Anyone who’s ever plummeted down the rabbit hole of after-hours television knows there’s a goldmine of unintentional comedy waiting at the bottom. But it’s not as easy as Adult Swim makes it look, clowning on this twilight zone of programming. The challenge is that some of the funniest things you might stumble upon in the wee hours of the night/morning—infomercials, public-access talk shows, grade-Z movies—already sort of function as parodies of themselves, to the point where adding an overtly comedic spin can feel like overkill, neutralizing the pleasures with too many winks and nudges. There’s certainly an excess of self-awareness in VHYes, a funky new found-footage comedy that devotes long stretches of its skimpy running time to spoofing insomniac-courting content, specifically of the late 1980s. Director and cowriter Jack Henry Robbins gets some of the sonic-visual language right—the font choices, for example, are mostly perfect. But he also gilds the lily a little too often, punching up his tributes with ostentatious appearances by comedy ringers and absurdist punchlines. It’s a bit like putting a hat on a hat.
Robbins’ nostalgia extends past the weirder graveyard-shift time slot fillers of the late Reagan years, to one of their burgeoning technologies. As its title teases, VHYes is also a tribute to VHS—namely, to the moment when access to commercial camcorders turned the whole country into amateur documentarians and exhibitionists. Set over the week between Christmas and New Year’s of 1987, and mostly shot on its eponymous format (there’s some Betamax, too), the film adopts the narrative framework of a video diary. Twelve-year-old Ralph (Mason McNulty) uses the new family camera both to capture his own adolescent hijinks and to record some of the stuff he finds on television. Very early on, we learn that the tape he’s using is, whoops, his parents’ wedding video; as in Cloverfield, there are little blips of romantic bliss spliced throughout. These turn increasingly bittersweet as it becomes clear, through Ralph’s footage, that his mom and dad are growing apart, their marriage collapsing on the periphery of the frame.
Although this storyline provides VHYes with some bare-bones pathos, most of the movie is, again, made up snippets of fake TV, from an amusingly violent commercial for a home-security system to the kind of zero-budget basement music-buff showcase that SNL lampooned with Wayne’s World. There is, in general, a sketch-TV quality to the project, which grew out of a pair of unrelated short films—one an outrageously phony porno, the other a Bob Ross-style painting show, both included and expanded here. Some of the styles of programming are more convincingly replicated than others, and as with most omnibus comedy, mileage may vary on the actual jokes: To these eyes, Thomas Lennon as a slimeball QVC host making barely coded sales pitches to drug dealers is pretty funny, while the aforementioned softcore spoof overplays the bad acting of erotica— a prime example of the film exaggerating something that didn’t require exaggeration. Meanwhile, some of the target demo of ’80s-era pop culture archivists may balk at the anachronisms, like an Antiques Roadshow parody a full decade ahead of schedule and a string of f-bombs that never would have made it to air. Also, what’s with stopping the movie cold to let Weyes Blood, who wasn’t even alive in ’87, perform an entire song?
Robbins, son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (both cameo, naturally), does have a message to shoehorn in: He sees the dawn of the VHS heyday as the first glimmer of our current age of “tape narcissism,” portending an era that’s already arrived, a dark present-future when the “real world will exist to be filmed.” Is that a valuable counterbalance to his retro fetish or just a hypocritically didactic point to make in a comedy built on nostalgia for a childhood spent behind and in front of the lens? Either way, the real problem with VHYes may be that its two modes don’t work well together. There’s a modest, sweet film here about a boy starting to process his parents’ impending divorce while just goofing off with some new tech; never is the movie more charming than when simply presenting the mundane subjects of his filmmaking curiosities: a spider web, a watermelon feebly smashed, a firework lit but unsuccessfully caught on tape. (One of Robbins’ better running jokes is Ralph’s failure to know when the camera is on or off.) Unfortunately, this handheld coming-of-age story is frequently interrupted by variably convincing stretches of channel surfing, as though someone recorded over much of the former with the latter. And even with pros like Charlyne Yi and Kerri Kenney lending their deadpan chops, real weird TV is funnier. Weirder, too.