Not Worth the Meal

The Slammin' Salmon

Let’s be clear right from the outset: Super Troopers is a hilarious movie. I found that movie on the wall at Blockbuster back in 2001, and when I took it home I watched it, then grabbed some friends so we could watch it together and immediately started it back over again. It’s just such an uproariously funny movie, dropping joke after joke in every scene. It never lets a moment go by without something funny to laugh at. It’s a credit to the comedy troop Broken Lizard that they were able to make such a solid comedy as only their second film together (after 1996’s indie production, Puddle Cruiser).

But since then, the troop has struggled to find the same kind of success as with Super Troopers. They’ve put out a few different films, from 2004’s Club Dread to 2006’s Beerfest and then 2009’s The Slammin’ Salmon, and time and again audiences have failed to materialize. Their only other big success was, naturally, Super Troopers 2, which managed to make back just over double its $13 Mil budget, but it wasn’t exactly enjoyed by critics (and then quickly fell off everyone’s radar). What is it about their films that keeps people from flocking to their efforts the way they did for Super Troopers?

Well, if The Slammin’ Salmon is any indication, the big issue is that their other films just aren’t funny. Super Troopers is the kind of magic movie that comes out after a bunch of comedian friends get together and dump every funny idea they have into a single film (like Monty Python and the Holy Grail). After they’ve done such a big dump of ideas, it’s hard to come up with the same kind of rapid fire collection of ideas and jokes to fill another film (I know The Life of Brian has its fans but it doesn’t have anywhere near the same energy as Holy Grail, only helping to prove the point). Broken Lizard made one stupendously funny movie and they’ve been struggling to pull it off again ever since. The Slammin’ Salmon is no exception in that department, as it reeks of “trying”.

The film focuses on the titular restaurant which is owned by retired heavyweight boxing champion Cleon Salmon (Michael Clarke Duncan) and managed by Cleon’s brother-in-law, Richardo "Rich" Perente (Kevin Heffernan). Working at the restaurant are the servers – Jay Chandrasekhar as Nuts, Steve Lemme as Connor Rhodes, Erik Stolhanske as Guy Metdrapedes, Cobie Smulders as Tara, April Bowlby as Mia, and Paul Soter as Donnie Kanogi – as well as abusing head chef Dave Kanogi (also Paul Soter). A usual night working at the restaurant, though, is thrown off when Cleon announces that the store has to make twenty thousand dollars in a single night or it will get taken over by the Yakua.

When that ensues is an escalating contest among the serving staff to try and make the most money (in sales and tips) by the end of the night. The prize starts out as concert tickets, and then a stay at a resort in the Florida Keys, all before becoming a cool ten thousand dollars (meaning now the restaurant has to make thirty thousand in one night, an impossible goal). And all the while various shenanigans and hijinx prevail. It’s server against server for the fate of the restaurant… and their futures.

The Slammin’ Salmon is a film about working at a restaurant, and you’d think it would have a very personal and meaningful hook to it considering most comics and actors end up working food service for a time while they get their careers going (you gotta do something to pay the bills, after all). But this film is missing that personal touch, that certain lived in feel that actually makes you believe the people that worked on the film really had been waiters before. There’s too much silliness, too many details that fail to ring true, that it outweighs those times where the setting does feel like an actual restaurant.

Or maybe it’s just that the film is so silly that it fails to actually be funny. The movie goes very broad at times, to points where it stops feeling like reality and starts to feel like a live-action cartoon. One character, Mia, is a ballerina-in-training and she will regularly dance her way around sections of the restaurant. Donald gets hazed and wanders around with bright blue lips as he constantly drinks Blue Curacao. Conner is an actor who has to come back to serving after getting fired from the show he was on, CFI Hotlanta, because he got a nose job for a smaller schnoz. And then, of course, there’s Cleon who is the biggest, dumbest boxer and feels like he walked it from a different, far more broad and stupid comedy.

The thing is that these guys, the Broken Lizard team, can do broad and silly humor but still keep it just grounded enough to fit within a given kind of reality. Super Troopers has its very silly moments but it also works in context. Those are guys pulling pranks and being dumb because they’re bored in their jobs and need something to get through the day. But within the context of The Slammin’ Salmon, those silly moments just don’t work. Many of them simply don’t fit the reality of the situation, and a lot of the silliness just doesn’t feel all that funny.

Perhaps the funniest gag involves Mia. About a third of the way into the movie, as she’s dancing through the restaurant (for no reason), she gets splashed with extremely hot soup. This leaves her with first-degree burns on her face (which is cruel when written down but amusing in the moment). Then, later, she gets burned again with some misplaced alcohol and a splash of birthday candles. This was an amusing escalation, played to perfection by Bowlby, as Mia desperately tries to stay in the competition as she gets progressively more mangled by fire. But the gag also doesn’t quite hit the truly high mark as the film fails to follow the “rule of three”. Mia really needed one more horrible fire incident to really send her bad luck home and make the joke play. It’s funny in the moment, but still missing something.

Meanwhile, the worst gag (and we do mean gag here) involves a wedding ring hidden in a brownie and the manager eating said brownie. You can see exactly where this is going as the ring then has to be “passed” so that it can be cleaned and put back in the dessert so it can be presented, and the lady the ring was meant for can have her magical proposal. The film didn’t really need poop jokes, especially the way it sets this up, but then, were it going to go for it, it needed the gooiest, drippiest chocolate dessert if it were going for the gross-out factor of her eating the dessert at the end. It doesn’t going for that over-the-top glory, even after making us suffer through the rest of the plotline, and so it fails the joke in both directions.

At the same time there are moments where the film is almost able to find some charm depicting the lives of these people working at an up-scale restaurant. The struggle of having a customer at a table that just won’t leave. The times where rich people come in, order a ton of everything, and then don’t tip. All the times customers complain about things the waiters have no control over, and then get super angry and aggressive over every little thing. As someone that has worked in food service I can attest that many of these moments ring true. These aren’t the funniest bits of the film but are the most authentic. If the film could have focused more on these beats, and found ways to bring subtle, stylish humor into these scenes, I think it could have been far more successful.

This isn’t the fault of the cast, mind you. They are game, and they’re all pretty solid in their roles. The issue is that the script just isn’t there to support them. Written by the whole of the Broken Lizard crew, it feels like they had one idea – “let’s set the movie at a restaurant” – but then weren’t really sure how to put all their jokes in. It feels tired, and a little sad, even as everyone in the cast is doing their best to sell their characters and the setting. It has heart and determination, but the writing fails at every turn. I want to like the film because I like most of the characters and I feel for them as they work these shitty jobs, but I very rarely laughed. For a comedy, that’s a death sentence.

It feels to me like Broken Lizard really needed to find a good idea that could hang really good bits. Instead they keep going to the well on weak ideas and weaker gags and their movies don’t come together. I like the crew, and I will always enjoy Super Troopers, but their oeuvre is filled with more movies like The Slammin’ Salmon than outright hilarious hits, and that’s why so few people pay attention to their works at this point. “Made by the guys behind Super Troopers” feels more like a threat than a promise at this point.