I never played drinking games in my collegiate youth -- I was never in a fraternity, did not study engineering and grew up in Canada, so the general idea was to just drink. Beerfest, the new comedy from the five-comedian collective known as Broken Lizard, begins as two American brothers, Jan (Paul Soter) and Todd (Erik Stolhanske) Wolfhouse take their dear departed father's ashes from Colorado to Munich, Germany to fulfill his last wishes. Along the way, they stumble into a secret international competition of drinking games called "Beerfest" -- an alternative to commercialized drink-fests, for as one member of the Australian team notes profanely, "Oktoberfest is for tossers and sheep-shaggers!" While disastrously failing to enact their dad's final wishes, the brothers have their family honor and national pride desperately bruised by the VonWolfhausen clan -- the German branch of the family, who perennially win Beerfest. Shamed but not broken, the Wolfhouse brothers set out to make a rag-tag team of drinking game, uh, athletes (and with ESPN2 carrying hot dog-devouring coverage between spelling bees and spear fishing, that's not such a crazy phrase) to win next year's Beerfest.
Beerfest is dumb as a box of rocks. It's a brawny, badly-shot mess that goes on a little too long. It has, as its stars, a group of five men who are far from conventionally handsome, and not conventionally funny. It doesn't hate women, but it doesn't have a lot for them to do aside from bare their breasts and provide exposition. And I loved it -- or, rather, I laughed during it and was consistently amused by audacity and stupidity going hand in hand. It's a dumb movie made by smart people, who took a pitch of 'Fight Club with beer' and managed to wrest a sports-movie parody out of it through sheer force of will while still mocking bad '80s action cinema, world cultural relations, and our relationship with, as noted sage Homer J. Simpson put it, "... Alcohol: The cause of -- and solution to -- all of life's problems." Beerfest is the best smart-yet-dumb American comedy since Dodgeball.
And after a movie summer where more energy was spent talking about box-office and long-term corporate deal structure than story and comedy, bring it on. As the Wolfhouses assemble their crew, we get the Dirty Dozen sequence. First is Phil "Landfill" Krundle (Kevin Heffernan), a competitive eater who once lost a job at a brewery for sampling a few bottles during a shift, if by 'few' you mean '45.' Next is Charlie "Fink" Finkelstein (Steve Lemme), a lab technician with a talent for fluid dynamics. Finally, the team finds Barry "Barry Badrinath" Badrinath (director Jay Chandrasekhar), who they knew in their youth as a master of every physical drinking game -- pong, quarters and more.
There's a lot of hugger-mugger about how (or if) Todd and Jan's father (a cameo I can't bring myself to spoil) stole the world's greatest beer recipe from the VonWolfhausen clan and how (or if) Todd and Jan's Grandmother (Cloris Leachman) was ... a whore! (And the movie says it like that, every time -- it actually brought back childhood memories of watching the TV miniseries The Bastard ...) The VonWolfhausen drinking team is led by frosty patriarch Baron VonWolfhausen (Jurgen Prochnow) and includes two leviathans, Hammacher and Schlemmer (Ralf Moeller and Gunter Schlierkamp), Aryan pretty-boy Gunter (Eric Christian Olsen), Schwartzeneggarian dimwit Rolf (Nat Faxon) and clean-cut, over-starched Otto (Will Forte). How can you not admire a film that can be troubled to round the bases of stereotypes so briskly? And while Guy Madden's The Saddest Music in the World may have ben a gourmet comedy about national culture and beer, Beerfest works as a well-served burger/fries/shake combo made from the same ingredients.
So the lads train, by which I mean 'drink,' and have several setbacks in their quest, by which I do not necessarily mean 'pass out drunk.' The team will fracture; the team will re-bond. And Beerfest does not just have those cliché moments; it fulfills them, too, and also turns them into comedy. One character's fate is results in a plot twist so stupid it boggles the mind, but as the characters process how stupid that twist is on-screen, you have a few good laugh lines, and more than a little admiration for the writers.
And since the actors were the writers, there might have been a pretty easy time figuring out line readings and timing. Heffernan, Lemme, Soter, Stolhanske and Chandrasekhar have been a comedy troupe since college and going under the name Broken Lizard. Their first film, Super Troopers had a wild, loose charm to it; apparently, the follow-up Club Dread was quite dreadful; I went into Beerfest with the advantage of not having seen Club Dread, and it looks like Broken Lizard themselves are actively working against the perception or reality of a sophomore slump after Super Troopers. The group's non-Broken Lizard gigs can be counted on pretty much one hand -- some cable here, a Disney film there, Chandrasekhar directing (if you can call it that) Dukes of Hazzard. But the five lifelong friends do a good job of playing five lifelong friends, and they also have a talent for quick sight gags -- a dead deer, a sudden image in someone's pupil, the comedy gold that is a Tyrolean mountaineer's Alpenstock hat and Lederhosen -- that keep things bubbling.
And it's weird to call a movie with so many exposed mammaries tasteful, but it is: No Nazi jokes, no gratuitous foreigner-bashing, no visions of vomitus post-competition. It's R-rated for a reason -- these guys aren't writing Wodehouse or Shaw -- but Beerfest has a thin plot, sketchy characters and a very real understanding of what it mocks. Beerfest reminded me of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker films like Airplane! and Top Secret! in its wacky gags and love of movies, with a little early Mel Brooks thrown in with the 'Fight Club in Animal House at Old School' vibe. It didn't quite make me want to play Edward Forty-Hands, but it made me laugh throughout, and that alone earned it a place in my heart.