HELL BABY (2013, Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon)
The knock on most Lorne Michaels-produced comedies is that they’re exactly what they are: feature-length SNL skits. THE LADIES MAN, A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY, MACGRUBER, etc. And most people like SNL skits because they’re 5 minutes long, not 95. But the problem with Michaels comedies (and some fare way better than others — MACGRUBER actually has quite a few laughs) isn’t really that they’re too long, it’s that the sketches themselves aren’t that funny, and SNL isn’t really that funny.
But there’s one sketch show that is hilarious, and it’s The State. So whenever there’s a feature-length State skit, I’m usually pretty excited. I’ve written a ton about my favorites in this now-nearly-15-year-long parade of them, most directed by David Wain (e.g. WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, ROLE MODELS, WANDERLUST) or Michael Showalter (THE BAXTER), so I’ll try not to repeat myself. But long story short: these guys make me laugh. Garant & Lennon (veteran Hollywood script doctors in their post-State careers) are making their co-directing debut here (Garant has done a couple of solo films before) and although this is precisely a feature-long State skit, it still displays the razor-sharp satire of not only that seminal series but also that of its spin-offs in the past decade, like Human Giant (Scheer and Huebel are great as po-boy-pounding cops) and Childrens Hospital (Rob Corddry anchors the film nicely as an atypical straight man).
Some of the gags do fall flat, and although Garant and Lennon’s roles as chain-smoking badass priests provide some good meta-laughs, their emphasis on plot tends to drag the movie along slowly. HELL BABY seems to have been made for about $350 and a bag of weed, so there’s a lingering odor of wasted potential throughout, because while it’s frequently hilarious, it leaves a lot of sets unspiked. And while you might assume cameos from the likes of Michael Ian Black or Wain himself (who’s only the voice of a doctor on the phone whose messages get promptly deleted — Garant & Lennon friendly ribbing their former partner) would be the highlights, the MVP is actually Keegan Michael Key, who responds perfectly to his colleague Jordan Peele’s work in Childrens and WANDERLUST. I do wish this thing had one more polish and was maybe 20 minutes shorter (but nobody releases 70-minute features), but the satire is smart enough that fanboys of this troupe will be somewhat satisfied.
P.S. If you’re looking to read something substantial into the film, an essay can be written on the entire thing as a metaphor for hormonal mothers during pregnancy (ground covered by ROSEMARY’S BABY, but obviously with more comedy), fear of parenthood, gentrification of ghetto neighborhoods, and the like. The fact that it ends with the parents violently pummeling, stabbing, shooting, and electrocuting one of their newborns is ammunition for a disturbing reading of the film’s psychology. But I won’t really bother with such a reading. Leave that to someone else.