Film Reviews (2006)  
  Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny  

The saddest part of Liam Lynch’s “Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny” is not that it doesn’t match the inspired gags of the movie it really wants to be, “Wayne’s World”, it’s that all the laughs in Jack Black’s vanity project were claimed years ago—by Black himself in Richard Linklater’s “School of Rock”. Surrounding Black with kids in ‘School’ was perfect because his shambling slob was so obviously on their level. In ‘Pick’ Black has only the dull, prematurely middle-aged Kyle Gass to play off of, and the gleeful vibe goes missing. Ironically contrasting Black’s two rock films, the best sequence in ‘Pick’ involves a kid, as we’re introduced to an adolescent JB as he flees his parents’ repressive home for the garish pastures of Hollywood(s). Young JB electrifies the screen (with a hilarious Dio ex machinus finale) in a way that makes everything that follows seem exhausted and cheerless by comparison. More kids like Linklater’s munchkin rockers would have helped.

This bland sketch comedy tries just hard enough for us to register the effort of the actors, but not hard enough to hazard much more than halfhearted stabs at comedy, and traditional ones at that. One would think the shocking use of an actor as boring and affectless as Gass would be the only joke a director would try and wrest from him, but Lynch actually tries to use him to comic effect, larding every scene with reaction shots of Gass’ face, a cross between a Gerber Baby and an unemployed CPA. The tone is cable access bad. The writing is insufferable, resorting to the steady deployment of the word “cock” as its surest joke. The movie’s set-piece finale, the D’s cataclysmic “rock-off” against Satan, was done far better by The Kids In The Hall. Tim Robbins shows up to give an impression of a German pirate and Ben Stiller offers some celebrity exposition in a stockrom closet; both are wasted (and not in the lame, pot-baked way the movie likes to toss out as if it’s being dangerous). Jack Black, capable of enormous amounts of boyish charm in other movies, does earn sporadic laughs for his manic facial expressions and dead-on imitations of a squealing metal front man.  

The unquestionably talented Black is almost enough to compensate. In the movie’s cleverest bit, JB, tripping on ‘shrooms in a forest, stumbles around touching ground, bushes, and trees, each, as he grasps it, coming to life magically in the Candyland hallucinations swirling in his cooked brain. Climbing a tree is flying, holding a tree trunk is hugging a Sasquatch, etc. Finally, in his vision, JB finds himself merrily flowing down a roaring river of strawberry-water, and Lynch cuts back to JB tumbling down a scary patch of real river rapids. The switch between hallucination and reality is wonderful (where did those rapids come from?). Elsewhere there’s funny randomness: a forlorn JB tries to sleep on a park bench in L.A., down and out with no place to stay. He is attacked by a gang of toughs, dressed for no particular reason like droogs from “A Clockwork Orange”, while KG looks on from the safety of shadows, too cowardly to save his friend. Lynch’s left-field non-sequiter livens up a pretty dull plot point and lends an air of spontaneity to the film. Both of these sequences are reminders of the possibilities of movie sketch comedy when the writers and directors use the medium to jolt the audience’s expectations instead of stretching an already tired premise into a tissue-thin feature.  

Why Lynch, Black and Gass didn’t take the movie less seriously and jump into a string of clever absurdities like the two scenes above is the real question. More than likely they suffer the SNL delusion, which strikes talented sketch performers who make the horribly unfunny mistake of trying to three dimensionalize their stage caricatures. (Tenacious D were excellent in short bursts of HBO.)  Many of these performers, which include Jack Black’s friends in the Mr. Show/Ben Stiller circle, are frozen by a bizarre kind of sentimentalism about their creations, as if held in thrall by the wish to extend that brief moment of triumph when an improv routine suddenly yielded up a pearl. Or maybe Black was simply bored with the D, having waited too long to make this movie. The proper venue for “Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny”, and most of the films of its kind (like the Broken Lizard disasters), are the open mic stages of late-’90s L.A. comedy clubs. Had JB and KG never left their little stage and switched on a stationary minicam they might have treated the world to a wicked little performance film. Instead they profaned their leather-studded gods with an anemic movie too reverential for parody and too half-assed for homage.

If there is an achievement here, it’s that Black and Gass have mirrored perfectly the state of contemporary rock and roll. They would be pleased to know this at first, perhaps, but maybe not so much when they realize it’s the lack of wit, energy, youth, and vitality in their movie that mirrors rock music so effectively. The climax of this dismal, overgrown YouTube video happens in the Rock And Roll Museum for a reason: merely appropriating the relics and iconography of their inspirations, like mallrat pop archaeologists, is enough to satisfy their slacker ambition. Decades of passionate counterculture art interests them only as a kind of immersive eBay shopping spree. Their music, funny as the lyrics often are, amounts to little more than elaborate air guitar. Placing themselves in the pantheon of rock and rollers—at one point, literally making statues of themselves next to wax dummies of singers like David Bowie—is more than enough for JB/KG.   Worst of all, one senses that the dilettantish Liam Lynch himself was doing behind the camera what JB and KG were doing in front. “Look, I’m rockin’ this steadicam!  Hey, I’ve got this killer director’s chair!  Check out this rad boom mic!”  For all concerned, may their next gig be unplugged.