Netflix’s “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” is the inspiring story of a man, two plants and a dream.
For the uninitiated, the “Between Two Ferns” series may be the most famous videos on Funny or Die, not counting the one where a toddler cusses out Will Ferrell. Zach Galifianakis plays a version of himself, an awkward cable access talk show host who subjects celebrities like Brad Pitt and Barack Obama to uncomfortable, insulting questions. Like the Jiminy Glick of streaming content, it’s unclear whether Galifianakis harbors actual ill will toward his much-more-famous interviewees or is just socially inept.
Now, “Comedy Bang Bang” host Scott Aukerman, who created “Ferns" with Galifianakis a decade ago, has expanded “Between Two Ferns” into a feature film, premiering Friday on Netflix. It’s a very funny movie that builds on the essential appeal of the web series — making fun of famous people used to being fawned over — with the improvisational silliness that’s the bread and butter of “Bang Bang.”
Written and directed by Aukerman, the film answers some not-particularly-burning questions raised by the series, such as: Where are these interviews being filmed? Why do the celebrities agree to do them? Are the ferns real or fake? In the movie, Galifianakis is working at a small cable access station in North Carolina, but his real benefactor is Ferrell, who supposedly blackmails his famous friends into doing the interviews to get clicks for Funny or Die.
When the station’s studio gets destroyed in a Matthew McConaughey interview gone awry, Ferrell delivers an ultimatum to Galifianakis. Record 10 new celebrity interviews and bring it to Los Angeles in two weeks, and Galifianakis will get his own network talk show, his dream come true. “I’m a white male, and I’m straight,” Galifianakis says. “I deserve it.”
So Galifianakis, his beloved two ferns, and his mystifyingly loyal crew, played by Lauren Lapkus, Ryan Gaul and Jiavani Linayao, hit the road for a cross-country celeb hunt. One of the best running jokes of the movie is the idea that the best place to find celebrities isn’t New York or Los Angeles, but small cities like Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. (Jon Hamm is found doing an autograph signing at a small Kansas church.)
Of the celebrities, David Letterman, Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Dinklage have the best segments, although John Legend projects an air of cheerful menace in his scene. The impression I get from the outtakes that play during the closing credits is that the celebrities are in on the joke, but don’t know what questions they’ll get beforehand. So Keanu Reeves’ reaction to being asked “On a scale of 1 to 100, how many words do you know?" may have the ring of authenticity.
The mix of road-movie mishaps and celebrity interviews gives “Between Two Ferns” a snappy and satisfying rhythm, and that the scenes are largely improvised gives the movie a distinctive let’s-see-what-works energy. It’s a lot of fun, but I hope the movie’s existence doesn’t mean that Aukerman and Galifianakis will stop making “Between Two Ferns” videos. Americans love their celebrities, but we love seeing them being insulted to their faces even more.
Also on streaming: With Indian movies becoming a bigger and bigger segment of the theatrical box office in the United States, it’s not surprising that streaming services are tapping in to that audience as well. On Friday, Amazon Video is launching its new 10-part series “The Family Man,” a thriller starring Manoj Bajpayhee as a middle-class dad who is also a counterterrorism agent.
Netflix’s “Criminal,” which premieres Friday, is four shows in one, in a way. The series takes place in the interrogation room of a police station, in which detectives and suspects match wits over an unsolved case.
The trick is that there are four different versions of “Criminal,” each from different countries with their own cast. For example, David Tennant and Hayley Atwell star in the British version of “Criminal,” while Nathalie Baye and Jeremie Renier star in the French version. While the shows are all run by the same creators, having different writers and directors makes the resulting drama specific to each country. You can watch all four on Netflix and compare for yourself.