Between Two Ferns is reminiscent of those old Chris Farley Show sketches from Saturday Night Live, except with a host who seethes with a barely concealed contempt for his guests.
If you've never seen the popular internet shorts (produced by the humor website Funny or Die), they feature Zach Galifianakis as a celebrity interviewer who broadcasts from a bare-bones set, flanked by the titular houseplants. He brings in uber-famous guests — past appearances have included Natalie Portman, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and even Barack Obama — and proceeds to ask the most inappropriate and downright hostile questions imaginable. And it's really funny.
This film adaptation, now streaming on Netflix, is presented as a faux behind-the-scenes documentary of Galifianakis' "show," which has apparently been broadcasting on a North Carolina public access station for years. Despite dwindling viewership — and a penchant for cringe-inducing tension — Ferns still manages to snag A-list guests. But following an on-set accident that nearly kills Matthew McConaughey, Zach is given an ultimatum by Funny or Die co-founder Will Ferrell (playing himself as a madman obsessed with online clicks and cocaine): If he can produce 10 new episodes of Between Two Ferns, he'll get his own network talk show.
So Zach takes his hapless assistant (Lauren Lapkus), a cameraman and a boom mic operator out on the road, randomly encountering famous people in small-town America while burning through a budget that isn't as bottomless as he thought. Of course, the crew soon becomes stranded and broke, they fight and go their separate ways, only to reconcile at the last possible moment, etc. This is an admittedly thin premise on which to hang a feature film; it's merely an excuse to string together a parade of celebrity cameos with some kind of narrative thread.
And there are a lot of cameos, including (but not limited to) Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, David Letterman, Jon Hamm, Brie Larson, Tessa Thompson, Tiffany Haddish and Benedict Cumberbatch. Most of these appearances are in the movie for sheer star wattage, and part of the joke is that these super-famous people happen to be hanging out in places like Cheyenne, Wyoming. You keep thinking the celebs will play into the plot in unexpected ways, but that doesn't really happen: There's a flimsy gag involving Peter Dinklage and a case of Faberge eggs, and an aborted subplot involving John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, which seems like it's going to generate some much needed tension and conflict but instead ends with a dumb pratfall.
Between Two Ferns: The Movie was written and directed by Scott Aukerman, who co-created Ferns and the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast and TV show. He's a master improviser, and it seems like he followed the make-it-up-as-we-go-along approach here; this creates some welcome spontaneity in places, but it also inspires aimlessness in others. As is the case with just about any feature film adapted from short-form comedy pieces, the premise doesn't work as well at 90 minutes as it does at nine, and its attempts to structure a narrative out of disconnected bits is occasionally laborious.
But this is exactly the kind of film Netflix should be bankrolling: It doesn't necessarily need the big-screen treatment, but it's nonetheless consistently goofy and charming. It's just long enough to fill up an evening — the film proper runs about 75 minutes — but it's also short enough to not wear out its welcome. And it's also one of the rare films in which the end credit outtakes and bloopers might actually be funnier than anything that precedes them. ♦