Is there any comedy subgenre that has produced as much failure and embarrassment as the caveman comedy? From Ringo Starr in the dopey Caveman, the lame live action Flintstones movie, e to the opening scenes of the generally-overrated Mel Brooks film History of the World – Part I, this admittedly very narrow subgenre hasn’t yielded much in the way of classic comedy. Even the genre’s highest profile example, Year One, was a surprisingly unfunny flick that nonetheless managed to snag some top-shelf talent. Of course, the reasons for the genre’s popularity are obvious: we don’t know much about the time period but the relatively rudimentary way of life of the period obviously involved lots of butt-fucking and shitting in the woods (in fact the best-known serious caveman movie, Quest for Fire, contains more butt-fucking and woods-shitting than all of the aforementioned combined), both of which are objectively hilarious.
That having been said, it was a ballsy/dumb move of Adam Rifkin to attempt yet another caveman comedy when the previous track record is so spotty. Rifkin is exactly the kind of under-the-radar talent that I’d love to champion on here; his body of work is eclectic (ranging from relatively mainstreams efforts like Detroit Rock City and the infamous Henry Rollins – Charlie Sheen two-header The Chase to Look, a film that comprises entirely of security-camera footage), often obscure but always undeniably fascinating to me. I chose Homo Erectus for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which is the aforementioned generalized shittiness of past caveman comedies. Can the man who cast Rollins as a cop on the tail of the world’s most famous warlock overcome the curse?
Homo Erectus comes to us from National Lampoon, that once-venerable humour institution whose stamp of approval has, in recent years, grown to mean little more than ‘this is a movie’. National Lampoon have been licensing their name out for a while, meaning that I can’t exactly group this with the likes of Animal House or Vacation but I can’t place all the blame on those same individuals who unleashed shit like Senior Trip (starring Oscar winner Jeremy Renner!) and TV: The Movie. Regardless, National Lampoon apparently thought that the title needed some work and released the film in different territories as Homo Erectus or The Stoned Age, both of which give a pretty good idea of the amount of faith and effort that’s gone into this project.
Fittingly, it begins with a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey wherein a caveman beats a cow skull to bits in slow motion. The whole thing is played straight until he tosses the bone up in the air and it lands square on the head of our protagonist, Ishbo (Rifkin). Unlike his crass, bone-chucking peers, Ishbo is a sensitive and neurotic soul (complete with scraggly beard and John Lennon glasses) who’s unhappy with his current lot in life. Ever since his childhood, his thuggish older brother Thudnick (Hayes MacArthur) wails and picks on him relentlessly and his father (David Carradine), the leader of the tribe, is a philandering alpha-male who cheats on his wife (Talia Shire) and thinks Ishbo is a pencil-necked dweeb. His best friend Fardart (Ali Larter) remains unaware that he’s madly in love with her and continues holding a torch for Thudnick.
Honestly, as bad as this movie could ostensibly sound, I wouldn’t bat an eye if it was an early Woody Allen movie. While Rifkin isn’t nearly as charismatic as Allen (but certainly more charismatic than, say, Edward Burns), the idea itself has very much been proven to work in the past. Unfortunately, this ain’t no Love and Death. While Ishbo is a philosophical caveman, his philosophising is most limited to him wondering if there’s more to life while other cavemen bonk each other upside the head in the background. In fact, people getting clubbed upside the head seems to be the entire movie’s single-most important event. You see, ‘clubbing’ s basically just a euphemism for sex; everyone consequently spends the entire movie obsessing about being clubbed and getting clubbing and clubbing bitches to a point where a Smurf-like cognitive dissonance forms pretty quickly. Not only is clubbing the film’s #1 favourite joke, it’s also its favourite word.
Fardart takes it upon herself to show Ishbo how to club (this, however, does not lead to a clubbing where in real life, I would assume someone offering to show me how to fuck would most likely have plans to fuck) but as Ishbo is about to declare his undying love for her, Thudnick clubs her upside the head and makes off with her, eventually announcing to everyone they’re getting married. MacArthur and Larter actually met on the set of this movie and eventually got married, which I guess counts for something. A regular Bronson and Ireland, those two. Ishbo is eaten by a giant mammoth and eventually crapped out in a sequence conveyed through budget-conscious animated cave paintings that would actually be kind of cool if they didn’t depict the whiny protagonist being shit out by a giant pachyderm.
I guess there’s just something about cavemen that inspires people to trudge out their creakiest, most uninspired humour. About half of Homo Erectus feels like it was lifted wholesale from fucking turn-of-the-century vaudeville and Catskills comedians. When Ishbo shoots down his Uncle Unky’s (Carradine, pulling a dual performance worthy of Dead Ringers thanks to a strategically-placed eyepatch) storytelling, he’s challenged to make up his own story. Of course, he comes up with a standup routine destined to tickle the funny bone of the world’s least-discerning octogenarians – complete with ‘cavemen know all the best clubs’ and ‘is this thing on?’. He gets a rock in the face for his efforts. Homo Erectus exemplifies the major problem of a lazy comedy versus a lazy, say, action movie. If a lazy action movie doesn’t know where to go, it can bridge the gap with a boring clichéd scene you’ve seen a million times and maybe not be boring as shit because there are enough variables to fuck with. A lazy comedy will just spew up a hacky joke the director’s grandpa used to pull on him when he was in short pants with the only variation being what object will be whipped at the protagonist’s balls.
