Curiously squandering an immensely talented cast, Todd Rohal's "Nature Calls," written when the writer-director lived in Austin, had more humor and humanity and life in its 10-minute post-screening talk here at SXSW than it showed in its previous 98-minute running time. Starring Patton Oswalt and Johnny Knoxville as brothers -- in clear refutation of all we know about genetics -- "Nature Calls" pits Oswalt's dedicated scoutmaster, eager to take his scoutmaster father on one last camping trip, against Knoxville's black sheep son. You can imagine this premise leading to all kinds of hilarity.
I encourage you to do so, as Rohal clearly did not. When his troop bails on a camping trip, Oswalt crashes a sleepover hosting Knoxville's adopted son Dwande (Thiecoura Cissoko) and his wayward troop members, abducting them, along with his father, for the originally-planned trip to the woods. Knoxville, Rob Riggle and the late Patrice O'Neal give pursuit, with Knoxville's long-suffering wife Maura Tierney holding down the fort and placating the other moms who don't know that their kids have been taken without their knowledge.
Part of the thrust of the film is Oswalt's frustration with the hovering moms of his troop members; one "won't let [her son] anywhere that doesn't have three bars of cell service." Part of it is to watch him try and become the scoutmaster that his father is. And part of it is to show up Knoxville's preening, ATM-mogul jerk. But Rohal has no sense of tone; some of the leaps here, one involving a deliberate suicide, don't work as surrealist comedy or as strokes towards drama. And you get, as a friend of mine noted, that a lot of the script was written in ALL CAPS: There's a lot of shouting in the mix, and very little communicating. The kids are all, with the exception of Cissoko, phony inventions of a screenwriter's mind -- there's the fey one, the religious one, the one who stays behind and has a odd, leering, entirely too grown-up crush on Tierney. (As the boy pours her some red wine, she takes the glass and notes "You're one weird f**cking kid. …")
We have called out a few of the funny lines in "Nature Calls," but that's all it really offers -- lines, not structure or story or any character worth caring about. It's full of people who don't act like people. If Rohal was going for scabrous, take-no-prisoners satire -- and you could argue that with his array of immensely unlikable characters, he's shooting for it -- then he needed to tidy up his story. There's actually a nudist ex machina -- a naked woman on a motorcycle, voiceless and unnamed, which makes her less of a symbolic force than a piece of meat on wheels to be gawked at -- and at one point, the injured Knoxville is hoisted onto a stretcher/splint that, for no real reason other than shock, looks like a crucifix. Which will scandalize some, which is the only reason it's there.
"Nature Calls" demonstrates yet again that the real question for any bad script is not "Who wrote this garbage?" but, rather, "Who read this garbage and thought it would make a viable way to spend time?" Rohal has a great cast, a great cinematographer and, sure, even an interesting idea -- but he doesn't have the screenwriting skills that would make the film either an engaging drama/comedy with real characters or an over-the-top spoof. Somehow both curdled and undercooked, this film feels like a curiosity more than anything -- and even with Oswalt and Knoxville's star power, it's likely neither to attract an audience nor hold their attention. You can't help but feel that Rohal's film is going to limp around the festival circuit for a while -- there is, of course, a new film festival every three days, but not a new film festival's worth of good movies every three days -- but if you're somehow somewhere it's screening, bluntly, when "Nature Calls," hang up. [D]