Movie Review Monday: “Universal Remote”

Contemporary social theorists (as many people are, by nature) know about the “uncomfortable conversations,” the dialogues that plainly address divides in American culture whether racial, religious, sexual, or any combination thereof. Comedy often serves as the buffer between the fears and insecurities inherent to the human condition and the society in which these fears and insecurities manifest daily.

“Chappelle’s Show” is the most recent successful attempt at satirizing social paradigms in a universally accessible way. The Comedy Central hit set the bar extremely high as far as unapologetic—but smart—sketches about race that turn social constructs on their collective, metaphorical head. So any resemblance to the tone and humor of “Chappelle’s Show” is to be respected for the effort alone.

Behold the film “Universal Remote:” the most epic fail at a vignette-based satire that I’ve ever seen. Writer/director Gary Hardwick presents this collection of socially charged sketches as programming on a network in an alternate reality. Two dull-witted friends acquire a television that sucks them inside of it, and they spend the entire movie. They unknowingly traverse the various programs that the UR Network airs, trying to escape. Whether the friends find their way back home almost instantly proves unimportant in the scope of the film, as the audacity of the sketches overwhelms the initial premise.

Hardwick gets credit for the consistent daring that his sketches exhibit. But, although some of the premises are provocative (e.g., gay crime families, Jesus’s forgotten brother, vampires angry about human overmedication), the troubles routinely come in the execution. In work where, at the very least, the audience should ‘see what you did there,’ it’s a bad sign when, instead, a viewer thinks, “Really? That’s what you went with?”

The clearest attempt at satirizing race in America was a sketch featuring a game show called ‘My Last Nerve.’ The contestants on this show answer questions to which all of the answers are offensive racial stereotypes. During the game, the black contestant has more comfort answering the questions than his white opponent, who cannot believe the nature of the responses. However, the competition heats up when the white contestant abandons her propriety to avoid being slapped for not answering with offensive responses:

Host: What’s the most confusing day in the ghetto?

White contestant: Father’s Day!

The button of the sketch comes when the white contestant answers the final question (“Why can’t the races get along?”) with a sensible theory about human fear and insecurity. The host scores her answer as correct, and, to everyone’s surprise, she wins the game. Unfortunately, the sketch, with its over-the-top politically incorrectness juxtaposed with one thoughtful moment, lacks the sophistication that even the most base satire finds a way to champion.

Otherwise, structural issues with the movie that deviate so far from the already loose premise force it the movie to take on a thrown-together patchwork feel. As the sketches continue, viewers get the impression that one guy (Hardwick) had a bunch of ideas for sketches that he thought were funny and wanted to put them all into a movie, regardless of how thematically related they were.

One example of such shoehorning is the sketch about Jesus’s brother. A voiceover introduces the program as a children’s show that was pulled off the air mid-broadcast (suggesting something edgy is on the way). Then the intro goes on to explain that this ensuing show is ‘the untold story of James, the brother of Jesus.’ “Interesting,” I thought.

Unfortunately, the show bombards the audience with jokes about how magical Jesus is (complete with laugh track). And to fully honor the spirit of hokey sitcoms, the sketch even uses a freeze frame of God’s son that reads, ‘That Darn Jesus.’ This focus hardly keeps the promise of the untold story of Jesus’s brother. ‘That Darn Jesus’ completely misses the mark, failing to amuse the audience that, when presented the premise, says, “Yeah, what if Jesus did have a brother? Wouldn’t that be funny?” Apparently not, if Gary Hardwick has anything to do with it.

“Universal Remote” is further proof that movies wherein the writer and director are the same person can be a dicey enterprise. One thing the movie isn’t short on is talent. Nothing was particularly annoying about the actors themselves. Instead, the writing demanded a lot of the people charged with delivering what was in the script. And with the presence of proven comedians such as Dean Edwards (Saturday Night Live), Phil LaMarr (Mad TV), Charlie Murphy (Chappelle’s Show) and Affion Crockett (google him), there is no way that the actors can be blamed for the failure of this project. The more likely story is that “Universal Remote” sounded like a good idea (especially since it was a paying gig), and then it turned out to be “Universal Remote.”

The one admirable element of the movie would be its production value. Every shot is crisp and full of color. The irony lies in how worthless a movie “Universal Remote” turned out to be. Had it a more raw and gritty look, I wouldn’t have sat through the hour eighteen minutes that felt more like two and a half hours.

But at least this review came out of the experience. And now you don’t have to bother with watching the movie. At least the ideal satirical merit of “Chappelle’s Show” now has a polar opposite example of what not to do. And so we push on.

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