The genealogy of Saturday Night Live can be traced across decades of rascally man-boys: from the sheepish “we had homework?” grins of young Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon to the scruffy perma-bedhead of Andy Samberg, and now, to the scarecrow lank of the three sad virgins who make up Please Don’t Destroy.
NYU buddies Martin Herlihy (son of longtime SNL writer Tim Herlihy), John Higgins (son of longtime SNL writer Steve Higgins), and Ben Marshall (son of a Georgia couple without Wikipedia pages) were brought onboard the sketch institution to produce digital shorts in 2021, arriving as natural successors to The Lonely Island. But in place of pitch-perfect parody, they’ve preferred slices of banal absurdism featuring cracked-mirror versions of themselves behind the scenes at a 30 Rock slightly less off-kilter than 30 Rock’s.
Martin’s new friend, who happens to be 10 years old, drops in on a late-night writing session; the guys show the prodigious Pete Davidson clips from their own careers as kid stand-ups, when they did Def Jam material about “hitting it from the back” at the Apollo; guest host Bad Bunny insists on performing his ill-advised Shrek remake.
With their uneven feature vehicle Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain, the three decamp to small-town North Carolina as doofuses far outside showbiz, though “Ben,” “Martin,” and “John” remain suspended in a state of arrested adolescence. As in fellow Tisch grads Derrick Comedy’s Mystery Team—which traveled the same snubbed-to-cult-object pipeline expected for this planned theatrical release shunted to Peacock—a rift develops as two prepare to tiptoe into adulthood and leave the third behind.
Where the Derrick lads packed their foray into the movies with a daffy density of bits, however, a frustrating lack of consistency holds Please Don’t Destroy back as they introduce themselves to an audience unfamiliar with their rhythms shaped by the condensed format of TikTok. With an approximate 50/50 ratio of inspired silliness to repetitive edits-as-jokes, they’re caught between a measure of evident talent and the temptation to fall back on their safest tendencies.
John wants nothing more than to kick back with his pals and pound some Truly-brand hard seltzers in the rare instance of product placement that works as comedy. So he’s set adrift as the other two plot their respective courses into the future. Martin’s getting serious with his girlfriend (Superstore’s Nichole Sakura, money in the bank), who’s urging him to undergo an adult baptism and wear pastel suits that make him look like Dayman. Ben works for his father (Conan O’Brien, giving the film his high-value imprimatur and several of its funniest moments) at outdoor supply store Trout Plus, and hopes to impress him with his pitch for a salon catering exclusively to little boys.
The solution to all their trouble is hunting for a bust of Marie Antoinette hidden in a nearby forest, but they’ll have to go through a pair of covetous park rangers (Meg Stalter and X Mayo) to get it. A cult, a cameo from one of the Stranger Things kids, and some narration courtesy of John Goodman tie together a plotline you’d think was too short to drag as badly as it does past the hour mark.
While the tongue-in-cheek Bobbsey Twins adventure lends itself pretty readily to lampooning, the writer-stars’ schtick often cordons itself into discrete, structurally recyclable mini-sketches. They return again and again to record-scratch humor, in which a scene rolling right along is disrupted by contradictory counterpoints; it’s diminishing returns all the way down after the opening scene’s cheery morning commute interrupted by a car breakdown, harassment from beer-seeking teens, and an encounter with the cops.
Their other go-to move is to state aloud their incredulousness at flourishes of weirdness that could’ve worked if not remarked upon. A hawk chasing them struts away with a “that’s what I thought” flair, then Ben gilds the lily by asking why it’s “walking away with an attitude.” (Based on the frequent occurrence of this bit in Bottoms, perhaps it’s a generational affectation among younger-cusp millennials?)
Of course the power of friendship sees our trio through, and likewise, the chemistry between three collaborators with rapport honed since their college years carries them over the weaker beats of their latest project. For better and for worse, this is the clear handiwork of green artists, their winning boyishness offset by an overall air of the unseasoned.
So many of the 21st century’s big studio comedies fit themselves into the groove shared between old chums trying to crack each other up, a mode that only works when we’re part of the gang. Otherwise, the riffing starts to grate as idle self-amusement, and the viewers get to thinking about the difference between innate funniness and the skills required to craft a film. All of which is to say, it should surprise no one to learn that this motion picture was produced by Judd Apatow.
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