A wealth of comedic talent went into making Nerdland, the animated feature film from the creative team of director/producer Chris Prynoski and writer Andrew Kevin Walker.
Prynoski’s animation studio Titmouse, Inc. is the production company behind Adult Swim’s The Venture Brothers and Metalocalypse, so it’s no surprise he managed to collect comedians as talented and disparate as Patton Oswalt, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Ron Lynch, Mike Judge and Hannibal Buress to lend their voices to his first animated feature. So, it’s a shame – a painful, crying shame – then that such talent should be squandered on such a hapless piece of bad-humored social commentary.
Nerdland tells the painfully recognizable story of John (Rudd) and Elliot (Oswalt), two deluded slackers in Los Angeles whose dreams of stardom are continually cut short by their lack of discernible talent. They pretend to be dating Sally (Kate Micucci) and Linda (Riki Lindhome), two young women with their brains in their breasts who work at the Galleria and fail to acknowledge the existence of our stupid heroes. When yet another setback confirms that John and Elliot’s dreams will never come true, the boys decide to get famous by becoming viral video stars instead. Cue a series of wacky schemes involving a homeless man, vicious L.A. cops, a murder spree and a Nerd King extraordinaire (Buress), and you have the recipe for one hilarious set of hijinks that comments on our fame-driven, violence-laden society.
At least, that’s what Prynoski and Walker want you to see. What you’re really watching is a series of unfunny vignettes that you’ve probably seen in one form or another in pretty much any bro-comedy since 1972, usually executed with more panache and, you know, jokes.
Not that there arent’t jokes in Nerdland. Trust me, there are. There are jokes about masturbation, jokes about self-centered nerds and jokes about stupid women only interested in fame. There are also erection jokes and butthole jokes and jokes about hippies and the hilarity of police brutality. There are sight and sound gags too, each of which goes on for ten seconds too long. Not only are these all jokes that you’ve heard fifty times before, but they’re jokes that you’ve heard told better before.
The most disappointing thing about Nerdland is the potential. The animation is bizarre and surreal, the nearly dystopian L.A. landscape weirdly fascinating. There are short bursts of creativity, including one montage that hints at a much more interesting film buried somewhere in the creators’ minds. John and Elliot’s schemes for fame, while predictable, are nonetheless intriguing tidbits in a meandering plot. Buress’s performance as the Nerd King is funny, if too on-point, and one gets the sense that he has an interesting story to tell in his own right.
Yet these little peeks at a better film mock the finished product that you’re watching. None of the story hangs together – plot threads are introduced and then immediately discarded, the punchlines lost as the director and writer suddenly switch focus to another shiny object. The offensiveness is never taken far enough to be edgy, instead depending on worn-out cliches about reality TV, comic book geeks, and the vapidity of modern society. There are moments that hint at social commentary, but it is the simplistic commentary of a sub-par mind entirely convinced that it’s so much smarter than everyone else. Nerdland is something like being sucked into a conversation with a semi-drunk dude who imagines that his ramblings are the last word in comedy. You feel a little sorry for the guy at first, but after a while your pity transforms into contempt.
And that’s where Nerdland gets truly disturbing. Rather than creating characters who should be despised, its characters are pathetic, punching bags for the film’s confused and confusing message. There’s no pleasure in watching John and Elliot fail again and again. They’re not stupidly likable or even stupidly hateful; they’re just stupid, caricatures of slackers that were old in 2000, and that haven’t been funny since 1998. Their suffering fails to summon pathos; their stupidity never taken far enough. This is a film that hates nerds, hates failures, and, almost by extension, hates itself.
Nerdland might have fared better as a series of five minute sketches on a Youtube channel or as bumps on Adult Swim. There’s enough humor in it for that, and the viewer would not have had time to get wise to its contempt for its characters. Much like its central characters, Nerdland is a dismal, unfunny failure, wasting all its potential and entirely unaware that it is every bit as stupid as the stupid people it so despises
Nerdland is something like being sucked into a conversation with a semi-drunk dude who imagines that his ramblings are the last word in comedy. You feel a little sorry for the guy at first, but after a while your pity transforms into contempt.