Film Reviews

Bunk Whack

One of the benefits of being a famous television actor is that you're allowed backstage, that roped-off wonderland most audience members believe to be an orgiastic utopia of groupies and booze. Little do fans realize how mundane it really is behind the velvet rope--cold cuts and bottled water, and musicians far more interesting onstage than off (oooh, and just barely). If there's one revelation to be learned from director (!) Jason Priestley's documentary about the Barenaked Ladies, it's this: Kids, it's far better to ogle from the cheap seats than stare from the wings, because a backstage pass ain't worth the sticker it's printed on, especially when you're invited to spend 90 minutes with the world's most boring band not named Third Eye Blind. (Barenaked Ladies are the average white band...and Canadian, to boot; the doc's best moment comes with ex-Late Night with Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter bemoaning the fact that the Ladies "had the gall to unseat Loverboy as Canada's premier band." Presumably, he forgot about Triumph, but who hasn't?)

It's hard to imagine even the most die-hard fans of the Barenaked Ladies finding anything pleasurable or revelatory buried in Barenaked in America, the latest film in the Shooting Gallery series of "art-house" movies landing in the multiplexes (from Croupier to this is a far, far tumble). Theirs isn't even a tale worthy of an episode of Behind the Music, though I do so look forward to watching the band's Where Are They Now? segment. Save for keyboardist Kevin Hearn's bout with leukemia, buried toward the tail end of this lethargic rockumentary, the Ladies' biggest struggle is regarding a less-than-satisfactory video for the hit single "It's All Been Done," shot from the point of view of a cat. Barenaked in America is the first rock film that might actually encourage drug use among its audience--anything to ease the pain of watching the banal act. (In one pre-concert sequence, the band members discuss the need to use the bathroom; someone suggests plugging his ass with his thumb. Hey, they really are clever!)

The film, the first to be directed by a Beverly Hills, 90210 cast member--unless you count The 400 Blows and Citizen Kane--has no form or function; at best, it's a 90-minute infomercial, better suited to airings on QVC. If nothing else, the timing of the film's release is fortuitous: The band is touring to promote their new album, Maroon, yet another disc that sounds like frat-house Crosby, Stills & Nash overdosing on white-bread wit. But Priestley comes off as nothing more than a fanboy with a brand-new digital camera: He opens the film asking each member which is his favorite Sesame Street character, then goes on the bus for a conversation about "bunk whack" (masturbating on tour), then props the boys in front of the White House for a humorless interlude about meeting the president, and on and on. It's a road movie that runs into a dead end after 15 minutes. Were it not for the performance footage--and there's plenty, which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you possess the ability to hear--Barenaked in America would be the cinematic equivalent of Canada.

Not surprisingly, the film's best moments come when the band ain't onscreen. Jeff Goldblum shows up for a moment, revealing his disappointment at discovering the band was not, in fact, composed of barenaked ladies. And Jon Stewart delivers a brief monologue about how hockey players are either glamour boys or "the ugliest, most fucking retarded-looking guys" in the world. Doesn't have much to do with anything, but neither does this movie.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky