How many directors does it take to screw in a star-studded piece of aggressive stupidity and call it a movie? An even dozen, and there is no punch line.
Comic payoffs are MIA in the bad-taste extravaganza "Movie 43," a monumental missed opportunity of a comedy anthology that opened Friday, understandably without screening first for press.
The one-joke shorts include a few successful sight gags, chief among them Dennis Quaid in boy-band hair and a hoodie. He plays a has-been filmmaker whose desperate pitch to a put-upon studio exec (Greg Kinnear) forms the flimsy connective tissue between the 14 sketches.
That wraparound bit and two of the more promising shorts were directed by Peter Farrelly, the ringleader, along with producer Charles Wessler, of this astonishingly long-in-the-works project. There may be giddy promise in the idea of planting tony actors in lowdown and nasty low-budget comedy, but here their willingness to play along is more dispiriting than entertaining. The flat lighting of many of the shorts only adds to the mood of cheerless crud.
The star power does click, however, in the first short, Farrelly's "The Catch," which finds the lofty duo of Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman playing Manhattanites on a blind date. Winslet seems to be the only one in the restaurant who notices Mr. Perfect's shocking anatomical anomaly, and even as the bit devolves into queasy-making variations on a theme, Winslet and Jackman play it straight for all it's worth.
The third Farrelly-helmed short also concerns a blind date, pairing Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant in a game of truth or dare that escalates into extreme juvenile high jinks before a last-gasp fade-out.
The supposedly bold chances the assembled filmmakers take are mainly on the level of adolescent prank, and teen boys would seem to be the target audience, notwithstanding the movie's R rating. Aiming for the low comic bar wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the shorts had any energy, but "Movie 43" is notable for its off timing and lack of snap.
Only one contribution, Jonathan van Tulleken's black-and-white faux commercial "Machine Kids," captures the essence of the short form. It's also as out of place among the scatology and mean-spirited inanity as a scene from Bergman.
Indicative of how profoundly the movie has missed the boat is an intended "bonus" short that serves only to cast a final pall over the whole mess, with Elizabeth Banks facing off against her boyfriend's perversely jealous cartoon cat. (Banks also happens to have directed one of the better segments, featuring Chloe Grace Moretz and using the occasion of a seventh-grader's first period as a showcase for male hysteria.)
Two real-life couples strike out big time: Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber as the world's worst homeschoolers, and Chris Pratt and Anna Faris, going for the coprophiliac gross-out gold. Kieran Culkin and Emma Stone fare marginally better as exes whose smut-talk isn't as private as they think, or as funny as the filmmakers believe, although director Griffin Dunne does get the drugstore setting's soul-crushing Muzak atmosphere.
Also subscribing to the misconception that famous actors in foul-mouthed mode is a sure thing of a side-splitter is the testosterone-heavy idiocy of Brett Ratner's segment, which goes to the trouble of pitting two dimwits (Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott) against a badass leprechaun (a digitally shortened Gerard Butler).
Aimed-for satire is a no-go in "iBabe," a tech take on vagina dentata — MP3 player in the form of life-size naked woman! — although Richard Gere's dolt of a CEO has a nice PowerPoint for Idiots moment. And in a good-looking but overextended sports-drama send-up, Terrence Howard gives the one-note material his all.
Not last but certainly among the least, "Super Hero Speed Dating," with a cast of many, is limply executed from start to finish, complete with recycled hair-gel bit from "There's Something About Mary." Fifteen years after that Farrelly brothers hit arrived as a blast of fresh air, "Movie 43" begins its theatrical run as a fetid inversion layer. Is it any wonder that Quaid's wild-eyed wacko tries to fast-track his attempt at a comeback by way of hand grenade?
MPAA rating: R for strong pervasive crude and sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, language, some violence and drug use
Runnng time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: In general release