“I do like finding out where the line is drawn, deliberately crossing it, and bringing some of them with me across the line, and having them be happy that I did.”

–George Carlin

Bad Trip comes to us from the team of Eric Andre and Kitao Sakurai, who previously collaborated on “The Eric Andre Show”. Call it a hunch, but I expect I’m one of millions who are only familiar with the show through the font of internet memes it inspired. Here, Eric Andre and Lil Rey Howery respectively star as Chris and Bud, a couple of losers and lifelong friends who steal a car to chase after Chris’s old high school crush (Maria, played by Michaela Conlin) while running from Bud’s sister (Trina, played by Tiffany Haddish), who just broke out of prison to try and get her car back.

It’s a straightforward premise for a road trip comedy, packed into a lean 80-minute runtime. The kicker: It’s a hidden camera film. Yes, we have another hidden camera movie fresh off the controversies and discussions about the recent Borat sequel.

The ethics here are really grey. If it’s the government taping us without our knowledge or consent, people tend to get up in arms over that. (In the USA, at least — I hear the situation is very different in the UK, for instance.) If our private photos go out on social media or if we get hounded by idiots with cameras on the street, that’s generally frowned upon. Yet here we are with unsuspecting everyday people getting filmed for a comedy movie on goddamn Netflix.

Furthermore, it’s one thing for professional actors who are trained to perform for the camera. (Seriously, ask anyone who’s ever really worked as a background extra for film or TV. It’s harder than you might think.) Actors who were given the necessary preparation, costuming, makeup, and catering as they played a particular role. Actors who signed a contract to know what they were getting into, so they were ready for the emotional labor involved in whatever they would have to witness or act on. Actors who got a paycheck and (maybe, hopefully) some royalties in return for knowingly contributing their time, services, and likeness rights.

Random people on the street don’t have ANY of that. Yet these filmmakers want to pull them into their movie.

To be fair, it helps a bit that the random background extras aren’t really the joke. Yes, they’re part of the gimmick and thus the film is being sold on their unwitting participation, and that’s shady enough. But this isn’t a film made to make fun at random people or skewer them for the sake of some satirical point. To the contrary, it’s a lot less Borat and a lot more Bad Grandpa.

Yes, there are one or two times when a random passerby will get roped in — right at the start of the film, Chris asks a total stranger to try and get Maria’s phone number. Sure, that’s a bit of an embarrassing position to put a total stranger in, but that’s nothing next to Chris, who just accidentally lost all his clothes in a vacuum accident.

At all times, the film makes it perfectly clear that the characters are the butt of the joke. These are idiotic characters — all played by top-notch comedic talents, I might add — who make total asses of themselves in public. And the point is amplified by the unscripted reactions of the public around them.

The film consistently debases the characters and professional actors, and while the passersby may be traumatized or at least made extremely uncomfortable, I wouldn’t say any of them are insulted or humiliated. I’d say that makes the whole project just a bit more ethically sound. Not much, but just a bit.

Furthermore, the one and only reason the whole “hidden camera” conceit works is because Eric Andre is so full-on committed to the con. Remember, he’s dealing with unsuspecting people who are minding their own business, so they’re doing their best to ignore the random weirdo stranger just like we’re all trained and accustomed to do. And the only way Andre could possibly get people out of their own respective bubbles is to be so outlandish, so stubbornly devoted to every scene, so completely and totally sincere in his performance of every joke, so aggressively magnetic in his performance that nobody in the area would have any choice but to engage.

From start to finish, Andre (much like Johnny Knoxville and Sacha Baron Cohen before him) has absolutely zero shame. He has no fear whatsoever. His lack of inhibitions is borderline pathological. In fact, I’m quite certain that not a single person in the entire cast and crew had any last shred of a fuck to give. No joke, there’s one point right around the 15-minute mark where Andre gets straight-up kicked in the chest by a random passerby — so there’s no way it could’ve been planned or choreographed — and Andre didn’t even flinch. If that’s not hardcore, tell me what the fuck is.

