Thou Shalt Not Be Too Funny

And on the seventh day, God created sketch comedy

It's impossible to write about David Wain's The Tenwithout first making passing reference to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalogand Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. The former, originally made for Polish TV 20 years ago and first shown in the United States in 2000, offered a modern-day take on the Ten Commandments, interpreting each within the confines of a Warsaw apartment complex, with guilt and tragedy the driving forces behind the director's beseeching meditation on God's Rules of Order. The latter, of course, found the English comedy troupe bidding adieu with fierce and occasionally grotesque bluster (care for a mint?). Never had their comedy, here sliced into vignettes and infused with a disdain for religiosity always hinted at but never before made so obvious, seemed so ugly and angry (despite some catchy tunes).

The Ten, obsessed with prison rape and puppet dicks, doesn't exactly possess the grand ambitions of Kieslowski's work. Nor does it seethe with the ham-fisted, albeit melodic, fury of the Pythons' finale. Look, whaddaya want — it's from the guys who brought you Wet Hot American Summer, a film whose sole ambition was to remake Meatballs. Theology they ain't all that interested in.

And it's not reallyabout the Ten Commandments, anyway. It's just a star-studded, half-baked, take-it-or-leave-it "goof," in the parlance of co-writer/co-star Ken Marino's surgeon, who's keen on leaving instruments inside his patients' bodies because it makes him giggle. (He's the "thou shalt not kill" commandment, natch.) The Ten doesn't want you to ponder the existence of God or the rights and wrongs laid out by His master plan, just to laugh. And you will more often than not, which is all you can hope for in what might as well be a prolonged episode of The State, from which several of the cast and creators sprang.

Thou shalt not, um, leave splinters in thy neighbor's wife?
Thou shalt not, um, leave splinters in thy neighbor's wife?

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Directed by David Wain. Written by Wain and Ken Marino. Starring Paul Rudd, Winona Ryder, Ken Marino, and Jessica Alba. Rated R.

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The Ten, which features recurring characters who glide in and out of sketches like partygoers in search of someone more interesting to talk to, demands your patience but rewards your fortitude. It's that most fragile of big-screen beasts: the deadpan comedy compendium in which coarse jokes and puerile gags are packaged and presented as "ironic," "clever," and "dangerous." At least it's aware of its rhythms: The Tengrows increasingly frantic and dopey as it goes, culminating in an animated sequence straight out of the underground comix of the 1960s and a musical number in which A.D. Miles and Bobby Cannavale observe the Sabbath by throwing nude Sunday-morning parties during which they perform Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack's "Tonight I Celebrate My Love."

In one of the best sketches, Gretchen Mol makes an appearance as a good-girl librarian who travels to Mexico and finds herself nailed to the bed by a handyman named Jesus (Justin Theroux). In another, Liev Schreiber's mustachioed cop becomes envious of his neighbor's stash of CT scan machines — mostly hilarious because Schreiber can't help but play the lowbrow comedy like it's gritty drama.

Weirdly, the interstitial sequences featuring Rudd, usually the best thing about some of the worst movies, are the biggest letdowns. Rudd acts as the film's narrator, only he keeps getting interrupted by his nagging wife (Famke Janssen) and his girlfriend (Jessica Alba), who, for some reason, wants a pony. Their love triangle kind of overwhelms and ultimately deflates the movie; their scenes, performed on a soundstage decorated with giant tables, stop whatever momentum builds from sketch to sketch. Nothing gets in the way of a good prison-rape joke like romantic comedy.

 
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