Exodus of good taste

Winona Ryder dummies up.

Winona Ryder dummies up.

Rated 3.0

First, it was the Bible. Then, in 1956, Cecile B. De Mille gave the world The Ten Commandments, an earnest, bombastic epic (and a remake of his own 1923 silent film), still fondly if ironically remembered today as “The Greatest Event in Motion Picture History.” Then in 1988, Kryzsztof Kieslowski made The Decalogue, a stripped-down series of 10-hour-long Polish TV movies dramatizing the commandments within a Warsaw apartment complex. That actually was a great event in motion picture history. Now sketch comedian David Wain, of The State and Wet Hot American Summer, has directed a highly cheeky comedy about the commandments called The Ten. God help us all.

Like Kieslowski’s Decalogue—and how unholy it feels to have just written that—Wain’s movie elaborates each commandment with its own dramatic (or, presumably, comedic) scenario. There the similarities end: Each of The Ten’s crudely fable-like vignettes is sophomoric, goofily surreal and, shall we say, irreligious. Some are surprisingly, randomly funny; others, just literally Godawful. Exodus of good taste, you might say—and, probably, of people from movie theaters.

Co-written by Wain and his fellow State and Wet Hot alum Ken Marino, who also co-stars, The Ten predictably exudes a deeper fluency with the useless crap of America’s pop culture than with the sacred wisdom of humanity’s hallowed texts. Its rabidly puerile style of parody lives in the dumb-but-funny movie continuum somewhere between the Zucker brothers and the Farrelly brothers, with game stabs at the wordy silliness of Monty Python and a dash of wryly pulpy Tales from the Crypt-style moralizing.

Thus the repressed virgin librarian (Gretchen Mol) and her hot handyman lover who happens to be Jesus Christ (Justin Theroux); or Liev Schreiber coveting his neighbor’s collection of cat-scan machines; or Winona Ryder getting hot for a ventriloquist’s dummy (a shrewd move in that it makes her own acting look less wooden by comparison); or the surgeon (Marino) who deliberately and lethally leaves instruments inside his patients, just “as a goof.” In his own defense he says, “The thing is, you need to understand my sense of humor.” True enough.

So what’s weirder: that he shows up again in the one on coveting thy neighbor’s wife, for a delicate prison-bitch courtship with Rob Corddry, or that the latter piece ends with a prison guard reciting the king’s epilogue from All’s Well That Ends Well?

Or how about the one on honoring thy mother and father, whose tortured setup yields at least this gem of straight-to-camera speechifying: “Who is to say who your father is. Is it the person who raised you? Is it the person who gave you your DNA? Or maybe it’s the guy who hangs out at your house doing an imitation of a famous comedian who is the same race as another famous comedian who is your biological father.” Hard to say why that works. Maybe in part because it actually wasn’t worth waiting for? The Lord works in mysterious ways.

It’s all loosely connected with a stagy, shticky narration by Paul Rudd, who makes the most of what he has and deserves better. (Or maybe not; all the script really requires of him is a marriage to Famke Janssen and an affair with Jessica Alba.) Oh, and there’s a butt-rock-medley musical finale that comes across like the poor man’s Tenacious D. In general, the more slickly produced the episodes are, the cheaper they somehow seem.

Worse, and also predictable, is that the material suffers from a common sketch-comedy affliction—namely, that nobody seemed to want to edit it. Funniness takes timing, which takes tuning, tightening, clarifying and, maybe most importantly, just having sense enough to know when to abort. (Viewers may disagree about which episodes seem like uninspired placeholders, but surely will agree that some do.) It’s fine not to want to squander productive improvisatory energy, but, well, audiences get restless, too.

Script-wise, The Ten never really transcends feeling like a feverish first-draft, sometimes with more evident attention paid to the coordination of intra-episode references than to making each of them consistently funny, let alone even remotely satisfying. Maybe that’s the logical consequence of commitment to the comedic idea that nothing’s sacred. Good thing, then, that it so totally avoids sanctimony. The performers seem impressed with themselves only inasmuch as they don’t seem ashamed.

Not exactly the stone-etched last word on biblical moviemaking, The Ten at least has a rare flair for the non sequitur, and a sassy, spasmodic charm. Too bad it feels morally criminal to find it sometimes hilarious.