There’s barely a movie inside of “Hell Baby,” the directorial debut of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant. In some ways, this feels like a relief: the two comedians, best known for “Reno 911,” have developed a reputation at the studios as script doctors for hire, though one look at the final products (“Night At The Museum,” “Herbie: Fully Loaded”) suggests a fidelity to structure and propriety, and only the illusion of laughs. Maybe a shucking of structure was all that was needed: “Hell Baby” seems to prove that their previous screenwriting gigs were acts of condescension at heart, and that these guys couldn’t have a stronger disdain for moving a plot forward.
Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb star as Jack and Vanessa, two newlyweds who decide to move into a fixer-upper on the outskirts of New Orleans. So self-involved in their own domestic bliss, they fail to see why there would be a problem being the only white people in the vicinity, or why their new house has a reputation for being haunted. Under the guise of being neighborly, they refuse to blanch at the news that a murder had occurred in the location within a calendar year, as it is delivered by F’resnel (Keegan Michael-Kay), a man so neighborly he might as well move in. Which, in fact, he has; he’s squatting in their home, popping up at random moments accompanied by a sting on the soundtrack. As Jack barks upon another surprise scare, “I’m sick of being startled!”
The film treats its horror seriously, so by the time Vanessa starts to drink paint thinner and speak in tongues, Bibb is naturally funny without clowning up the material. Of course, there’s only so much the actors can do to create a believable characterization when select scripted moments are dedicated to building relationships and atmosphere, others to slack gag-building. The picture’s skimpy runtime is goosed to feature length by a number of scene-stealers and goofy gimmicks. What can seriously be said about Human Giant troupe members Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel as two local cops who persist in stopping by and engaging with Jack in circular shit-talking?
Lennon and Garant show up as a couple of hardcore priests with exaggerated Italian accents, existing on the periphery of the narrative so that they may jump in and provide their exorcism services in the third act. It’s the film’s one nod to a structure of any kind. An early joke has the priests cross paths with those chatty policemen, resulting in a chat where the two pastors drone on about their needless origin stories and how they’ve met for minutes on end. When the cops reply with their own story about becoming mismatched partners, the priests’ disinterest shuts down an already purposely overlong scene. This scene occurs during one of two detours to a local restaurant, where not only is there two separate montages of eating po’boys, but entire discussions about their quality and ingredients. Later, you get to learn how characters prepare a pizza salad, which is somehow even simpler than it sounds.
“Hell Baby” eventually is less of a horror-comedy in a classical vein and more of a showcase for a group of skilled comic actors. Corddry and Bibb hold the center quite well, and you can see how they’d be a likable, funny couple in a real movie. Other scenes are stolen by the likes of Riki Lindhome, peppering her tired Wiccan sister routine with irreverent, self-aware glee. Lennon and Garant also aren’t too highfalutin’ to omit Lindhome’s excessively long full-frontal nude scene which, for the puerile-minded, is so fantastic that it seems like a special effect. Lennon and Garant find it more important to know their audience than to tell a story.
“Hell Baby” works as a joke factory first and foremost, a collection of tropes (some mocked) second, and a movie a distant third. Once a character sets down a Ouija board, you know the following scene is going to be some sort of sketch of some kind. Lennon and Garant throw everything at the wall, and most of it truly doesn’t stick. But when “Hell Baby” is funny, it’s undeniably low brow, a compendium of silly voices and non-sequiter conversations built around a general framework of horror clichés, with only the barest interest in the idea of gentrification in urban areas (the bit of New Orleans flavor and accompanying racial commentary from the film feels canned, perfunctory). You won’t remember much when it’s over, but you’ll surely be laughing like a jackass regardless. [C+]