Telling Stories April 20, 2021
On Bad Trip and Night of the Kings
hand chopped by blender blades in a smoothie shop. Projectile vomit showering a bar’s floors. An entire outfit slurped up by a car vacuum. A gorilla
graphically attacking a zoo patron who tries to take a selfie with them. A vengeful woman dangling a man from a building's ledge. A Chinese finger trapper encasing a pair of penises. These are just a few of the absurdist sights bystanders bear witness to — not realizing they are prankish set-ups — in Eric André’s new, delightfully anarchic caught-on-camera comedy Bad Trip.
Although it’s held together by a fictional framing story — André plays a Florida food-service worker, Chris, who impulsively decides to travel to Manhattan with his best friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) to surprise his high-school crush (Michaela Conlin) who now runs a gallery there — the film, now on Netflix, almost entirely comprises high-concept practical jokes
Eric André and Lil Rel Howery in 2021's Bad Trip.
put into motion by André and his handful of supporting actors. This is a road trip whose pit stops solely consist of confronting strangers with nonsense and capturing their responses for posterity.
Rounding out the movie’s small ensemble is a predictably game — and predictably wonderful — Tiffany Haddish, who plays Bud’s vindictive fugitive sister Trina. Pissed to learn upon her jailbreak early in the movie that Chris and Bud are using her cherished Pepto Bismol-pink Crown Victoria (christened “the Bad Bitch”) for their journey, she determinedly stalks them as they move along the country. She shoves grainy mugshots of the thieves in the faces of potential witnesses; she demands even inklings of potential whereabouts. (Haddish fakes aggression with astonishing commitment; she doesn’t seem to mind it when the latest spectator she’s haranguing seems ready to shed niceties when one of her put-on accusations goes too far.)
I’ve never really liked the caught-on-camera-style comedy format. Since it tends to laugh at rather than with its
oblivious victims, I over-worry about the emotional states of unwitting participants. How genuine are they while smiling along with reveals that everything they’d just been through was a joke? Unlike crueler variants like, say, Punk’d
(2003-’07), though, Bad Trip never looks for a laugh at an unknowing party’s expense. Directed by frequent André collaborator Kitao Sakurai, the film exclusively finds André and his castmates going for broke. There is no humiliation too great for them. (Even Conlin, playing the most level-headed character, makes the most of her chances to act the fool through hypotheticals daydreamed by Chris: she faux beats up an unwelcome flirt at a farmers market and participates in a three-way makeout session with a minister with admirable dedication.) The film finds a sweet spot pitting bug-eyed responses from passersby against actors throwing themselves headlong into sometimes physically demanding scenarios, whether it’s a seemingly impromptu musical sequence or a big and sloppy fall. (There are many of the latter.)
The effect is consistently very funny; a couple scenes prompt laughs big enough to induce a tear or two. Bad Trip can be touching, too. The bulk of onlookers remain willing to treat André empathetically even while they’re noticeably dismayed; when André feigns emotional fragility in front of strangers, they’re more than up for the task to give sincere advice to this maybe-crazy man. Not all reactions are so simpatico, though. When André and Howery burst into a barbershop during one of their most audacious stunts, its owner furiously chases after them with scissors. During the musical interlude, a humorless bystander tries to trip André as he prattles about. Still, when a requisite blooper reel arrives to serve as Bad Trip's epilogue, the movie’s deft combination of meaty laughs and the heartfelt (achieved, of course, through more than probably very heavy editing) is cemented. Most people, who’d acted kindly when confronted with chaos, light up upon learning they were unsuspecting co-conspirators. Unexpected for a prank movie, Bad Trip is as endearing as it is funny.
any reviews of Philippe Lacôte’s sophomore effort, Night of the Kings (2020), have invoked 1,001 Nights — specifically its Shéhérazade, a heroine who, after getting trapped in a hostile marriage, figures
the best way to survive is to keep telling stories to distract her husband from his homicidal inclinations. I couldn’t help but think of her too upon my introduction to the protagonist of Night of the Kings, an unnamed young man eventually given the name Roman (Bakary Koné). At the beginning of the film, our boyish hero, slight-looking in a little yellow T-shirt, is en route to the MACA prison, which sits in seclusion on the Ivory Coast. Near-immediately, he is named by its overseer, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), as the prison’s Roman — a griot-like figure tasked with telling stories to fellow inmates during red moons. Tonight is one such evening.
The title, and responsibility, understandably strikes the young man as unusual, a takeaway done no favors by the vague explanation offered. (I’ll refer to this character from now on as Roman.) But he learns, after the viewer does, that the MACA doesn't abide by typical prison regulations. It’s inmate-led (Blackbeard’s official role is that of the Dangôro) and goes by its own customs. One of them is the sporadic naming of a new Roman. Another is the way a Dangôro is typically ejected from his position. If the current Dangôro falls into such ill health that he struggles to rule, it is expected that he kills himself so that the next ruler can replace him smoothly. When we first meet Blackbeard, he fits the bill, relying on an oxygen tank to get by. He names this new prisoner Roman not necessarily because he sees something special in this newcomer but because he would do anything to buy himself a bit more time. Roman also discovers — though only through an indistinct warning by the prison’s sole white inmate, Silence (Denis Lavant), who skulks around with a bird on his shoulder — that he must concoct a story that lasts the entire night for his debut. Otherwise, he too will be greeted by death.
Overwhelmed with nerves at first, Roman uses the figure that had a hand in his imprisonment — a kingpin named Zama King who was recently murdered — as the foundation of his tale. (Roman, who was in his gang, ostensibly is familiar with how this event unfolded.) He improvises, with expanding confidence, over the course of the night.
Night of the Kings revels in the transportive power of storytelling. As Roman unspools his epic tale, inmates crowd around him and dance, pantomime, or occasionally sing, giving his story an additional dimensionality. Lacôte dramatizes Roman’s weavings through visually rich reenactments, themselves often inculcated in fantasy. (At one point in the movie Roman speaks of a duel between a tribal queen, played by famed Ivorian hair artist Laetitia Ky, and a challenger; what unfolds is a magic-enhanced, sumptuously shot battle that temporarily makes us forget its framing device — as should be the case with any well-told story.)
Taken together the dramatizations can be hard to follow, and sometimes they take away some of the extreme urgency imbuing the framing story. Periodically I wanted more detail around the world Lacôte has built — namely this fictionalized version of the MACA’s hierarchical structure — and around Roman, whose immediate circumstances are the only information about him we’re given access to. But Lacôte’s show of how tradition can affect periods of potentially radical transition is sharp, as is his allegorizing of the real ideological conflicts underpinning the nation’s civil war of the aughts through Blackbeard and his potential ousters. Night of the Kings isn’t always seamless, but staying true for a work extolling the virtues of storytelling, its ideas keep us riveted.
Bad Trip: B+
Night of the Kings: B+