I was originally going to study the vast majority of 50 Cent’s acting portfolio on Why Does It Exist? until it occurred to me that it may be perceived that I have a bone to pick against rappers in general and Fiddy in particular. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What it boils down to is a simple question of mass: there are simply way more rappers willing to take six hours out of their day to make an embarrassing appearance in an embarrassing flick than in any other musical genre.
Of course, there’s only one other musical genre that manages to rake in millions and millions of dollars a year while remaining relatively separate from the mainstream and that’s country music. Glorious, shit-kickin’, proud-to-be-‘Merican country music with its gloriously autotuned warbling and comically-oversized Stetsons. The mainstream country industry (by which I mean shit like Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Toby Keith, Alan Jackson and the like – not Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard) is a train that keeps chugging whether we blue-staters (or, in my case, godless pinko Canadians) notice or not. That having been said, its cinematic output is considerably smaller than one would expect and a lot of it is of the cancerous-little-girl-bonds-with-pony variety. When its stars are not stretching their tear ducts on the Hallmark Channel, they tend to appear in considerably larger projects like Country Strong. I truly thought that country music and the entire Southern half of the United States had managed to get away from me until I came across a miracle man by the name of Billy Ray Cyrus.
Billy Ray Cyrus has embodied the spirit of Why Does It Exist? for a good twenty years now. Although most people would tell you that the only thing he was really famous for before birthing Miley Cyrus is writing the ubiquitous Achy Breaky Dance, a bit of research reveals that Cyrus holds all kinds of dumb records like being the first artist to go triple-platinum in Australia or being on the highest-rated show on the PAX network. Cyrus is one of those under-the-radar sorts that never become quite washed up but are never quite in the public eye. Unlike other country music stars that I’m sure hold equally meaningless records, however, his acting career is pretty spotty and includes cameos in projects as diverse as Mullholland Dr. and Degrassi: The Next Generation but few starring roles. A little movie called Bait Shop would change all of that. Or maybe cause everything to stay exactly the same.
Bill Dugan (Bill Engvall, one of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour dudes who isn’t Larry the Cable Guy or Jeff Foxworthy and shares a striking resemblance to Brian Cox) loves fishing so much he dreams about it. He even owns a small bait shop that seems to barely break even, considering his client base includes two old cronies (Richard Riehle and Wilbur Houston), a layabout handyman who never seems to do anything (Christopher Schmidt) and a penniless conspiracy nut (Rus Blackwell) . His only employee is trying to save the bait shop by diversifying, which drives Bill up the wall. Clearly, selling worms to invisible patrons should be easily sustainable! His father-in-law (Harve Presnell) wants him to sell the bait shop and get a real job. A hotshot professional fisherman named Hot Rod Johnson (Cyrus) is opening a bait shop full of newfangled doodads right across the street from Bill’s shop and impressing Bill’s teenaged son with all his money, eventually taking him on as a protégé. Balloon payments on his mortgage put him 15,000 dollars in debt and the only way to make that money is to win a big fishing tournament against Hot Rod. In other words, his life is fraught with all kinds of delightful odds to overcome in the next hour and twenty minutes.
If at this point you’re thinking ‘Why, this sounds like it could make one hell of a cable sitcom I would never, ever watch!’, you’d be right. IMDB claims the film went straight-to-DVD while other sources call it a USA Network original. Either way, it’s pretty reminiscent of the halcyon days of television when every other show was a stupid sitcom about a talking baby, alien or Nathan Lane inheriting a vineyard. You know that joke where someone says shitty things about someone else who’s much stronger than them and it turns out the person is standing right behind them? That’s in here. The joke where someone insinuates they know about something they don’t actually know about, prompting the other party to spill the beans? Also in there. Jokes about Nigerian prince scams? Check. Falling through the rotting boards of the deck at an inopportune moment? Ripping off the Simpsons joke about the Crocodile Dundee knife fight wholesale? That old drinking-contest trick where you cover the dude’s shot with an empty beer ‘cause he can’t touch your glass? IT’S ALL HERE.
In a lot of ways, Bait Shop resembles that other paragon of music-genre-specific low-budget comedy, Internet Dating. It’s similarly unencumbered by such useless diversions as originality or joke construction; it shares the same contented attitude in simply putting popular figures on-screen and letting them do nothing for a (thankfully brief) period of time. Both films also have a decent comedic performance at their core that sells jokes that would otherwise fall flat. That performance does not come from the most likely suspect, Engvall, but rather from Cyrus. Yes, I admit it. I fucked up. Here I was ready to rip Cyrus a new one and it turns out he’s pretty much the best part of the movie. Of course, being the best part of Bait Shop is akin to coming in second in a turd-baking contest but I have to admit that Cyrus brings more gregarious charm and comedic timing than one would expect from a man who built an empire on a mullet. It’s easy to see how he landed the coveted role of Colton James in the Jackie Chan classic The Spy Next Door.
I said pretty much the best part up there because the actual best part of Bait Shop is the presence of crustily badass outlaw-country legend Billy Joe Shaver in the role of Bill’s best friend and mentor, Buddy. Buddy’s kind of an ethereal presence in the film, randomly peppering scenes you’re pretty sure he wasn’t in originally, spewing all kinds of homespun wisdom befitting a senior citizen who beat the rap on shooting a dude in the face. Like every single element of Bait Shop, Shaver’s character is boring and predictable; his presence, however, is more welcome than any of the numerous foot-in-mouth moments the film has to offer.
Considering director CB Harding is responsible for most of the Blue Collar Comedy output as well as Larry the Cable Guy’s reportedly heinous Delta Farce, I expected a hell of a lot more cracks at ethnic minorities and hilarious screw-ups where one of the characters falls asleep at the tanning salon and is mistaken for a terrorist. Alas, Bait Shop is a wholesome film and, therefore, a boring one. There are a few inappropriate things coming from the stock crackpot character, but those never count. There’s a generalized idea that people who don’t have jobs automatically become migrant workers, which is certainly inaccurate but holds a kernel of truth in that being a migrant worker is a pretty bum deal. Apart from the idea that a jumpsuit-wearing bass fisherman with feathered hair could become a celebrity north of the Mason-Dixon line, there’s very little that identifies this as a by-product of the whole terrible Blue Collar Comedy family. If there’s anything worse than a bad movie, it’s an inoffensively bad movie. Those purely suck, as opposed to sucking based on technical or ideological standards. Truth be told, there really isn’t much to fault Bait Shop on beyond the utter futility of its existence.
So why does it exist?
It’s pretty obvious that Bait Shop was at some point meant to be a sitcom. For whatever reason (Cyrus and Engvall’s busy schedules, disappointing tracking results on competitive bass fishing shows, the fact that it’s fucking terrible), it became this. Unfortunately for me, Bait Shop exists because it’s exactly the kind of generic, easily-digestible programming one might expect when the weather is too shitty to go fishing. It’s not funny, not interesting but, more tellingly, not embarrassing. It’s just bad. I feel a little guilty you read this far, that’s how bad this movie is. It robbed me of my own ego.