Nature Calls is a fun little film about camping and kids starring some names from the world of alternative comedy. With its subversive humor that simultaneously homages and sends up similar screwball comedies from the ’80s, it purposefully flies under the radar of convention to earn the less commercial but infinitely cooler label of “cult.”
Actually, hold on, that’s Wet Hot American Summer. Nature Calls only manages about half of that stuff. It does star comic actors Patton Oswalt and Johnny Knoxville. They play Randy and Kirk Stevens, brothers who represent the classic nerd vs. jock dynamic from the likes of Meatballs, Revenge of the Nerds, et al. Randy is a gung-ho Boy Scout leader, trying his best to get kids excited about the organization and the worth of rugged outdoor experiences. Kirk is a money-grubbing ATM manufacturer whose idea of a birthday party is having the kids each bring a different TV or computer and setting them all up in one room to simultaneously gorge on all manner of electronic entertainment.
Modern-day parental overprotection and litigiousness have forced Randy to hold his latest Scout trip in a parking lot. When he can’t even get a decent group together for that, he sneaks over to his brother’s house and coerces adopted African nephew Dwande (Thiecoura Cissoko) and his friends to come on a bona fide (if illegal) camping trip in a local state park. Believing the kids were taken against their will, Kirk pursues the group, with his head of security, played by Rob Riggle, in tow.
Oswalt does his best with the earnest and frustrated Randy, and Knoxville is appropriately obnoxious, but Riggle substitutes bluster and volume for humor. Darrell Hammond, as a by-the-book park ranger, is utterly wasted, kind of like everyone else. In a sad historical footnote, the only standout performance comes from the late Patrice O’Neal, who is never not funny in his final role, small though it is.
At least no one can be accused of phoning it in. No one, except, for writer/director Todd Rohal, whose script is devoid of stakes, originality and laughs. In its scant 80 minutes, the film scrolls through a variety of identities, never fully settling on any one of them. Is it a quaint Wes Anderson character study? Or a foul-mouthed raunchfest? Is the randomly violent slapstick a dark commentary on the idea of the establishment? Or is Randy’s idealism a sincere tribute to it?
The answer to all these questions is basically, “no.” Nature Calls is slipshod and slight, completely underutilizing its talented cast. By its construction, it seems to want to carve a space next to other classic comedies of its ilk, but not desperately enough to put the effort in. It’s probably best to let this particular call from nature go unheeded.
Director: Todd Rohal
Writer: Todd Rohal
Starring: Patton Oswalt, Johnny Knoxville, Rob Riggle, Maura Tierney, Patrice O’Neal
Release Date: Nov. 9, 2012 (available now on VOD)