In our monthly column Laughed to Death, Brianna Zigler takes a look at the way comedy and existentialism go hand-in-hand in seemingly unlikely ways. For this installment, she examines our present-day dystopia as depicted in Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.
When their first feature debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim didn’t know what to expect. They did know that their core audience was exceedingly a niche market, but they’d found cult success appealing to a small base of passionate, nu-absurdism lovers with their mid-to-late-2000s Adult Swim shows Tom Goes to the Mayor and Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!. Would that same audience follow them to the big screen for Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie?
Heidecker and Wareheim, who met during their respective stints as film students at Temple University in Philadelphia, have only ever wanted to make each other laugh, and if other people wanted to laugh along with them, then all the better. Their commitment to creating unique, surrealist art that’s true to themselves and what they find funny has allowed them to cultivate a circle of A-list creators and collaborators who love what it is that they do, and are seemingly always on board with whatever weird thing the pair of alternative comedians want to do next.
In 2010, they decided to end Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! and go all-in on a feature film project. They armed the project with a handful of popular faces, which were partly cultivated by way of their enduring collaborator Bob Odenkirk (the first champion of their work), some dramatic heavyweights thrown into the mix (William Atherton, Robert Loggia, Ray Wise), and odd-ball Awesome Show regulars like Tennessee Winston Luke and James Quall, plus a director of photography who went on to be an Academy Award-nominee.
It seemed as if the comedic duo’s foray into cinematic work was built for success. But upon their Midnight program screening at Sundance, there were walkouts — which, granted, they expected. And there were also scathing reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert, whose soul-crushing dismay at their film left him utterly defeated. At the time, Heidecker, who had recently gotten into Ebert’s writing, felt somewhat rattled, as he divulged during his and Wareheim’s recent Billion Dollar Movie watch-along live stream on New Year’s Day.
Ultimately, people are going to like the work that Tim & Eric put out, or they’re not. It’s a sentiment that has allowed Heidecker, in particular, to move on from Ebert’s punishing words (which were treated as a badge of honor by some involved with the film, such as Adam McKay, who was a producer on the movie and whose own admiration of the unconventional alt-comedy duo helped the film to come to life). Indeed, how does one successfully critique art that has all to do with what someone does or does not personally find funny? Ebert considered what Tim & Eric do “deliberately bad.” Many of us do not.
With the way humor has dramatically shifted across Western culture since Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie released nearly a decade ago, particularly over the internet (and greatly influenced by Tim & Eric themselves) you have to wonder if the film would’ve found greater success if it came out today. Its relentless absurdity and cynical outlook on consumerism blends into an anti-capitalist concoction that did not find its commercial or critical footing in the Obama era. And yet, it might very well have flourished during our current time, as younger generations increasingly take to “eat the rich” sentiments and nihilistic outlooks (see: “doomerism”), and the failings of American capitalism can be found in vacated shopping malls and the people who still cling to what they stood for.
That’s where the inspiration for Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie started: in dying American malls and the juxtaposed excess Heidecker and Wareheim witnessed as newcomers to Los Angeles. And, in no small part, the perceived decline of Western civilization in general, a sentiment that holds much stronger weight in 2021. Those of us in the US are no stranger to the ongoing demise of shopping malls and department stores that has continued to plague retail culture, partly due to the internet’s convenience scourge on shopping.
But Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie takes place only a few years post-Great Recession, and so this idea is amped up to uncanny levels in the setting of the S’Wallow Valley Mall, a post-apocalyptic-looking hellscape ridden with wolves and squatters, where shop owners voluntarily reside in near-squalor. Despite an entire world existing beyond the confines of the desolate mall, those who work there have maintained their own sad existences in forming a kind of capsule civilization, never feeling the need to leave.
Among the mall’s strange inhabitants and businesses are the disease-addled, man-child Taquito (John C. Reilly), zealous sword-vendor Allen Bishopman (Will Forte), who doesn’t want the mall to change, and the Shrim Alternative Healing Center, where those seeking enlightenment are placed in a bathtub filled with diarrhea of the sons of the head of the center, Dr. Doone Struts (Wise). When Tim and Eric’s bumbling, fictional P.R. personas arrive to take over S’Wallow Valley, seeking an agreed-upon billion dollars by mall owner Damien Weebs (Will Ferrell), they don’t promise the proprietors freedom — only a better mall to work in.
In an attempt to veer away from the well-worn cable access vibe of Awesome Show, Heidecker and Wareheim created a film about a pair of up-and-coming “auteurs” who blow the cash they were given to make a feature film and end up with only a few minutes of usable footage. In order to sate the furious studio execs who demand their money back (played by a deliciously campy Loggia alongside Atherton), Tim and Eric accept an open call by the conniving Weebs to make back the billion-dollar budget they squandered.
