Zach Galifianakis as Himself
Will Ferrell as Himself
Lauren Lapkus as Carol
Ryan Gaul as Cam
Jiavani Linayao as Boom Boom
Benedict Cumberbatch as Himself
Brie Larson as Herself
Matthew McConaughey as Himself
Peter Dinklage as Himself
Paul Rudd as Himself
Tiffany Haddish as Herself
Keanu Reeves as Himself
Jon Hamm as Himself
Jason Schwartzman as Himself
Adam Scott as Himself
John Cho as Himself
Chance the Rapper as Himself
Rashida Jones as Herself
Hailee Steinfeld as Herself
John Legend as Himself
Chrissy Teigen as Herself
Tessa Thompson as Herself
Writer (story by)
“Between Two Ferns: The Movie” is one of the most amiable comedies of the year, even if it includes a joke where Zach Galifianakis asks a question out loud about Benedict Cumberbatch’s unusual mug—right to the Oscar-nominated actor’s face. A question like that is in such poor taste that it’s ridiculous, and that’s exactly why it’s funny. It’s all within the greatness of Galifianakis’ long-running “Funny or Die” web series, which uses a fern-adorned talk show set for an insult comedy trap, with famous guests (past episodes have included Charlize Theron, Bradley Cooper, Tila Tequila, President Barack Obama, et al) who don’t know what they’re in for. It’s antagonistic comedy that’s brilliantly designed so that nobody actually gets hurt.
Director Scott Aukerman (co-creator of the original show) takes what’s made the series so extremely funny and lovingly expands it into a feature film, in a way that would make all those ‘90s “Saturday Night Live” movies envious. Aukerman (with co-story credit going to Galifianakis) gives fans what they want, and then wraps it up in a sweet, fleet story, where the awkward comedy becomes accessible, if not bizarrely charming. Its main narrative about a ragtag team on a road trip can’t compete with whenever Galifianakis is sitting between his two ferns, but then again, nothing else from a comedy this year will likely be able to top it, either.
Without going deep into his psychosis, Zach is painted as an underdog, whose obsession with attempting to tear down famous people is what makes him a lovable dummy, instead of plainly toxic. He doesn’t have the same innate need in real-life talk show hosts to uphold celebs, which renders the premise even funnier—Zach dreams of being a “big network TV personality” like Jay Leno, but is stuck doing his show for southeastern North Carolina public access. Will Ferrell (playing himself as a sleazy Funny or Die head honcho) offers to make that a reality, but only if Zach can deliver ten episodes within two weeks. Ferrell knows the appeal of Galifianakis—“People are laughing at him, not with him”—and that it can get him clicks, which Ferrell talks about with the same zeal as cocaine.
After the TV station is destroyed during a freak plumbing accident (which happens not long after Zach asks Keanu Reeves if he knows more than 18 words) Zach ventures across America to bring the interviews to the celebrities, including the likes of Paul Rudd, Tiffany Haddish, and Jon Hamm. Joining Zach and his beloved two ferns are his small TV crew, played by Lauren Lapkus, Jiavani Linayao, and Ryan Gaul—rising funny people in real life. As the plot moves them from city to city, their brief bonding scenes prove funnier than your average improv-driven studio comedy, thanks to the film’s unpredictable sense of humor. In one stand out moment, “Between Two Ferns” sneaks in a hilarious throwaway line from Lapkus about Jake Gyllenhaal, and then right after that, Chrissy Teigen makes a mind-blowing reference to Richard Kelly’s “The Box.” “Between Two Ferns” zips from one joke to the next, without ever looking like it’s trying too hard.
For fans of Zach Galifianakis’s celebrity interview web series Between Two Ferns, it seemed obvious a movie adaptation shouldn’t work in any regard. The formula that made the original run such a palpable hit—its madcap editing style and brevity (knowing when to get out of dodge)—simply can’t be blown up to an hour and a half. So when Netflix announced Between Two Ferns: The Movie, the reaction was understandably: polite consternation.
Just about everyone is a fan of the Funny Or Die sketches, too, in which Galifianakis uses his tandem attributes of deadpan charm and fearlessness to insult A-list actors to their faces. Even though we all know it’s in good fun, there’s always something refreshing about seeing game celebrities agreeing to face their most frequent genuine criticisms, relayed by the overnight star of The Hangover. Some handle it better than others (self-aware comedy kings Jon Hamm and Keanu Reeves show up in the film, obviously, no strangers to allowing fun to be poked whenever possible). That lays the groundwork for the movie, which includes plenty of the tried-and-true Between Two Ferns format, but wrapping it up within a mockumentary road trip comedy.
The plot, as if such a thing really matters, is that Galifianakis has grown tired of alienating himself and his peers on public access television (in the movie’s world, Funny Or Die founder Will Ferrell discovered the TV show and uploaded episodes without permission) and asks Ferrell for a “fancy network talk show” of his own. Ferrell agrees, as long as Galifianakis can deliver ten episodes of Between Two Ferns to the FoD headquarters in L.A. in two week’s time. The studio where the show’s normally shot has been destroyed after a burst pipe led to its flooding—and Matthew McConaughey having a near-death experience—so Ferns goes on the road.
Expanding the universe of the show to include those behind the camera doesn’t always go well (see: The Office’s final season, in which Jim and Pam’s marriage is weakly tested for like the hundredth time by a hunky camera guy) but the talent Between Two Ferns recruits are, thankfully, across-the-board welcome additions. Lauren Lapkus as Galifianakis’s producer and assistant (“I call her ‘the getter,'” Galifiankis tells the camera early on, “She just gets it. She gets me, and then sometimes she actually… gets me things.”) is a shot of positivity in what could have been an off-putting, cynical, inside-baseball kind of movie. Indie comedy standout Rekha Shankar also gets a great platform as the director of the student film following the Between Two Ferns road trip.
Written and directed by Comedy Bang Bang’s Scott Aukerman, the film is naturally irreverent as all hell. Don’t look for true character arcs or a serious third-act turn, but the incessantly flip comedian leaves room for a warm beat or two among the many, many “bits” that fill the script during and between its hosts interviews.
Yes, this is a movie but it’s also still Between Two Ferns, which means a delightfully pathological reliance on insulting artists at the top of their craft is still mission number one. Chrissy Teigen and John Legend get their own mini-story within the story, and there are some all-timer jokes in BTF segments with the likes of Awkwafina, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brie Larson, and Hailee Steinfeld. A lot of the fun of this movie is, obviously, gaping at the A-listers who agreed to this, so I’ll leave the rest as a nice surprise.