It may surprise you how estranged from nerd culture a movie starring Patton Oswalt, produced by Titmouse Animation, and—for heaven’s sakes—titled Nerdland actually is. Save for an isolated gag about a long sought collectible, the film operates without a trace of anything that might be popularly understood as “nerdy,” never breaching the associated realm or tackling the connoted identity. This, of course, is not a qualitative criticism, but merely something I figured a visitor to Nerdist might want to know about a movie that, in name alone, gives off a distinctly different impression.
In lieu of the propriety of “nerd,” what you’d instead call the film’s main characters, screenwriter Elliot (Oswalt) and actor John (Paul Rudd), are losers. Lovable at times, hapless from beginning to end. Not driven by their desire to create, Elliot and John crave only fame. So much so that they’re willing to come by it however it’ll welcome them—viral videos, high profile news stories, killing sprees, et al. Their go-for-broke decision to win the spotlight by any means necessary sets into motion what functions less like an identifiable movie script and more like an outstretched, and dirty, episode of Hey Arnold.
Nerdland doesn’t so much tell a cohesive story as much as it does toss Elliot and John from set piece to set piece, each more calamitous (and, seemingly, longer) than the last. Before long, this episodic format begins to drag, as every sequence follows a near identical structure: the fellas try their hand at some harebrained scheme only to foul it up. There are only so many times the sheer concept of failure can earn a laugh.
First-time feature director Chris Prynoski (Metalocalypse, China, IL) betrays his background in television by committing to conceptual humor, which, almost as a rule, works better in the short form. If the gag is that Elliot and John’s plays go awry, the gag should end there. The same could be said about the film’s propensity for gratuitous nudity, violence, and scatological humor—in absence of many other punchlines, “We get the point” becomes the viewer’s mantra.
Eventually, Nerdland does sink its teeth into a recognizable narrative when Elliot and John, by sheer dumb luck, become key witnesses in the state’s case against a decorated mobster. Far and away the most interesting chapter in the movie, you’ll only lament that you’ve already lost most of your steam, as the plot turn comes at the very least an hour into the film.
If you were to isolate this final half hour, you might actually have a succinctly enjoyable short film perfectly suited for the Adult Swim canon. When Nerdland’s energies begin to rev, we’re afforded the chance to notice some of its other strengths. The shaggy and grotesque aesthetic of the illustration is actually a lot of fun to look at. Oswalt, unsurprisingly, plays delightedly in some of his stronger material, inflating the humor a good deal beyond its merit.
Like its characters, Nerdland vies for a grandeur it might not be capable of achieving. Though enforcing form as a feature film, it’d really work better as handful of cartoon shorts (the finale being the kicker that truly turns you on). Were Oswalt and Rudd willing to commit their voices to the regular 10-minute adventures of boneheads Elliot and John, I might well consider flipping by for the occasional late night viewing.
Rating: 2 out of 5 burritos.
Images: Tribeca Film Festival
Michael Arbeiter is the east coast editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter at @MichaelArbeiter!