This Looks Terrible! Hell and Back (2015)
I probably should have covered the abysmal 2015 stop motion animated supernatural dark comedy Hell and Back in My World of Flops, since it grossed a pathetic 157,768 dollars after opening in 411 theaters. That is a flop any way you cut it but I have such intense disdain for this profane non-entity that I don’t think it’s worthy of being included in a column that has featured such apogees of human imagination as Freddy Got Fingered and the Atlas Shrugged trilogy.
So I’ve decided to cover it for This Looks Terrible! even though the movie actually looks borderline amazing on paper. When I read that a stop-motion animated supernatural comedy featuring Bob Odenkirk as the devil and a voice cast that includes Paul F. Tompkins, Maria Bamford, Mila Kunis, Susan Sarandon, H Jon Benjamin, Danny McBride, Rob Riggle, Jennifer Coolidge and Kumail Nanjani in addition to pretty much every comedian in Los Angeles had flopped on a historical level, I thought the movie couldn’t possibly be as bad as its reception suggested.
I was wrong. Oh, but how I was wrong! Hell and Back is a rancid, potty-mouthed embarrassment so unbearably, unnecessarily crude and ugly that it makes Sausage Party look like The Fantastic Mr. Fox by comparison. It’s a movie for people for whom the concept of a blob of Claymation saying “shit” or “fuck” is comic gold that can never get old or wear out its welcome, instead growing in richness and hilarity with each loving repetition.
Hell and Back begins with a set of strengths—lovingly meticulous stop motion animation, an exceedingly promising setting that alternates between a rundown carnival and the bowels of hell, an astonishingly overqualified voice cast—then proceeds to make an endless series of mistakes.
The miscalculations begin with making the movie a vehicle for the voices, and personas, and sensibilities of Nick Swardson and T.J Miller. I think both men are funny and have done good work in the past but sweet fucking lord are they ever nails-on-chalkboard irritating as “personalities.” It’s the egregiously annoying side of Swardson and Miller we get to experience through their lead roles (no!) as, respectively, Remy and Augie, shiftless friends whose lives revolve around a rundown carnival in danger of going out of business after the bank decides to foreclose on it.
Miller and Swardson have made me laugh before. I'm sure they'll make me laugh again. Well, probably not Miller at this point. I'm on record as enjoying Swardson in Grandma's Boy. But I'm pretty much over both of them, particularly Miller. When he decided he was over Silicon Valley, I pretty much decided I was over him.
When their friend and carnival cohort Curt (Rob Riggle) is sucked into hell, these two unlikely heroes venture into the underworld to rescue him from the Devil (Bob Odenkirk), an overworked, middle-management type desperately in love with a sexy Angel voiced by Susan Sarandon. Just about everyone in Hell and Back is better than the material deserves, with the unfortunate and very glaring exception of its two leads, but they all pretty much come from the Los Angeles comedy/podcasting world, so the horrific waste of comic talent is at least highly centralized in one particular community in one city. Sarandon isn’t part of that community. I doubt she’s spent so much as a single night in a comedy condo, nor made it weird with Pete Holmes even a single time, but as her last several years of political statements have illustrated, late-period Susan Sarandon has some astonishingly poor judgment when it comes to, well, everything.
As a Juggalo, carnivals and hell occupy a special place within my heart. Carnivals because they are the central metaphor of Juggalo ideology and spirituality, and Hell because that’s where all the people who are straight up hating on Insane Clown Posse are destined to spend eternity. We’re talking Hell’s Pit, Ninja! Whoop Whoop! And I love many of the performers here, including Danny McBride, who voices Orpheus, a figure of Greek legend, a musician, the father of a half-demon and, perhaps most importantly, as far as the film is concerned, a survivor of tree rape. Yes, tree rape. Hell and Back might look like the L.A Stand-Up Comedy All-Stars ad-libbing their way through a shittier Monkeybone but it’s really all about tree rape, a subject the earlier film was too timid and PG-13 rated to explore with the loving depth Hell and Back does.
Hell and Back adds at least one new wrinkle to the pantheon of the Gay Panic Joke, that distressingly pervasive crutch of lazy contemporary comedy. There have been lots and lots of jokes involving heterosexual men either being anally violated or forced to perform something akin to fellatio but Hell and Back might just be the only comedy with the courage to devote a distressingly large amount of its runtime to a running gag involving Orpheus being anally violated by a sentient tree.
This is no throwaway joke. Nope, in Hell and Back’s puerile mind, it’s a keeper. It’s a comedy jackpot that needs to be lovingly tended to throughout the film, whether that means that we actually meet the sentient tree that anally violated Orpheus (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) or Orpheus favoring us with a trembling ballad about the experience of being sodomized by a giant mass of wood and branches.
Oh boy is Hell and Back ever in love with its getting-raped-by-a-tree gags. It really wants to go down in comedy history as the film that first realized the breathtaking comic potential of a heterosexual man’s anus being stretched and abused in a violent and disturbing way not by the penis of a man or the strap-on of a woman but rather by the branches of a living tree.
As a supernatural stop-motion animated comedy with an amazing voice cast full of ringers, Hell and Back is an enormous failure. As a tree rape comedy, however, Hell and Back got exactly the reception it deserved.
I’ve written before that funny justifies and forgives just about anything. If something provides big, bold, explosive laughs it can get away with being incredibly offensive and wrong. Unfunny, it consequently follows, excuses and forgives nothing. That’s true of Hell and Back.
Late in the film, for example, Orpheus, the tree rape survivor voiced by Danny McBride, tries to transform an emotional moment of connection with his half-human, half-demon daughter into sex. If the movie were at all funny or original, the transgressive naughtiness of this moment might be shocking as well as chuckle-inducing.
But Hell and Back is never funny and because the voice cast were clearly encouraged to go as naughty and dark and sexual and profane as possible, the film’s naughtiness ends up feeling dispiritedly predictable. It’d be a bigger surprise if a character displayed genuine honor or decency, anything that might deviate from the film’s unrelenting emphasis on juvenile shock.
On Mr. Show, Bob Odenkirk established himself as a poet of profanity, a Jedi Master of blinding rage. The secret was that Odenkirk would only swear if it was absolutely necessary and made whatever sketch he was in funnier. Odenkirk would only curse if it was absolutely essential. To paraphrase the conventional wisdom on jazz, it wasn’t the curse words Odenkirk said that counted; it was the ones he didn’t.
So one of the many dispiriting and depressing elements of Hell and Back lies in watching one of the greatest swearers in the history of comedy toss around shits and fucks so glibly and gratuitously that they lose all meaning.
That is just a goddamn shame. Motherfuckers straight up threaten to ruin profanity. It’s not a good sign that Hell and Back’s two greatest strengths are stop-motion animation and wall-to-wall profanity and I found myself wishing I was wishing an edited-for-cable version of Hell and Back or some magical PG-13 version of the film that’s half as long and would probably still be terrible, but at least in a less oppressively nasty way.
Stop motion animation is a famously labor-intensive, laborious and obsessive endeavor. An almost superhuman level of work and care goes into every sequence, every movement, every fantastical new world. It’s just a goddamn shame so little thought went into the writing and performances of Hell and Back.
Hell and Back is just a goddamn waste and a goddamn shame. Let’s just say that it captures the essence of what it would be like to spend some time in the bowels of hell with T.J Miller and Nick Swardson all too vividly.
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