Earlier this week, the comedy blog Splitsider released the first movie attached to its digital distribution label, which aims to reproduce the success of Louis C.K.'s million-dollar 2011 stand-up special for lesser-known performers. For anyone interested in broadening the means by which artists receive money and attention for their work, this is good news. But will Splitsider Presents’ first project—an intentionally disjointed documentary-cum-romantic-comedy called The Exquisite Corpse Project—appeal to anyone other than hardcore comedy buffs?
Yes, though the film isn’t perfect. At a screening in New York on Tuesday night, prior to which I knew little about the film or its creators, I found myself charmed if occasionally baffled by the meta-comedy. Ben Popik, a member of the sketch-comedy group Olde English, wanted to make a movie inspired by the Surrealist parlor game called “exquisite corpse.” Each of his five colleagues would write 15 pages of the script, but each writer would be able to read only the previous five pages of the script and to see a list of extant character names and settings. The resulting film would ideally be as amusing and weirdly poignant as the drawings and poetry that emerge from rounds of exquisite corpse.
The Exquisite Corpse Project presents the final collaborative film—a hybrid love story and action movie about a couple named Marc and Adayit—interspersed with documentary footage of the writers at various points pre-, during, and post-production. It is sporadically amusing and poignant; most of the poignancy emerges during the final fifth of the film, written by Raphael Bob-Waksberg channeling Woody Allen. Popik’s direction of the narrative portion of the film is impressive: Each section of the film gets its own distinctive cinematography, lighting, and costume design to reflect each writer’s sensibility, and the actors turn in performances that are alternately as goofy, hammy, and nuanced as each scene calls for.
While the film’s home-movie vibe and the writers’ exuberance are pleasing, though, I wished the documentary portion of the movie had been edited more rigorously and presented more clearly. Interviews with the writers are shown haphazardly, sans information about when or where they were filmed, and anyone not already familiar with Olde English will struggle to remember the distinguishing features of each writer. That’s because this portion of the film focuses too much on the pragmatic aspect of the project and too little on the group’s emotional dynamic (which turns into a real-life story about the challenge of working with friends). I suspect that the documentary portion might have been better handled by a director with more distance from Olde English; Popik seems so eager to give each of his colleagues a fair say that he’s unable to whittle their interviews down into the sound bites that would have sufficed for a general audience. (He also appears in front of the camera more often than seems strictly necessary.)
The mild self-indulgence of The Exquisite Corpse Project will thrill Olde English superfans, surely, and the film will also please writers interested in subverting narrative tropes and comedians who like to think about process. What about more casual comedy fans? The Exquisite Corpse Project is unique and structurally compelling enough to win over viewers willing to overlook a little navel-gazing—and curious about comedy that tries to do something different.