Let’s Go to Prison

You know your movie is flying low on the radar when it’s Sunday morning and there are no reviews of it on Metacritic, and you know it’s getting trashed when the nine reviews over at Rotten Tomatoes come to an average of less than one star (allow me to tip my hat to Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News and Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times for breaking out of the pack). While undistinguished and mostly lowbrow, Bob Odenkirk’s “Let’s Go to Prison” still delivers enough funny moments to stun gun its way to the above rating.

There’s no redemption or atonement at the conclusion of this movie. Neither of the two main characters cares in the least about redeeming himself or considering the error of his ways, but what can you expect from what is described, rather accurately, as a revenge comedy?

John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) is a regular over at Rossmore State Penitentiary, so much in fact that he knows the guards by name and asks for his old duds instead of new ones upon arrival. As we learn through John’s narration, he’s been harbouring a grudge against the judge responsible for starting his pattern of repeated incarceration (John’s first crime was stealing the Publishers’ Clearing House van and trying to cash the giant check when he was eight). Wanting revenge on the man but finding out he just passed away, he decides to target the judge’s pampered son, Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett), framing him for a robbery then letting himself get caught for some random crime, to make sure Nelson experiences the “full” prison treatment down at Rossmore.

Some of the best laughs of the film are in those early sequences. The robbery that isn’t one has Nelson running like a madman through a drugstore with the owners, an old Chinese couple, reacting in hysterical ways, interpreting the mayhem as a junkie attack and bemoaning the volatile location of their store. A bit later, John lets himself be caught with marijuana while hanging out with a couple of pothead friends whose level of inertia makes Beavis and Butthead look like dynamic, reliable self-starters.

The full prison experience involves Nelson being the target of random violence from convicts (fuelled by cigarette payments from John), getting sent to the hole for misconduct, tasting fine slammer cuisine and running afoul of Lynard (Michael Shannon, the former Marine in World Trade Center), the resident cold-blooded psycho who’s liable to stab you in the knees with a fork at the slightest provocation. Last but not least, Nelson gets “sold” (it’s all about serving hard time, people) to Barry, the winemaking prison bigwig with a baby duck fetish. Chi McBride plays the role with a velvety commitment, giving Barry a sort of unassailable calm and a special fondness for his prison-style wine, suavely saying “I make it in the toilet” as if nothing better could happen for the bouquet.

While Lynard and Barry provide some good laughs, others are badly unfunny and idiotic (the warden and the head guard, played by Dylan Baker and David Koechner, are especially awful), and the same utterly lame scatological joke is used over and over. Written by Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and Michal Patrick Jann, the movie has hints of real bitterness and disillusionment at the American judicial and penal system, but the plot stays the course with comedy, and whenever something “harsh” happens the goofy music always make sure the film keeps a light mood. Arnett and Shepard play rather well off each other, the latter being a good choice to play John, the kind of slightly unkempt, untrustworthy fellow likely to spin a tall tale while hiding a permanent smirk. Cunningly passing himself off as Nelson’s necessary ally to show him the prison ropes, John sees the pecking order turned upside down when events conspire to raise Nelson’s profile in the joint, and that leads to a completely ludicrous but pretty funny climax, a brilliant piece of faux tragedy.

According to my admittedly strict definition (romantic comedies and films that give earnest attention to their dramatic elements are excluded), there have been 15 or so comedies so far this year. I find them to be a very weak bunch, so that probably makes me like the film a little more than I would in a better year for movies of the same nature. I’m still waiting for the next comedy that’ll have me laughing as hard and as often as 2004’s Anchorman. “Let’s Go to Prison” doesn’t approach that level of comic genius, but I had a decent time watching it.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay