Cinema: ‘Between Two Ferns’ Is Exactly What You Expect

There is absolutely no need to try and read between the lines for Between Two Ferns: The Movie (Scott Aukerman 2019). Everything is clearly laid out from the first second to the after credits scene. This film is either a quick and quippy satire on Hollywood “behind the scenes” industry, or a cheap gimmick to garner attention and money on an old joke. Most likely, it’s a mixture of the two.

In the film, Zach Galifianakis (himself) is obsessed with his childhood dream of becoming a network late-night talk show host. His boss, Will Ferrell (himself), gives him one final opportunity after Galifianakis accidentally “kind of” murders guest Matthew McConaughey (himself). Galifianakis has two weeks to travel across country and score ten interviews with various celebrities and submit the tapes to Ferrell. Joining him, is his faithful but frustrated crew: assistant Carol (Lauren Lapkus), cameraman Cam (Ryan Gaul), and boom operator Boom Boom (Jiavani Linayao). Simultaneous to all of this, Galifianakis has film students run 24/7 surveillance on him for a documentary, hence the shakiness and prevalence of the camera.

Between Two Ferns is lighthearted but unnecessary. The humor balances between short and clever barbs to juvenile penis jokes. There is little to no conflict and the film plays out more like a scavenger hunt for who can recognize the most celebrities and the rumored jokes about them. However, the film is at its best during the interview scenes of the various celebrities. Prior to being a Netflix film, Between Two Ferns was an internet series starring Galifianakis and a celebrity guest. In a parody of actual talk shows, Galifianakis spent the entire interview asking uncomfortable questions or just generally annoying his guest. It was intentional and obviously scripted, but a pleasant deviation from the glitz and glam of other interviews. All of this is relevant to the film, since it blends both real life events and characters with Galafianakis’ fictional aspiration and crew.

What made the web series so successful was that it was simple. Between Two Ferns: The Movie is simple as well, but not in a good way. The plot is barely present and there is little to no sense of conflict. While the film does an admirable job at poking fun at other “find yourself” or “indie road trip” films, it is not enough to warrant actual praise. Like most parodies, character personalities and situations are exaggerated and flamboyant, but this clashes with the slightly more elegant humor of the fake interviews. It would have been better to just release more episodes of the web series. Not to say that the film isn’t funny – there’s definitely a chuckle or two hiding in there – but it feels stale in comparison to what it could have been. Where the series won two Emmy awards, the film fails to win anything beyond minimal attention.

In Between Two Ferns, the film adopts a mockumentary type style. Think of Michael Schur shows like Parks and Rec or Brooklyn 99 or other zany shows such as Arrested Development and it’s understood just what Between Two Ferns was trying to accomplish. Several times, characters even stare directly into the camera just like The Office. Unfortunately, those shows had both a sense of clever humor and a relevant plot; Between Two Ferns can barely claim to have one of those. While understandably a satire of both Hollywood culture and film, it feels too sudden. The climax or low point doesn’t register as intense – because (spoiler) it’s not – because there’s not much of a plot to begin with. An amusing distraction, but directionless.

At the very least, the film is self-aware. Beyond the fake documentary itself, there are several references to the film, the web series, or the material that it mocks. For instance, during the title sequence, the credits enlarge to a wider screen as a reference to the fact that this is now a movie, not a web series. At the end, Galifianakis tries his best to emulate the behavior of an actual late-night talk show host, dancing and forced audience laughter included, but it feels surprisingly more awkward than his regular style. It calls to mind the fake intimacy between hosts and their guests and the plethora of regurgitated stories and artificial emotions therein. Well done on that front.

This is a film for those who love celebrities or love to hate them. Don’t watch this expecting the same level of wit as the web series. Instead, keep expectations low and the film will try not to disappoint.