Zach Galifianakis punches sideways. That’s always been the central, most thrilling tension of internet interview sensation Between Two Ferns—that even though we know, on an intellectual level, that every delicately constructed, casually cruel question Galifianakis lobs at his celebrity subjects has been vetted to some degree, the feeling of danger inherent in watching someone refuse to pull punches on their even-more-famous peers persists. Even more than its gamely awkward array of big-name stars, the series acts as a repeated attack on the Hollywood PR apparatus itself, with Galifianakis asking the bluntly rude questions people like to imagine that they’d ask a Bruce Willis or a Brad Pitt, given the opportunity—and if they were as good at writing carefully brutal one-liners as series writer, director, and co-creator Scott Aukerman so frequently is.
It’s also a magic trick with a potentially limited shelf life, something both Galifianakis and Aukerman have expressed concern about in interviews. (It’s hard to top grilling Barack Obama about being “the last black president” from within the walls of the White House itself.) Maybe that’s why the duo’s new Netflix feature, Between Two Ferns: The Movie, spends so little of its time on the interviews that are its ostensible reason for existing, despite touting a list of massively successful subjects (including Matthew McConaughey, Brie Larson, John Legend, and the original master of the willfully awkward interview, David Letterman) willing to weather Galifianakis’ green-leafed crucible.
Or maybe it’s simpler than that; maybe there’s just an awareness of diminishing returns in watching celebrities fake anger and awkwardness to varying degrees of success. A few of Galifianakis’ subjects slip ably into the game of playing along with not playing along—Benedict Cumberbatch and Keanu Reeves both acquit themselves particularly well—but viewers of the film can expect to see a lot of the “blank look, turn away, mutter something uncomfortably” school of Between Two Ferns performance. Worse, though, is the occasional sense of a punch being pulled on the part of Galifianakis or the writers; when you have a man with as long, and as sometimes troubled, a history as David Letterman in your crosshairs, confining yourself to questions about his crazy retirement beard feels as much like a softball as any vapid Entertainment Weekly puff piece. The jokes are still perfectly crafted and savvily delivered, but a lot of the subversive thrill is gone.
Happily, the movie picks up energy when it leaves the studio, riffing on small-town public access life and road trip comedy tropes with equal and absurdist aplomb. The plot is appropriately paper thin, with eccentric Funny Or Die mogul Will Ferrell (playing a deranged version of himself, surrounded with swords, coke, and Webby Awards) tasking Galifianakis with recording a marathon slew of BTF episodes in order to secure his long-dreamed-of-apparently goal of getting his own late-night talk show. Galifianakis seems to have lost his taste for playing purely acerbic assholes in recent years—something that’s also altered the trajectory of Baskets of late—which makes this version of him, transformed into a struggling public-access host whose high-profile guests show up only as part of a years-long prank on Ferrell’s part, more bumbling and sweet than the Between Two Ferns style might lead one to expect. The movie is at its best, then, when it heightens the pure silliness of the tropes it’s riffing on, as when Lauren Lapkus’ put-upon assistant Carol responds to one of Zach’s frequent monologues about his dreams by expressing her own musical ambitions, then pulls out the trumpet she’s apparently been carrying around in her purse the entire movie and begins to play.
Between Two Ferns meanders; it invents often-pointless conflicts between its characters; it sometimes feels like a film casting around desperately for an emotional hook to rest itself upon. (Not entirely inaccurate, given our interview with Aukerman and Lapkus about the improvised nature of the movie’s arc.) It’s also deeply funny, surrounding a talented comedian with other talented comedians and letting them riff off of each other for a feature’s worth of length. Lapkus is the obvious stand-out—and god bless both her and Aukerman for resisting the impulse to give her character and Galifianakis a cliché romantic subplot—but Ryan Gaul and Jiavani Linayao do engaging work as well, and the glimpses we get of Galifianakis’ equally weird public access co-workers are tantalizingly bizarre. The movie briefly swerves back into showbiz satire for its big finale, but its highest highs come when it’s willing to trust to the pleasures of watching funny people cracking silly jokes. It’s worth engaging with on that level alone (also, Chrissy Tiegen has the best tangent about murdering Mr. Rogers that you’re likely to hear all year), even if some of the original, exciting venom of the show’s appeal ends up a bit diluted along the way.