Jason Sudeikis just finished up the second season of his acclaimed comedy Ted Lasso, for which he won an Emmy, and he’s returning to host Saturday Night Live, his old stomping ground, later in October. He also has a movie out this month. 20 or maybe even ten years ago, a movie Sudeikis shot in the wake of Ted Lasso’s first season, premiering at the end of Ted Lasso’s second season, would be a big comedy vehicle designed to capitalize on his recent success. It’s not as if Sudeikis is an unknown quantity in movies; he’s starred in several hit comedies like We’re the Millers and Horrible Bosses. But his October movie, debuting in a few theaters and on streaming, is a small one, a noir-ish crime drama called South of Heaven. Maybe this is because Sudeikis wants to stretch his acting muscles with something vastly different in tone from Ted Lasso, SNL or Horrible Bosses. Or maybe this is because comedy vehicles for Saturday Night Live stars, even some of the most popular ones, barely exist anymore.
This is not necessarily a lamentation. The release of South of Heaven approximately coincides with perhaps the least auspicious 20th anniversary of 2021: On October 12, it will have been 20 years since Chris Kattan graced movie screens as the star of Corky Romano, a comedy from the Adam Sandler school of naming the movie after a zany comic character who will be introduced via ad campaign before braying, mugging and floundering their way into America’s heart. 2001 was, in fact, a banner year for those types of movies; David Spade starred in Joe Dirt, while Rob Schneider was downgraded from the titular antics of Deuce Bigalow to just plain The Animal (the anti-branding worked; it was the biggest hit of the bunch).
There are parts of Corky Romano that function as a 20-year-old time capsule: Its CDR-on-shuffle soundtrack selections, for one, and its version of warmhearted progressive acceptance still involving casually dropping the f-slur and r-slur, for another. But the movie also exists in a kind of timeless netherworld. Chris Kattan tries to fit in with more stoic people, can’t seem to control his body and makes a mess of things; it was ever thus. Or, it would have been, if Corky Romano had been a hit. Instead, this story of a misfit sibling in a crime family, conscripted into going undercover at the FBI to destroy evidence against his ailing father (Peter Falk), failed to vault Kattan into big-screen stardom. Anticipating the recent trend of SNL stars staying at the show rather than lighting out for the movies, Kattan did another two seasons at SNL and never had another shot as a leading man.
In his obligatory life-in-comedy memoir Baby Don’t Hurt Me, Kattan writes about how Corky Romano began as a silly comedy with a genuinely endearing, optimistic lead character, before executive meddling broadened and coarsened the project. As absurd as that sounds, there are hints of that (slightly) less ridiculous version of Corky in both Kattan’s performance (which, at least early on, isn’t quite as manic or sweaty as it could be) and the garish augmentations to it (lots of sped-up motion and badly computerized slapstick). My reaction to it in 2021—I never caught it before now, despite my would-be SNL completism—was more numbness than disgust. I chuckled a few times; otherwise, the movie was a passing void. It’s simply the answer to a what-if question no one asked: What if filmmakers were forced to construct a vehicle around every single SNL player, even those who feel especially well-suited to smaller roles?
That question certainly seemed to be in the air 20 years ago. Rob Schneider’s whole deal is that he seems comically unsuited to taking charge of his or anyone else’s life, so there is a kind of comic purity in making him a hapless leading man for a movie like The Animal. But the movie itself, where Schneider’s character is near death and revived with experimental animal transplants that render him nonsensically acting like (at various points) a dog, horse, cat, monkey, cheetah and frog, among others, is just a smattering of clunkily executed slapstick gags. It does get a few big laughs from a cameo by the late Norm Macdonald, whose Dirty Work is a stronger example of this era’s Robert Simonds-produced SNL-persona vehicle.
Joe Dirt, alas, is not a Dirty Work companion, though it’s more interesting than The Animal as a non-star text; it divorces Spade from his usual buddy-comedy shtick (a particularly poignant split, given that his go-to buddy, Chris Farley, died young) and gives him material that’s very much opposed to his usual smarmy sarcasm, having him play a stereotypical redneck. A passing familiarity with Spade’s background (he, too, has an obligatory memoir) reveals that this was a deceptively personal project for him, drawing upon his Arizona childhood. But the redneck stuff in Joe Dirt gets so abstracted that it loses any regional specificity; Joe becomes just another dumb little dreamer who has gross stuff happen to him. As with Corky Romano and The Animal, the PG-13 rating feels like a warning to viewers over 13, not under. All three movies think they’re about challenging their heroes; they’re really more about vindicating them. They’re acts of cutesy comic revenge.
In a perverse way, South of Heaven shares some common ground with the SNL star vehicles of yore, despite being an alternate violent and contemplative crime thriller. In fact, that combination feels of a piece with the way that The Animal, Joe Dirt and Corky Romano, despite their broadness and crudeness, all insist on including some kind of pseudo-emotional arc about the little guy triumphing over the odds to achieve happiness. Happy Madison, et. al, didn’t invent this augmentation to comedy; in film, it goes back to Chaplin if not earlier. But these post-Sandler movies jut it out with particular awkwardness when most of the comedy isn’t playing and the sentiment gets ladled on top anyway. Similarly—though arguably more disastrously, given that it wants to be taken seriously—South of Heaven dots its story of a paroled convict reuniting with his terminally ill girlfriend with fatalistic, gruesome violence out of a Coen Brothers ripoff. It’s the same slapstick-plus-sentiment recipe, amped up for supposed adults.
As with a more traditional SNL vehicle, Heaven’s hero is positioned as a modest underdog: The con artist played by Sudiekis isn’t a career criminal, but a basically good guy who got caught up with a bad scene, attempting to impress the father of his now cancer-stricken true love (Evangeline Lilly). Sudeikis can probably play parts like this; beyond the sometimes-dramatic Ted Lasso, he’s been good in less overtly comedic material like Race, Tumbledown and Colossal. Those characters, though, felt like real people; South of Heaven gives him a virtual saint playing against a stacked deck, expecting the audience to really feel the merciless springing of various bad-luck mechanisms (most of which don’t make much sense if examined with any scrutiny). There’s a crooked parole officer, some missing money, a ruthless gangster and lots of people dying sad and undeserved deaths, sometimes played for dark comedy and sometimes as tragedy.
South of Heaven is considerably less fun to watch than a bad SNL-star vehicle, because despite its erratic tone, there’s no chance that Norm Macdonald will show up with an inspired walk-on. So in the wake of Sudeikis’s obvious talent and success, it’s easy to wish for a sillier, less full-of-itself showcase for his talent, akin to this year’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, which even more than Bridesmaids felt like a straight shot of Kristen Wiig’s particular sensibility. Wouldn’t it be fun to see one of those for Vanessa Bayer, Nasim Pedrad or Chris Redd? They’re not all gonna wind up doing poorly executed indie crime dramas now, are they?!
Of course, for Sudeikis that personal film vehicle has been converted into the ensemble success of Ted Lasso, and maybe we’re better off for it. But there’s something both clean and ridiculous about the antiquated process of adding an 86-minute comedy to the roster of unofficial SNL movies. Had our current landscape been in place in 2001, 70 of Corky Romano’s 86 minutes could have been elongated into a 10-episode first season. (The remaining 16 minutes would be saved for a stretched-thinner season 2.) Like the obligatory comedian memoir, the SNL-star vehicle is almost its own genre, and it’s mostly inessential. But now that those bad ones from 20 years ago helped kill it off, I’m starting to miss it.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.