While Ishbo is ruminating the awful hand he’s been dealt, he accidentally knocks out GARY BUSEY IN A FUCKING EAGLE COSTUME. It turns out Busey is one of the rival clan’s assassins/shamanic dudes that’s been sent over to kill everyone or some shit. Busey’s appearance a good fifty minutes in is really the first bright spot in what’s otherwise been a pretty unfunny collection of dung jokes and pratfalls. For all of the movie’s slapstick silliness, its major cast members are mostly known for being unintentionally hilarious if at all. Busey may be completely insane, but he knows what he’s doing there, and his bug-eyed lunatic shtick gives the movie a welcome jolt of energy. There’s all kinds of ridiculous stunt casting in here that, unfortunately, makes up most of the film’s funniest moments. It requires a breakdown:
– Tom Arnold plays a gay outcast caveman with a feathered blonde wig who tries to make out with Ishbo like nine times. He gets beat to death and they eat him.
– Ron Jeremy is in every other scene. His chief characteristic is that farts have been edited into the film whenever he’s onscreen FOR MAXIMUM LAUGHS.
– Porn star Sasha Grey gets clubbed in the head by David Carradine in the first of many lady-clubbing montages. I’m assuming she dropped by the set to hang out with Ron Jeremy (probably the most experienced porn star to get a legit career) and get tips on her performance in The Girlfriend Experience. She shows up later as a bushy lesbian warrior.
– The tribe elder is a constantly-naked old man with an epic beard. Apparently, he has some sort of notoriety as the star of weird short films by a dude named Giuseppe Andrews (who appears as one of a pair of caveman stoners). That’s cool. He’s mostly naked and senile in this one, though, and serves the purpose of being the character that spews random non-sequiturs like ‘I PUT A BABY WOMBAT IN MY RECTUM A COUPLE OF HOURS AGO. FROM THE FEEL OF THINGS, HE’S STILL ALIVE UP THERE.’
– Ishbo’s monkey cousin (who has a crush on him) features prominently. The monkey wears a wig and performs a striptease at Thudnick’s bachelor party. A drunken and despondent Ishbo eventually makes out with his monkey cousin in front of his whole family and they wake up spooning. I typed those words, just now. That happened.
By the fucking one-hour mark, vague rumblings of a plot are felt. Ishbo and his tribe are at war with whatever the hell Gary Busey’s tribe of eaglemen is called. They commence training in order to properly decimate the competition and we’re treated to pretty much every joke from Stripes with the added comic device of people getting knocked upside the head. Fardart dons a fake beard and joins the interminable fight sequence in which, impressively, Ron Jeremy roundhouse kicks a guy in the face three times and, predictably, Carradine gets decapitated. More importantly, though, Fardart gets kidnapped by the barbarian hordes, much to her husband’s utter nonchalance. Ishbo sees this as his opportunity to win Fardart’s love and sets out on a lonely quest. He runs into a band of half-naked Amazons led by supermodel/late-80s-to-early-90s-B-movie-star Carol Alt (?!). The residents of Gynocopolis (her name is Queen Fallopia, in case you were wondering) are glad to see that Ishbo is a non-threatening male (her words) and force him to impregnate all of them. After a montage of naked chicks gyrating, Ishbo is taken to Queen Fallopia but turns her down on the basis that he’s in love with Fardart and it would be cheating on her.
After this unnecessary Lampoon-mandated nudity interlude, Ishbo returns to his mission and wanders the desert for several days. When he finally finds Fardart, she doesn’t want rescuing! It turns out this other tribe’s dudes are better looking, richer and have larger genitals than Ishbo. She alerts the tribe to his presence and they pretty much chase him until they run into the Gynocopolians AND his tribe, leading the entire cast into chasing him off the cliff. Ishbo dies and his bones become a museum exhibit, proving that nice guys finish last or some shit. The entire hour and a half of boner jokes and people rolling around in piles of shit is basically a thinly-veiled ‘girls only like assholes with cars and money’ morality tale. Eugh.
Considering how all over this thing Rifkin is as director, writer and star, it feels awfully impersonal. The jokes are so tossed-off that they’re the equivalent of a paper written the night before; while they’re technically jokes, jokes have to be funny. Rifkin just doesn’t seem that into it on any level. He’s a passable actor but the incongruity of his character works against him; he just seems slightly contemptuous of his own material and delivers them in that same passable fashion as they’re written. Almost everything here is the barest minimum acceptable… except for the actual direction. For a low-budget, straight-to-DVD caveman comedy, Homo Erectus looks surprisingly good. The camerawork is fluid and some landscape shots are actually kind of cool, which is way way way more than I expected from a movie where Ron Jeremy plays a flatulent caveman.
So why does it exist?
Rifkin’s triple-threat sounds like it should be a passion project but it actually feels like the very opposite (a dispassion project?). Caveman comedies never made any money, they were never commercially popular and they never particularly made an impact. In a sense they’re practically the genre that epitomizes Why Does It Exist? If Rifkin was seeking to prove that it’s possible to make a funny caveman movie, he failed with the fury of a thousand suns. If he wanted to prove that this is a broken and unfunny sub-genre, he did a fantastic job. Its vast array of physical comedy features no butt-fucking or woods-shitting, surprisingly enough, and while it certainly doesn’t improve on this deeply embarrassing genre, it’s still marginally better than Year One.