Joe Dirt 2 and the Very Meaning of Art Itself

By  · Published on July 17th, 2015

Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser is one of the most fascinating cultural artifacts of the year. No one should ever watch it, but it still raises big questions about the purpose and definition of movies in 2015. Years from now, it will be seen both as a pioneer (that, again, shouldn’t actually be watched) and as the moment the existential fault line between art and commerce rumbled until foundations cracked.

The first of the questions is whether or not this 14-years-later sequel is a movie at all. Technically, yes. With a 115-minute runtime, it’s a feature length narrative. It’s also presented with “limited commercials” on Crackle, Sony’s streaming service. If you thought January was a dumping ground, welcome to Crackle.

It’s free to watch it (like everything on the site), and it’s designed to act as a delivery method for Arby’s commercial sponsorship and to draw attention to the website itself – which means that Joe Dirt 2 is also a kind of commercial. A commercial with three Arby’s commercials inside of it. Promoting the film has focused largely on bringing people to the site.

If you were wondering, no, there’s nothing like being bombarded with a bacon burger advertisement (“Look at all that bacon!”) after watching David Spade get his testicles sucked into an airplane toilet.

Did I mention that no one should actually watch the movie? Because that’s important. It’s a heinous experience, but it’s not so-bad-it’s-entertaining. It’s so bad that even making fun of it is a joyless endeavor. Like making fun of an orphan puppy in a wheelchair. It’s mostly a rehash of the first film complete with retreads of sequences, jokes, lines and cameos. Every scene is a first take where comedians bring their B-game, and writer/director Fred Wolf didn’t find anything to leave behind on the cutting room floor.

Brian Tallerico at Roger Ebert’s site has it covered pretty well, but you should also know that two preps from 1965 say, “Do you even lift?” in the movie because, sure, why not. The movie should be studied for centuries to come in film schools as an example of where fat should have been trimmed.

But the first draft feeling of all of it makes sense because Joe Dirt 2 isn’t just a movie; it’s a commercial for Crackle. A really long, unfunny commercial. For a movie, it was made on the cheap. For a commercial, it’s insanely overpriced.

Which leads to the second major question: who would spend this much money on a commercial? To be fair, I don’t know how much the movie/commercial cost, but I’d ballpark it around $3m simply because of all the locations involved. The most expensive part of the movie was probably the rights to “Sweet Home Alabama.” For comparison, the original was made for $18m (about $25m in today’s money).

In almost every other situation, a decades-later sequel with name-recognition would be a cash grab, but I don’t see how anyone other than Bialystock and Bloom saw this as a winner. The young legend goes that Sony saw #joedirt trending every time the harmless 2001 comedy played on cable, so they saw a market for a sequel. Call it TBS-thought.

Keep that in mind while considering that Joe Dirt 2 has also offered us the bottom of the reboot hierarchy – a trend we’re still trying to wrap our opinions around. Ghostbusters is getting a reboot decades later with a big budget and one of the most bankable comedic duos (Feig/McCarthy) working today. Anchorman got a sequel a decade later for a medium budget, and it went to theaters. Then there’s Joe Dirt 2, which wasn’t released in theaters.

It wasn’t even released straight-to-dvd. It wasn’t even released for rental on iTunes. It was released for free on Sony’s subsidiary streaming site, paid for by commercials (and rationalized as an attention-getter). So it’s a movie using the television show model – a feeling enhanced even further by the vignette-bound nature of the movie’s nonsensical narrative. You come back from commercial to find Joe in a new episode of the same movie.

Thus, Sony saw the name Joe Dirt as big enough to shoulder burger commercials and bring people to their website, but not big enough to get people to theaters or type in their iTunes password.

Our typical understanding is that if something has name-recognition value, then someone, somewhere will usher it into theaters with plausible deniability at their back. Reboot and rehash culture thrives on that mindset. Joe Dirt 2 proves that it isn’t true.

Joe Dirt made almost $31m back in 2001, meaning that after DVD sales, it was either made a little money or lost a little money for Sony. Critics hated it, but it’s actually a pretty harmless, dumb comedy that sticks to a message of being your idiot self and staying optimistic.

Its harmlessness puts it in a position to be used as a commercial. Not a flop, yet not really a success. Like if studios suddenly wanted sequels to Corky Romano, The Hot Chick, Someone Like You, My Dog Skip, The New Guy or any other mostly-forgettable films from over a decade ago in order to slap fast food franchise logos on them.

Now, what I’m saying might be unfair. Netflix has, for years, used its online-only programming simultaneously as a way to entertain subscribers and bring new ones to the fold. A kind of advertising for themselves. Any difference between that and what Crackle/Sony is doing (or what TV stations have always done) is purely academic. Maybe Joe Dirt 2 stands out because the usual model involves prestige programming (Orange is the New Black, House of Cards) as well as niche entertainment (kids shows, whatever beautiful beast BoJack Horseman is), but Crackle has announced its arrival as a production house with a generic comedy born on the blurry fringe of Y2K’s memory.

It’s hard to sell subscriptions and burgers at the same time.

Thus, the biggest question here is what we use art for now. This isn’t a new situation, but the filmmaking era we currently live in is busting at the seams with movies that act as individual entertainment and as advertisements. It’s no surprise that this era gave rise to the most overt, embedded advertising in history: the post-credits scene.

“James Bond will return…” has been injected with steroids and cameo appearances to the point that we wait to see past the second unit director’s name in order to be sold the next movie.

But it’s not just the post-credits scenes. A lot of movies – big movies, that actually get released in theaters – are also advertisements for the next in the franchise, the series, or the universe. Iron Man is an advertisement for The Avengers is an advertisement for Ant-Man is an advertisement for Captain America: Civil War. The Hunger Games is an advertisement for Catching Fire. Movies that were marginally successful last year may not even know that they’re advertisements for the eventual sequel in 2024.

The Status of David was an advertisement for The Sistine Chapel. “If you like the way I carve a slingshot, you’ll love the way I paint God.” Like I said, this isn’t exactly new. Just bigger.

So, Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser. It’s a movie. It’s a TV-like series of vignettes glued together by commercials. It’s a commercial itself. It’s a mascot for a website.

However, it’s also – in its awful way – the first of its kind. A unique piece of cinema that lives at the crossroads of artistic design and the ad sales team. I have to wonder if, like direct-to-video and online rentals, we’ll eventually see the legitimization of this format. Legitimately entertaining movies delivered online for free with only the occasional annoyance of a meaty commercial break and the suggestion that we should watch The Fifth Element next. Films – good films – made to act as entertainment, commercial and commercial conveyance device all in one. Joe Dirt 2 could be only the beginning.

I hope it isn’t. Although Christopher Walken is still pretty great.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.