Editor’s note: Yet another SXSW feature is hitting limited release, so please relieve yourselves with this Nature Calls review, originally published on March 11, 2012.
Filmmaker Todd Rohal’s third feature film, Nature Calls, returns to a world similar to that of his The Catechism Cataclysm – a world marked by complete madness by way of a poorly planned excursions to the outdoors. Rohal is again concerned with pushing the envelope, particularly when it comes to poking fun at organized religion, but a sweet edge of sentimentality and emotions sets Nature Calls apart from his previous outing.
Unfortunately, Rohal’s film cannot quite join its disparate parts – wacky antics, inspired upbraiding of modern consumer life, physical danger, and fractured familial relationships – into one cohesive piece, and while the film’s laughs are frequent, they are fleeting and don’t have any weight behind them. Also, goddamn can this thing be offensive.
Nature Calls centers on estranged brothers Randy (Patton Oswalt) and Kirk (Johnny Knoxville), both products of a Boy Scoutmaster father who deeply loved the outdoors at large and scouting in particular. But while Randy has dedicated his adult life to scouting, Kirk quit the troop back when he was still a kid (amusingly explained via an animated sequence early on) and is now mainly concerned with his ATM-selling business and a seriously bourgeois existence. But while Kirk has shunned his father and brother’s lifestyle, there are hints that he’s not a complete jackass. He and his wife (Maura Tierney) have adopted a tween son from Africa, and while they’ve absurdly decked out their house in large-scale carved African animals (presumably to make him feel more at home), they’re not bad people, just terribly misguided.
But Randy and Kirk are about to collide, as a planned scouting camping trip that means the world to Randy (to the point that he’s busted Stuart out of his home to come along) has been derailed by a troop more interested in hanging out at Kirk’s house for a “bring your own TV party” with all-you-can-drink milkshakes made by a put-upon missus. Unhinged, Randy convinces the troop to come with him and his idiot assistants to a sliver of wooded land far away from their overbearing moms, where they will engage in essential troop activities and finally make those boys into men. Unfortunately, Kirk goes apeshit when he discovers that the kids are missing, and sets out after Randy with his own cohorts – his hilariously profane and inappropriate “head of security” (Rob Riggle) and a pissed-off dad (Patrice O’Neal).
What follows is a sometimes-hilarious descent into madness, as the scouts have to attempt to survive a routine camping trip gone wrong, while Randy and Kirk attempt to snuff out each other and their dueling ideals. Rohal mines much of his talented cast for big laughs, including stand-out work from Riggle, O’Neal, and the young cast of Boy Scouts, but despite hitting on some big ideas regarding consumerism, the nature of masculinity, and modern society itself, Nature Calls never says anything original or unexpected. Any true emotions are snuffed out by over-the-top shock humor that, though constantly ratcheted up, is only done so to conceal the film’s tonal inconsistencies and unease when it comes to big questions. By the time Nature Calls finally ends (the film clocks in at a slim 79 minutes, though it feels far longer), you’ll be ready to get the heck out of the woods and back to civilization.
The Upside: Some big, biting laughs; great comedic performances from Riggle, O’Neal, and the kids.
The Downside: Oswalt and Knoxville’s characters aren’t given much shading, there are tonal inconsistencies throughout, and despite bold laughs, the film itself is not bold.
On the Side: The film was O’Neal’s final role.