old feelings come rushing back. So when she hands him her business card for her NYC art gallery, Chris sees it as a calling. He’s going to go to New York to tell Maria how he’s felt about her all this time.

Bad Trip Eric André Lil Rel Howery
Eric André and Lil Rel Howery

On paper, obviously, this is a psychotically generic premise — the skeleton of every misguided boilerplate rom-com or road trip movie of the last 20 years. It contains absolutely no surprises save for the fact that the film’s M.O. is to treat all of the insane stalker behaviour these films have normalized as existing in the real world. It’s not just that Chris has decided to follow this woman he barely knows across the country to declare his love to her; it’s that he goes through every conceivable cliché of the misguided romantic comedy, from bursting out into song and asking passers-by for advice… and none of them are actors.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this is a one-joke premise. It is, in fact, the very definition of a one-joke premise. But it’s fascinating to watch the exact pitch of the prank that the characters might settle on. The pranks are often outlandishly ridiculous, teetering on the brink of absolute absurdity. In one scene, for example, André wanders into a gorilla pen and is viciously attacked by the amorous gorilla. Frankly, jokes about being sexually assaulted by apes have not really grown finer with age, and the Grand Guignol crassness of the concept has a pretty limited lifespan. But the way André handles the gag is just ridiculous enough to look slightly unrealistic to our eyes and, presumably, to the witnesses’ eyes. It means that the reactions are often unpredictable. We are less watching people be shocked or surprised by loud noises or strange situations than we are watching them try to compute the sheer insanity they’re witnessing.

It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, and in a way it isn’t. What Bad Trip sets out to do is not fundamentally different from any other hidden-camera prank show. But how it does it is so gleefully off-kilter and the raw material they glean from it so fascinating that it becomes a study in chaos the likes of which we rarely get to witness. There are comic setpieces here that are so elaborate and insane in their implications that they outclass most special effects in terms of the viewer being unable to wrap their heads around the specifics. It’s also an incredible lesson in comedic editing, showing restraint (which is a relative concept in something as anarchic as Bad Trip) and parsimony within a concept that generates so much usable material, it would almost be excusable that the thing be a formless mass of reaction shots.

Bad Trip is, of course, hardly perfect. Though it’s seamlessly constructed, it kind of looks like shit by necessity, and the handful of scenes that aren’t built around a particular prank feel a little bit off compared to the rest of the film. These are extremely few and far between, however, and the majority of Bad Trip is a riot — a film that is both profoundly dumb and somehow masterfully executed. ■

Bad Trip is streaming on Netflix as of Friday, March 26. Watch the trailer here:

Bad Trip starring Eric André, Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish

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