In the past five years, Patton Oswalt has gone from a stand-up comedian spouting pop culture references to a highly underrated actor. Starting with Big Fan in 2009, he has elevated his skill level and proven himself able to take obsessions and character weaknesses into vulnerable directions. With the release of last year’s Young Adult, he went even further and garnered critical praise as the disabled friend of Charlize Theron. While he still takes on roles like a weed smoking mall Santa, he has proven himself a talent for stealing scenes. Does he do any justice for the new outdoors comedy Nature Calls?
The story follows Randy (Oswalt) and Kirk (Johnny Knoxville), who are polar opposites when it comes to the boy scouts. Randy wants to see the program succeed and move beyond lame camp-outs in the parking lots due to conservative mothers. Kirk had bad experiences and now prefers to sit around with his friend Gentry (Rob Riggle) and do the typical manly things like drink, curse, and criticize TV shows. In a last-ditch effort to bond with his father, Randy takes a bunch of the scout members and force them into a nature hike. Kirk, Gentry, and fellow parent Mr. Caldwell (Patrice O’Neal in his final role) don’t approve of this and are now out to hurt them. The mothers are worried that their children will be corrupted by this experience, which ends up becoming an understatement.
The problem with Nature Calls is not the premise, which recalls 80’s comedies with haphazard plots like Caddyshack and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Instead it falls into the trap of the modern mean-spirited man-child genre popularized by Judd Apatow produced films. Unlike Apatow’s work, it never establishes pathos or gives us a reason to care about the swearing and child neglect. These elements feel tacked on, and in a third act that feels like a series of rushed gags to shock the audience, there is never any payoff. While comedy can get away with having a weak plot, it needs to have good jokes, which is missing here.
It’s a shame, really, because it features a promising cast. Oswalt, playing the straight man bringing sanity to innumerous tangents, feels like the only person trying. The evidence of poor choices begins early when Riggle enthusiastically curses in front of a group of 10-year-olds and encourages rowdy behavior. The rest spirals out of control as it falls into all of the familiar raunchy comedy tropes. Children curse and talk back to parents, find joy in gross body humor, and there’s even a running joke about a naked woman. These don’t feel like realistic children and instead come across as juvenile versions of Knoxville and Riggle, who put the kids to shame in terms of horniness and fascination with expletives. This all rounds out a cast that suggests Nature Calls isn’t a comedy, but psychoanalysis of worst case scenario latchkey kids parenting the next generation.
The film is overly machismo to the point that it seems sexist. The women, including Maura Tierney and Kelly Coffield Park, are shrill and exist only as a plot device in the third act. They are indistinguishable to the point that most of them are seen driving the same silver minivans. They fit the mold perfectly, as they find the men’s behavior shocking and only exist to tell them that they are wrong. They are seen more as objects and serve no purpose of turning the children into better adults. Instead, their sendoff is listening to their kids enthusiastically talk about body odor. This is a common problem in comedies, but the conservative nature is never justified or serves a purpose. The juvenile men win in the end without learning a single thing, and that is a shame.
All this could largely be blamed on writer and director Todd Rohal, who provides nothing interesting or provoking. The one bizarre feature is his desire to stick in Catholic symbolism in ways that goes for shocking but also feels deeply personal. The religious aspect plays as a distracting contradiction that only adds to the film’s lack of focus. Rohal’s aimless and crass humor is very similar to executive producer David Gordon Green’s recent comedy films, which could explain their partnership. Even then, Green’s worst work is still a little more inspired than Rohal’s best. Either way, what Rohal needs for a future project is a different writer. If he cannot get Oswalt and Knoxville to drop a few zingers, then he’s doing his job very wrong.
Nature Calls could have been a simple outdoors movie where wild stuff happens. With the infinitive wit of Oswalt, the slapstick possibilities of Knoxville, and the goofy chauvinism of Riggle, this could have been a better movie. Instead, we get a rehash of men being boys and influencing children to be slobs. This has worked before, but Rohal’s desire to go for the familiar only makes this feel uninspired. At most, it defames nature and all of the goodwill that Moonrise Kingdom gave it months ago. For those looking for a goofy, throwaway comedy, look elsewhere. This is a mean-spirited, cheap gag bonanza that wastes the time of the talented cast and the audience’s.