Incidentally, that’s right before the huge dance break. Yes, Eric Andre gets a splashy musical number with a team of choreographed dancers while everyone at the mall food court looks on in stunned confusion. That’s the kind of movie we’re dealing with here.

To be perfectly honest, I had a hard time sitting through this one precisely because it was so awkward. From start to finish, I couldn’t care less about the paper-thin characters or the paper-thin plot that were apparently only thrown in so the product could pass itself off as a feature film. But I cared very deeply about the random passersby whose unscripted reactions were the film’s main selling point — I had every reason in the goddamn world to cringe for these people. With every scene, I found myself so deeply uncomfortable as I was forced to imagine myself in their position.

And maybe that’s the point.

For the past several years, I’ve been a devoted follower of Nash Bozard and his recurring “What the Fuck is Wrong With You?” segment on Radio Dead Air. I’ve long held a fascination with the kind of bizarre news stories that directly led to the creation of the #FloridaMan meme. The mindless, arbitrary, inexplicable happenings that shouldn’t exist in any sane or rational universe.

(Side note: Eric Andre himself is a Florida native. Coincidence?)

Alas, recent national headlines have made it all too clear that any one of us could die at any minute by way of a mass shooting or some natural disaster. In the wake of all the random and senseless tragedy we’ve seen in the news (and perhaps lost a loved one to), it’s worth remembering that life is also full of random and senseless comedy and we should perhaps be grateful for that.

Moreover, this movie made me empathize with a total stranger. Hell, it made me empathize with a lot of total strangers. I don’t expect I’ll ever know their names, I’ll probably never meet them, and it’s entirely possible that we’d hate each other if I ever met any of them. Yet for one fleeting moment, I shared an experience with a total stranger several thousand miles away and I felt their confused pain acutely.

Even better, the filmmakers made a point in showing the good samaritans. Probably the best example comes after a spectacular car crash. (How the filmmakers pulled that stunt off on an open set and did it well enough to convince nearby people that the whole thing was real, I haven’t a fucking clue.) So many people came out to help our two hapless lead characters and make sure they were okay. Whoever these people were, may the gods bless and love them. Raunchy as this comedy is, there’s something wholesome and uplifting in the reminder that any one of us can reach out for help, and potentially help others.

In fact, getting back to an earlier point, the whole “hidden camera” gimmick is fundamentally about shaking people out of their comfort zones and protective bubbles, forcing them to make some kind of social interaction they otherwise wouldn’t. In these sociopolitically divided times — most especially a year into socially-distanced lockdown — there’s certainly merit to such a film.

But then we get to the last big prank. Of course I won’t want to spoil what it is, but suffice to say that it was heavily set up by Bud’s favorite movie, White Chicks. The prank itself only gets more nonsensical and tasteless from there, and it makes absolutely zero sense in what passes for context in this movie. Though it did cap off with a DMX song, which turned out to be surprisingly poignant in hindsight. (RIP)

Is Bad Trip a good movie? Well, it sure as hell isn’t a good narrative. To call the plot and characters one-dimensional would be an understatement. Then again, I don’t think anyone here was trying to tell a story, they just wanted to make people laugh for 80 minutes. Even then, the comedy is aggressively broad in a way that was specifically designed to push a lot of buttons, for better or worse. Moreover, as much as I love the thematic points implicit in the “hidden camera” gimmick, that’s offset by the multitude of ethical concerns. No joke, pretty much the only thing that got me through this movie (aside from writing the review) was how badly I wanted to see the outtakes and BTS clips to show how the featured passersby reacted when the charade was finally exposed. And sure enough, that was easily the best part of the movie.

I think everyone is either going to fall completely head over heels in love with this movie, or react to it with utter revulsion and disgust. There’s not much room for a middle ground here. The good news is, it’s freely and quickly available to stream on Netflix and you’ll know within five minutes if it’s right for you, so there’s nothing to lose by giving it a shot.

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