When Fred Armisen was part of Saturday Night Live, one of his best recurring characters was Nicholas Fehn, a pretentious and painfully unfunny comic who fancied himself a political satirist. His routine would be to read headlines from, say, The Wall Street Journal and then offer his own “skewed view” of the news items. But Fehn never actually did that: Instead, after reading the headline he would immediately become apoplectic and inarticulate, as if there was nothing that needed to be said about corporate media or other sitting-duck topics because we already understood how ridiculous they were. Fehn’s misplaced smugness—his utter assurance that by simply mentioning certain topics he was tapping into a collective disgust—was endlessly delicious. The character was a helpful reminder that no matter how deserving a satiric target was, it still had to be torpedoed properly.
The great failing of Escape From Tomorrow is that it suffers from the same malady as Fehn. The feature debut of writer-director Randy Moore has a juicy cultural totem in its sights, the Disney empire, but it misses more than it hits. Worse, the misses often work under the belief that it doesn’t necessarily matter—we all hate Disney already, so we’ll happily forgive any comedic misfires because of the filmmaker’s worthy intentions. Perhaps that’s true to a degree, but not to the level Moore hopes.
The story behind the making of Escape From Tomorrow is more riveting than the film’s actual plot, which by design wanders and meanders, sometimes stumbling into surreal territory. Escape From Tomorrow is set at Walt Disney World in Florida, and much of the movie was shot on the park grounds, without permission. Consequently, Moore had to shoot covertly, hoping not to attract attention while he and his cast filmed scenes in and around Epcot, Space Mountain and the “It’s a Small World” ride. When Escape From Tomorrow premiered at Sundance, audiences reacted in part to Moore’s audacity: He made a film criticizing the Disney-fication of American life that defied the company by shooting within one of its major tourist attractions without its knowledge.
The film has managed to secure a release after some legal wrangling, and while Moore’s guerilla instincts are to be saluted, his filmmaking shortcomings are not. There are ideas here—about Disney’s pervasive grip on our culture, about the collapse of the family unit, about the temptation to escape reality for a prepackaged fantasy life—but they only come through in drips and drabs. As for the basic building blocks of story—characters, performance, narrative—they’re even shakier.
Escape From Tomorrow stars Roy Abramsohn as Jim, a disgruntled everyman who has taken his family (including his critical wife, Emily, played by Elena Schuber) to Disney World, only to learn near the end of the trip that he’s been fired from his job. Hiding that fact from his wife and kids, Jim just wants to enjoy one last day in the park, but soon he begins to experience strange visions. Is his son Elliot (Jack Dalton) possessed by an evil spirit? And why does he find himself compelled to pursue two alluring French teens (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) who are traipsing around the park?
Shot in black-and-white on portable digital cameras, Escape From Tomorrow retains its radical sheen, each scene inside Disney World sending a little reminder to your brain that Moore and his actors had to be very discreet so as not to get caught. But that temporary thrill subsides once it becomes clear that Moore has more of a general notion of what he’s after than a strong sense of how to achieve it. As Jim’s psychosis becomes more acute, Disney World’s peppy artificial reality seem more grotesque. But this isn’t often translated into nasty jokes or sharp insights: It’s merely the same vague anti-corporate commentary repeated in different ways throughout the film.
But what really hurts Escape From Tomorrow is that its unlikable characters don’t seem to be serving any greater comedic or dramatic purpose. Repelled by his complaining, shrewish wife, Jim futilely lusts after the teen girls, but because Moore never makes us empathize with the poor lout, his selfish actions aren’t funny but, rather, boorish. As played by Abramsohn, Jim isn’t a cutting misanthrope akin to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David or a fascinating psychopath like The Shining’s Jack Nicholson. Instead, he’s just an average schmo, which is probably Moore’s point, but he’s never a very interesting schmo.
Other times, Moore’s bold choice to film illegally within Disney World works against him. Some scenes feel rushed or amateurish, the cast struggling to find much of a rhythm when only a few takes were possible in certain locations. The viewer can grade on a curve, forgiving Escape From Tomorrow because of the inherent challenges it faced, but when those limitations detract from performance, it’s hard not to see the film as little more than a nervy stunt.
While the tone and acting vary wildly, Escape From Tomorrow’s look is a constant treat, and much praise should go to cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham, who does fine work under difficult circumstances. But even with that said, the film’s distracting green-screen shots, which are incorporated on occasion to supplement the park footage, have a phoniness that breaks the movie’s hoped-for nightmare-like vibe. But they’re not the only thing that punctures that vibe: As the story progresses and builds toward psychological horror, Moore is unable to satisfyingly sustain his off-kilter mood, relying on random strangeness and bizarre behavior as a substitute for genuinely unnerving or arresting moments.
Escape From Tomorrow at times aspires to the kinky, campy heights of Guy Maddin and David Lynch, but if anything, the movie’s understandably hectic shoot illustrates just how meticulous those filmmakers’ eccentric musings need to be to work properly. By comparison, Moore throws a lot of things on the screen, hoping they’ll add up to something greater than the sum of their disjointed parts. It’s a skewed view without enough of a vision guiding it.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Randy Moore
Writer: Randy Moore
Starring: Roy Abrahmson, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Danielle Safany, Annet Mahendru, Alison Lees-Taylor, Lee Armstrong, Amy Lucas, Stass Klassen
Release Date: Oct. 11, 2013