Several years ago at Sundance, singer Lyle Lovett premiered a short film scored to his song “Penguins.” Basically, it was Lauren Bacall and a few other celebs dressing up in penguin suits like the ones worn by 19-year-olds at Sea World, then dancing around nonsensically while Lovett crooned. At the end, Lovett and a supermodel got in their own penguin suits, and Lyle cast his weird-eyed sneer at the camera.
The audience full of serious, black-turtlenecked filmmakers at the Library Center didn’t exactly welcome Mr. Julia Roberts to the club. In a moment that captured both the pure dedication and utter pomposity of the independent film spirit, they booed Lovett—seated stock-still in the second row—loud and long until the main feature came up on screen. It’s not that the thing was poorly shot or inexpertly staged or offensive in any tangible way. It was just profoundly pointless, and that, apparently, disturbed these auteurs to the core.
Turns out, they hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. In The New Guy, a painfully awkward new comedy from director Ed Decter (the co-writer of There’s Something About Mary), Lovett finds something even more humiliating than being booed by a roomful of unsuccessful independent filmmakers while watching himself on the screen in a penguin suit. As the father of the film’s main character, the guru of sophisticated country music wears a mouthful of braces in a misguided stab at a guttural laugh. Later, he gets a flaming marshmallow in his eye and sets his nose on fire.
And those are some of the more artistically redeeming moments in this unfortunate side trip through a genre that long ceased to be an attractive destination. The film is the first starring turn for DJ Qualls, that creepy teenage-Ichabod-Crane-looking kid from Road Trip. He plays Dizzy Gillespie Harrison (yes, he really does), an awkward high school kid whose attempts at achieving popularity get him sent to prison in a manner that’s not the fountain of laughs it would have to be in order to be taken seriously.
In the pokey, he’s befriended by Luther (Eddie Griffin), who schools him in the arts of sophistication and toughness. He returns to civilization as Gil Harris, whose frosted hair and badass fighting abilities catapult him to the top of the high school cool chain. His garage band becomes a hot ticket, he gets head cheerleader Danielle (Eliza Dushku) to shake her pom-poms at him, and he inspires the football team to the state championship in his spare time.
But Decter and co-writer John J. Strauss never really had enough of a concept here to make an entire feature film without all manner of humorless padding. What’s more, too many of their jokes involve slapstick comedy, but Decter shows absolutely no acumen for the pacing and skill necessary to make his few viable laughs work. He’s actually less inventive than the Farrelly brothers, whose static camera work seems to be nearly a source of pride. It’s easy to forget how much work it takes to make a visually compelling film until you’re presented with the work of somebody who didn’t even try.
Qualls shows flashes of inspiration at odd points in the picture, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Likewise for Griffin and the handful of minor celebrities (from Illeana Douglas to Vanilla Ice) who improbably turn up for cameos in this extremely minor endeavor, as if they thought it was something major. Perhaps it’s because this film is a big release by Revolution Studios, which is run by unsuccessful studio head and inexcusable film director Joe Roth (America’s Sweethearts), who undoubtedly has a whole file cabinet stocked with naked pictures of Ice, Illeana, two midgets, a blender and a tub of pudding.
There’s nothing to recommend in The New Guy except for its lack of men in penguin suits. For that, you’ll have to wait for the director’s cut.