Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jean-Claude Van Damme can’t quite salvage the comedy Welcome To The Jungle

Illustration for article titled Jean-Claude Van Damme can’t quite salvage the comedy Welcome To The Jungle

Like too many modern comedies, Welcome To The Jungle makes the mistake of turning its straightmen—an ad agency nobody (Adam Brody) and his workplace crush (Megan Boone)—into viewer surrogates whose main purpose is to say, out loud, that what they’re seeing is strange, nonsensical, or unfair. An effective straightman should be a participant in the comedy, not merely a sideline commentator; underreaction and bemusement tend to be funnier than overreaction and over-explanation. Chris (Brody) and Lisa (Boone), however, are only there to state the kookiness and idiocy of the people surrounding them; their dialogue is peppered with variations of “Why did you do that?”

In the film, Chris and Lisa are sent along with their co-workers on a team-building weekend retreat overseen by motivational speaker/survival expert Storm Rothschild (a scene-stealing Jean-Claude Van Damme). Within a day of arriving on a remote island, the group find themselves marooned. Most of Chris and Lisa’s co-workers accidentally consume a local hallucinogenic and form a tribal society—complete with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome costumes—ruled by smarmy agency superstar Phil (Rob Huebel), who now goes by “Orco” and is worshipped by the other employees as a living god.

In spite of the corporate-culture-turned-cargo-cult setup, Welcome To The Jungle’s humor is more absurdist than satirical. Early on, after Phil steals Chris’ pitch for a toilet paper company mascot, their boss (a very game Dennis Haysbert) relates a bizarre anecdote about how for years he believed that he had invented the BLT sandwich. In another scene, rabbit-obsessed co-worker Brenda (Kristen Schaal) soothes an injured Rothschild by tenderly stroking his ears; like the BLT speech, which depends on Haysbert’s authoritative delivery for much of its humor, the ear-stroking scene works because the performers don’t acknowledge the strangeness of the situation. Brenda cradles Rothschild’s head in her lap as if he were a rabbit, and slowly his eyes take on a leporine glassiness.

Dressed in camo cargo shorts and combat boots, Rothschild is the best of the movie’s oddballs, about halfway between recognizable—the archetypal corny self-improvement guru—and bizarre. Out of all the classic action stars, Van Damme is the most consistently funny, in part because he exhibits the least vanity. (It also helps that, unlike his contemporaries, he’s become a significantly better actor with age.) While Welcome To The Jungle contains a few lame references (a parody of the Bloodsport scream, a mention of Van Damme’s real last name), for the most part it lets the star be funny on account of his delivery and comic timing rather than his stunt casting.

Van Damme’s performance is about the only element left unscathed by the movie’s compulsion to point out its own absurdity. Countless gags—like the fact that Phil’s followers transformed into a fully developed post-apocalyptic culture more or less overnight—are deflated by Chris’ reactions. A one-time Eagle Scout, Chris has excellent survival skills, and while rationality and competence can be funny, the movie uses this exclusively as a way to underscore the irrationality of the other characters; the effect is like a laugh track without the laughs. It’s a shame, because director Rob Meltzer has a competent sense of widescreen style, making effective use of carefully timed shot/reverse shots and background-foreground contrasts. If only he were as assured with humor.