The New York sketch comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade is in many ways preferable to "Saturday Night Live." The writing is tighter, more focused, and doesn't succumb to the pressures of topicality that make a lot of "SNL" seem forced, desperate, and, well, sketchy. Plus, the members of the ensemble don't feel compelled to jockey for stardom.
When the UCB had a show on Comedy Central a few years back, I didn't know the lone female was Amy Poehler until she joined the current cast of "Saturday Night Live." The UCB emphasizes comedic harmony over soloists and actively experiments with the idea of sustained jokes, a feat explored by a lot of alternative comedy but rarely achieved.
A few years ago, two of the UBC's founding members, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts, along with Katie Roberts, wrote a movie called "Martin & Orloff" that opens today, and in the UCB tradition, it tries with all its might to hold together as a parade of randomness hitched to a central problem. That doesn't always work, but the film is faithful to its absurdities, sometimes hilariously so. Directed by Judy Blume's son Lawrence, the movie and its players have a natural, matter-of-fact sense of comedy. It doesn't rub our faces in its jokes.
The action centers on Martin Flam (Ian Roberts), who's just been released from the hospital. He makes life-size mascot costumes for businesses, and his company's last client, a Chinese restaurant, had insisted that its egg roll suit have no eyes. The actor, unable to see, fell over a railing, into the ocean, and drowned. Martin was so bereft he tried to kill himself.
He visits a therapist named Dr. Orloff (Walsh), but the shrink can't focus on Martin's problems for an entire session. Instead, he drags his patient with him to a softball game, which the overdressed and non-athletic Martin is prevailed upon to ump. This is the movie's first completely funny sequence. Somehow, Martin doesn't know the difference between a strike and a ball, calling everything wrong. The sequence goes on long enough to achieve a sort of understated nonsense that erupts into a melee when the players can't believe the calls.
The movie's running joke is that Dr. Orloff, a brutal narcissist, can't ever give tall, gaunt Martin enough time to add up to a complete session. He just bullies him into tagging along all over New York City, promising sessions that wind up interrupted. There's a trip to a strip club where Orloff's girlfriend (Kim Raver) works. He hooks Martin up with her friend (Poehler), and they head to a dinner theater production of something called "The Mint Julep Club," a "Steel Magnolias" backslap that stars the comedians Janeane Garofalo, Tina Fey, and Rachel Dratch and was written by a needy, effeminate man played by David Cross. That's funny, too. But the movie typically forsakes its quiet digs for freewheeling slapstick.
Most of the men in the movie have anger problems, as does a female patient Dr. Orloff has hypnotized into a wild woman. (She hates her father.) But only in the last sequence, in which Martin and Dr. Orloff try to stop more actors from dying, needlessly, in an eyeless costume, does the movie go dumb and uninspired. There's a gag about a fat guy whose silhouette we see and a stale John Woo riff that's actually funnier when used in the new Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movie.
Still, you're grateful that the movie's conceits are kept mostly in check and that the comedy tries to follow a few rules. I'd rather watch "Martin & Orloff" than "Coneheads" or "A Night at the Roxbury" any day.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martin & Orloff
Directed by: Lawrence Blume
Written by: MattWalsh, Ian Roberts, and Katie Roberts
Starring: Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, Amy Poehler, Kim Raver, Jon Benjamin, Sal Valente, and David Cross
At: Copley Place
Unrated (Language, violence, and implied nudity)