It’s clear that much of the movie’s ridiculousness is based on the simple, aforementioned idea of Heidecker and Wareheim making each other laugh. Consequently, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is very much the product of a refusal to compromise artistic sensibilities for mainstream culture, and borne from this is a comedy that is as funny as it is decisively mean-spirited. That is part of the reason why Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie might have struggled as it did upon release: anti-capitalist sentiments aren’t new, but they weren’t really fashionable in 2012.
That is, therefore, also why the film deserves critical reassessment as a benchmark critique of “late capitalism” — a term used to describe “the indignities and absurdities of the modern economy,” as explained by Annie Lowrey for The Atlantic. Absurdist humor has an ability to reflect uncanny truths, but the absurdity of late capitalism is already baked into the definition. Thus, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie becomes less an absurdist contortion of real-life than an accurate depiction. Our present-day dystopia is portrayed for what it really is.
In 2017, Time magazine journalist Josh Sanburn predicted one in four American malls would be out of business by 2022, a byproduct of “changing tastes, a widening wealth gap and the embrace of online shopping.” That was only three years ago (which was five years after Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie came out), and still, the American mall plods along in its unhurried path towards obsolescence. Why is that the case? The “retail apocalypse” has been ongoing since 2002 and has drastically sped up in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic lays in-store shopping to near-ruin. But in 2018, Forrester Research reported that the previous year had seen only ten percent of $3.3 trillion in retail sales come from online shopping.
In Sanburn’s article, he notes that malls were always more than just a place to shop, how every society has always had some form of a communal marketplace, dating as far back as Ancient Greece. With the first one erected in 1956 by architect Victor Gruen, American malls soon became “the home of first jobs and blind dates, the place for family photos and ear piercings, where goths and grandmothers could somehow walk through the same doors and find something they all liked.” It’s a glossy-eyed memorialization, but one might find it hard to look past the inherently disquieting nature of this design—of exploiting the human need for socialization and connection through excess consumption, placing disposable income at the core of community.
To be fair, Gruen’s initial intent for malls was to be a remedy for “suburban individualism.” Instead, they became places of obscene sprawl and gluttonous consumerism. To the point where Gruen himself disavowed what greedily mutated out of his utopian vision. But despite the bastardization of his design, malls continued on their successful path for decades, peaking with the 1992 opening of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. And then the 2000s came, and consumer habits steadily changed.
However, it seems as if today’s rose-colored desire for a mall resurgence keeps these behemoths functioning with one foot in the grave, even in the midst of a global pandemic, where workers dubbed “essential” are kept operating stores that sell lingerie and kitsch calendars. Evermore, it’s an idea that leads to the gratuity at the forefront of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie: what if another casualty of the retail apocalypse saw its workers feeling as if they were physically unable to leave? Where the betterment of their lives existed not in finding careers elsewhere, but by adapting to the need for improved malls?
Perhaps that’s why the American mall trudges along nevertheless: the unrelenting insistence on changing along with the times, to adapt in a way that will make in-store shopping desirable once again. Add virtual reality gameplay kiosks, pop-up stores, fitness centers, bowling alleys. Even an entire waterpark and a ski slope. In Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, these are found in the Shrim Alternative Healing Center, an all bread restaurant called Inbreadables, Reggie’s Used Toilet Paper Discount Warehouse, and an adult sex shop, the only stores that retain any semblance of functionality. Hold off imminent extinction if it means one last grab at financial promise — and now, even at the existential cost of your workers. In the year of COVID-19, malls continue their decline but remain operational, and employees’ lives are put second to the ever-floundering American economy.
Shoppers still wait outside GameStops in the cold, dead of night on Black Friday during a pandemic. The proprietors of the S’Wallow Valley Mall remain despite nothing truly holding them there. The fiery Allen Bishopman maintains — until it’s far too late — that he wants his dreary mall to stay how it is. Consumers have been supposedly proving for years that their shopping habits have shifted, but they still cling to the dregs of antiquated designs. Capitalism has made it so that our existences are inherently tied to our ability to work, stockpile riches, and consume products. Heidecker and Wareheim imagined a world where people may never be parted from the stores that they work for because the reality is that they can’t be.
In the end, the hapless, two-man team dubbed Dobis (short for “Do Business”) P.R. saves the once-doomed S’Wallow Valley Mall, restoring some semblance of financial prosperity, cleanliness, and, of course, an end to the dreaded wolf scourge. But, ultimately, the only people who benefit are Tim and Eric themselves, who realize at the last minute that the mall can’t get them the whopping billion dollars (duh) and that the diamonds they accrued for their failed micro-film “Diamond Jim” are worth all the money they need. But Taquito perishes, the vicious execs are violently executed, and most other lead characters (including Reggie, his young son, and Eric’s love interest) are killed off as well—on behalf of Tim and Eric and their fiscal success. Societal decay is begotten by greed.
In Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie—and in real life—there is no such thing as the self beyond labor and accumulating wealth. You live and die within the system. You are another casualty of American capitalism.