Whenever a beloved TV or web show is adapted into a movie, it’s natural to have some reservations about its level of quality. For every creative success like “21 Jump Street” and “The Simpsons Movie,” there are flops that tarnish the legacy of its source program, such as “Baywatch” and “The Last Airbender.”
“Between Two Ferns: The Movie,” a Netflix original film released on Sept. 20, that’s based on Funny or Die’s popular web series “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis,” falls somewhere in the middle.
For those unfamiliar with the series, it takes the form of an extremely low-budget talk show, where a rude Galifianakis insultingly “interviews” celebrity guests while placed between two ferns (as the title suggests).
The show originated in 2008 as a short film on Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter’s sketch pilot, “The Right Now! Show,” which was never picked up for a series. It soon transitioned to a web series on comedy video website Funny or Die with roughly three- to six-minute-long episodes. The show has been nominated for three Emmy Awards, winning two for Outstanding Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program.
If you’re thinking this may not seem like much to base a movie off of, you would be mostly right. But when I first heard this project’s premise, I was intrigued by its potential.
It’s a mockumentary following a fictional version of Galifianakis who never broke into Hollywood as the successful actor he is in real life. Instead, he hosts the show “Between Two Ferns,” which he records at the Flinch Public Access TV studio in North Carolina (Galifianakis’ real-life home state). A greedy, drug-addicted version of Will Ferrell runs “Funny Or Die” and airs the show on his website as his big moneymaker.
When the studio is accidentally destroyed, Galifianakis is forced to go on the road and interview 10 celebrities around the country to fulfill his contract with Ferrell. In return, Ferrell says he’ll give Galifianakis his dream job as a late-night TV host.
The first 20 minutes or so of “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” set up the premise of the film nicely. The audience is introduced to this scumbag-with-a-heart version of Galifianakis, presented as largely disliked by his peers. The previously unseen crew for “Between Two Ferns” is also introduced: Carol, his naive assistant; Cam, the grumpy cameraman; and Boom Boom, the audio editor who keeps getting hit on by the celebrity guests.
With the mockumentary style, workplace setting and foolhardy boss, the film feels very much like “The Office” at first — funny, awkward and sweet. But once the studio is destroyed and Galifianakis and his crew hit the road, the movie steadily gets less interesting.
The celebrity interviews are the best part of the film, as a parade of A-listers like Keanu Reeves, Chance the Rapper, Matthew McConaughey, Brie Larson and more appear on Galifianakis’ show to get insulted by the incompetent host. These bits stay true to the original “Between Two Ferns” series, creating offbeat, awkward moments that work quite well.
Unfortunately, these moments can’t completely salvage the rest of the movie, which quickly outstayed its welcome. After the merry band of misfits hits the road, the rest of the movie is split between those 10 celebrity interviews and showing how the crew gets to each one.
These segments are not particularly interesting or funny, as most of the time is spent on developing the relationships between Galifianakis and his crew. These fall flat because Carol, Cam and Boom Boom simply aren’t compelling characters; each has only one or two defining characteristics, making them mostly one-dimensional.
Whenever the movie shifts away from the celebrity guests and toward the main characters, it immediately becomes a less interesting experience. And since a lot of the movie after the first 20 minutes is focused on those characters, the plot gradually unravels into a boring slog.
While the movie doesn’t tarnish the legacy of its source, largely due to strong writing in the interview segments and amusing performances from Galifianakis and his fellow celebrities, it wound up being not nearly as good as its first 20 minutes suggested. If you’re a fan of “Between Two Ferns,” I think you’ll enjoy the film overall based on the hilarious interviews alone. Otherwise, you would probably be better off spending your time on just about anything else in Netflix’s library.