When one thinks of the comedic potential inherent in catching an unsuspecting participant off guard, there’s a good chance Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat comes to mind. Particularly when it comes to exposing the American public’s thinly veiled bigotries and the institutional inequality that influences these attitudes, the Borat franchise revels in reducing its subjects to caricatures in order to indict the populace’s overarching prejudice.
While this certainly serves the purpose of unraveling the shallowly concealed ugliness that lingers just below the veneer of polite society, sometimes a hidden camera prank can excel at being just that—an impromptu showcase of the full spectrum of human emotion, prompted by preconceived but seemingly sudden scenarios and interactions. Bad Trip, comedian Eric Andre’s feature-length showcase of his particular brand of surreal hidden camera humor, is inarguably a feat of prank stunts that are both impeccably crafted and acted. It leaves room for little else besides satisfyingly unpredictable dialogue between professional comedians and non-actors as well as genuinely shocking stunts that leave audiences questioning the parameters of what is being performed.
For those who recognize Andre from his cult late-night talk show sendup The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim, there might be an underlying assumption that Bad Trip would be nothing short of similar full-blown absurdist humor—all unexpectedly sprung on impartial bystanders—but the film is more than just rehashes of sketches like “What If It Were Purple?” or “Legalize Ranch.” The plot is necessarily kept simplistic, establishing a vital connective sinew in order to motivate actors to maintain character and drive their interactions with non-actors who stumble upon the staged antics. Andre plays Chris, a West Floridian washout who is in such an aggravated state of arrested development that he pounces on a polite offer from his long-time high school crush Maria (Michaela Conlin) to visit the art gallery that she runs in Manhattan. He convinces his best friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) to steal his incarcerated sister Trina’s (Tiffany Haddish) hot pink hotrod, emblazoned with “bad bitch” on the back window, and road trip up the East Coast with him. After a hilariously lax prison break (“Go…that way,” mutters a roadside painter who buckles under questioning from a C.O. after aiding a disguised Haddish), Trina brazenly rips the door off of a cop car in order to pursue Chris and her brother on their journey.
What’s most distinguishable about Bad Trip is the way that it depicts the public which it interacts with. The film never aims to humiliate or dehumanize its subjects—instead of being disparaged or mocked in the name of comedy, bystanders are portrayed as more of a righteous tribunal than mere crabs in a barrel. The reprehensible behavior showcased always stems from Andre, Haddish or Howery, with spectators taking it upon themselves to moralize and attempt to salvage any remaining shred of the incognito actors’ perceived dignity—perhaps all too perfectly exemplified in a scene with a parking lot Army recruiter who civilly declines Andre’s offer of a blowjob in exchange for execution during a profound period of hopelessness. This ability to invoke public reaction—with no rubric for hardline emotions that the actors must elicit—is what allows the fabric of Bad Trip’s humor to shine through. With the professional actors shouldering the burden of both maintaining character for the benefit of the film’s overarching narrative as well as ensuring that the orchestrated gags play perfectly, the public’s only obligation is reacting genuinely, whether that be expressing anger, frustration, disdain or bewilderment. It’s this spectrum of varied emotion that is woven into the very fabric of the film, giving it an overtly genuine tone. At times it is even surprisingly heartwarming, with good samaritans stepping in to talk characters off of ledges and break up public quarrels.
Of course, the meticulousness of each prank means that their constraints are often palpable. When non-actor interaction and input are often the funniest parts of the film, the commitment director and co-writer Kitao Sakurai carries for ensuring that each scenario’s intended outcome is achieved means that there is inherently less room for extended ad-libbing and the fleshing out of non-actors’ comedic potential. Yet, this might not be a total drawback—while the film ostensibly serves as a platform for Andre’s comedy, springboarding off of 2020 Netflix special Legalize Everything, Haddish’s performance in particular merits special praise. Despite being given limited screen time, she shines luminously and is particularly effortless when it comes to transitioning between the film’s comparatively polished segments that serve as narrative transitions between pranks and the more off-the-cuff interactions with ordinary people. Conlin’s portrayal of Maria adds necessary dimension to the film’s cast of deplorable characters, her joint moments of meek levity contrasted with a satisfying freak-out moment position her as a worthy opponent to the other actors’ comedic strengths despite being most well known for her role on the Fox dramedy Bones. In fact, Howery’s limited interaction with civilians might hint at shortcomings with improvisation—save for a brilliant payoff late in the film related to an earlier conversation about a certain mid-2000s Wayans brothers film.
Bad Trip was originally intended to screen at SXSW 2020, the pandemic putting a kibosh in plans for theatrical distribution. Despite the film’s unceremonious Netflix streaming premiere, it did have one hell of an audience screening before COVID ravaged the world: Andre showed the film to none other than Borat himself, Sacha Baron Cohen, upon its completion. That’s a peer-reviewed seal of approval surely worth its weight in gold within the public prank subgenre. Despite the high-profile laurel, Bad Trip is more than capable of standing on its own—all it needs to measure its success is the sound of uncontrollable laughter, followed by a belabored effort to regain composure in time to catch the next caper.
Director: Kitao Sakurai
Writers: Eric Andre, Dan Curry, Kitao Sakurai
Stars: Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish, Michaela Conlin
Release Date: March 26, 2021 (Netflix)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.