I am one of the many billions of world citizens who had no idea who Bert Kreischer is, and after seeing The Machine, a wide-release, sub-Nic-Cagean riff on his beer-can-size meta-quasi-celebrity, I could hardly care less. You’d need to look to the Trump presidency to find a more odoriferous example of our 21st-century American desire to elevate pure asshole-ness, and at least Trump kept his shirt on. Apparently, in real life, Kreischer was a titanic alcoholic frat bro in the ’90s at Florida State U, big enough to have been profiled in a Rolling Stone article about party schools. Oliver Stone thought it’d make a movie, and commissioned a bunch of scripts, one of which got turned into National Lampoon’s Van Wilder micro-franchise in the aughts.
A Florida Man incarnate, Kreischer decided to capitalize, and launched a stand-up career telling yarns about his glory days as a souse. His capstone story happened on a school trip to Russia (he was unaccountably taking Russian-language classes), where he partied with gangsters on a train, earning himself the eponymous vodka-gulping moniker, and then helped them rob the other passengers while thoroughly hammered.
That’s it. Who knew the barrier to entry in viral-quasi-celebrity-land was so low? Let’s hope the Russia story is true; it hardly resonates as a witty fiction. Presumably this tale is somehow made funny in Kreischer’s actual on-stage schtick, performed beer-bloated and naked from the waist up, but I won’t be finding out any time soon. In the film, it’s dead on arrival. What should seem clear to us, if not to the new film’s producers, is the fact that, often enough, tens of millions of free streaming views, or partial views, because they are free, amount to next to nothing. If people had to pay a single penny to watch a YouTube bit, I doubt we and Kreischer would be having this conversation.
Will anyone cough up three five-spots for him? The Machine, directed by TV comedy journeyman Peter Atencio and co-written by one of the creators of Cougar Town, sketches Kreischer’s whole backstory in a quick montage, outlandishly presuming that if you’re watching, you already know and love Kreischer and his howling potbellied routine. From there, we get the present-day Bert, who’s trying to clean up and be a solid family man, but it’s not long before he is confronted in his posh L.A. home by a Russian gangster-ess (Stephanie Kurtzuba), who kidnaps him and his irritant dad (Mark Hamill, trying for a grizzled Henry Winkler vibe) back to Moscow. There’s a particular watch that was stolen on that train ride 23 years earlier, you see, and the Russian underworld, with its vast array of silly face tattoos, is trying to find it.
Just like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and Hypnotic, the movie is winkingly aware of how cliched and sodden the plot, action, and characterizations are; it’s almost a new subgenre, the stumblebrag meta-farce. (The paradigm might’ve begun with David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express, in 2008, and collapsed from there.) So, amid the semi-earnest whining about his own father issues and his need to redeem his sorry ass, Kreischer bulges his swollen eyes at the clumsy gunplay, pops out supposedly hilarious one-liners (“I shit in a pizza box right there!,” he blurts out, when they return to his college-tale hotel. “It got mixed reviews.”), and generally fails to reveal himself to be much more than a prototypical American douche.
The ’90s portion of the story flits in and out in flashbacks, in which Kreischer is played by another “YouTube personality,” Jimmy Tatro, who is at least fit and not blistered with drink. Honestly, the only thing less convincing than Kreischer as some kind of Everyman comedy icon, or as an ersatz action hero, is the idea that he’d have something to teach Russian mobsters about drinking vodka. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994.
His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.