Bad Trip, Eric André’s first foray into feature filmmaking, is a study in opposites. It can be both incredibly funny and daring in its approach to hidden-camera prank comedy but also uninspired at times. With a by-the-numbers, forgettable plotline, it checks nearly every box on the list of road trip movie clichés (not that audiences are signing up for a riveting story when they turn on a prank movie, but still). The movie puts bystanders into a variety of interesting, if not morally ambiguous, situations and often generously displays their collective humanity, but sometimes finds itself prematurely cutting away from their reactions. This is a similar criticism some have of the comedian’s otherwise acclaimed Adult Swim comedy show The Eric Andre Show, which often cuts hour-plus interviews into a mere two minutes of absurdist comedy.
To illustrate the latter of the two incongruities, take, for example, a series of pranks early in the film. One involves André’s character Chris spontaneously breaking out into song after he seeks advice from an older man outside a mall. Despite Chris approaching him with a bloody hand wrapped in makeshift gauze, the man takes a genuine interest in Chris’s situation. Chris asks him whether he should pursue Maria (Michaela Conlin), a high school crush who has suddenly become the love of his life (yes, this is basically the extent of the plot), and the man responds, “I say go for it. If you don’t, for the rest of your life you’re gonna be sitting here saying, ‘What if I would have?’” This advice leads Chris into song, which is barely sustained by André’s mediocre voice, until his musical reverie is interrupted by a car that almost runs him over. Chris leaps onto the car and continues his song, thanking the man all along for his advice. Other bystanders begin to look at the now bewildered old man as if for an explanation. He sheepishly announces that Chris is in love before throwing his hands up in confusion. The subtlety here is that the man has clearly internalized some ownership for Chris’s outburst, as it was his guidance that got Chris so excited in the first place. Try as he might, he is unable to contain a strange mix of joy and embarrassment that is rarely seen in a man of his age, and it’s these kinds of reactions that make the movie so interesting. Despite the main bill of high-stakes and off-the-wall pranks, the unexpectedly rewarding undercard of the film comes from these brief moments of humanity caught off guard, thrown for a loop with no frame of reference for how to react to their absurd surroundings.
The second in the series of pranks, which actually occurs first chronologically, highlights how the film does not capitalize on the reaction shot as much as it should. In this scene, Bud Malone (Lil Rel Howery) is minding his business as an employee at a computer repair store when his sister Trina (Tiffany Haddish) barges in, cuts two customers in line, and requests that Bud give her money. Trina humiliates Bud, pouring his drink all over him and going through his cash register. She takes out a few handfuls of cash and exits the store, but not before removing her house-arrest anklet and handing it to one of the customers. Her parting gift to both of them is a cut of the stolen cash. When she leaves, however, we don’t get to see what the two customers do with the cash. If the scene had lingered a bit more, we would have gotten a glimpse into the character of these two unwitting customers, even if their reactions weren’t “interesting” enough for a movie like this one. It feels like the movie was rushing forward to keep audiences from losing interest. There are a few other moments where bystanders are put into the headlights in a ridiculous prank, but we are steered right around them and instead continue onward with the story. There’s no time to look in the rearview mirror and glean their reactions as they process what just happened. The movie speeds on, never allowing a scene to breathe or maybe relieve itself on the side of the road before continuing.
Besides the premature cutaways and the lackluster plot, though, Bad Trip is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. André is a toned-down version of his warped, socially uninitiated alter ego on The Eric Andre Show, but his comedic prowess is on full display here. The subtle humor of delivering a weak, uninspired kick to his friend in the middle of a heated exchange after their car inexplicably blows up, the hearty laughter induced by his barroom antics that end in him projectile vomiting all over himself and the people around him, his series of cringe-inducing encounters with Maria: each is an example of a seasoned professional at the top of his craft. “Comedy is a game of millimeters,” says André, so despite how easy it may look, it takes a lot of hard work to learn to pick up on and react to behavioral cues with such ease. André’s years of experience in this department serve as the bedrock upon which the rest of the movie is built.
That’s not to say that the rest of the cast isn’t also brilliant. Tiffany Haddish is her reliably comic self here, intimidating strangers throughout with her excessively mean demeanor, yet also showing a soft spot for some younger men (“It’s been so long since a man looked me in my eyes…can we kiss?” she asks a bewildered police officer out of the blue). Lil Rel Howery plays Bud Malone as the comedic straight man with arguably the best character arc, as he seeks to get out from under the oppressive thumb of his domineering sister while finding himself in all sorts of hijinks. Howery makes the requisite road trip interludes enjoyable, relaying stories of Trina frying fish and flipping ribs on the grill with her bare hands. Michaela Conlin is great as Maria, a practical and level-headed gallery director who is also given some time in the comedic sun: In a dream sequence, for example, she beats up a flirtatious guy, robs a “blind” man (who’s a performer, obviously), and kisses the priest at her wedding. She also ends the film with an over-the-top outburst after Chris and Bud get in the way of her gallery showing.
What separates this movie from many other prank comedy movies, especially ones made by Sacha Baron Cohen, is the way that the characters are made into the butt of the jokes, not the bystanders. While there are some great reactions to be had (a wedding photographer from the dream sequence who sees the priest kissing the bride and groom, looks up from his camera for a brief moment, and then goes back to taking photos like usual), the joke is usually on the performers. None of the pranks were engineered to expose our human or cultural flaws. This isn’t a biting political commentary on the divided state of American society or a mockery of the cultural elite, just a few pranksters brave enough to make themselves the joke. And maybe that’s what comedy needs today––a return, even a brief one, to its wholesome escapist roots.