In Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012), Tim (Tim Heidecker) and Eric (Eric Wareheim) accept a job as managers of a shopping mall because a TV commercial promised they would “make a billion dollars” if they did so. The commercial was not accurate. The S’Wallow Valley Mall is a garbage-strewn wasteland where the few remaining businesses coexist with squatters and wild animals, and where the owner (Will Ferrell) wards off suicide by watching Top Gun on loop.
None of the businesses would survive in a more successful mall, least of all Reggie’s, which sells recycled toilet paper (as in, previously used). Tim and Eric, now self-styled marketing gurus, meet the eponymous owner and inform him that his business will soon be closing. Reggie is heartbroken (“It’s been in my family for years…”), but he desolately accepts their offer to become a janitor, because what else is he going to do? During the meeting, Tim takes a liking to Reggie’s young son, Jeffrey, and invites him to tour the mall: “I can teach you a little bit about what it’s like to be a businessman around here. What it’s like to be a real man. What it’s like to be a real successful businessman.” Within about a minute, Tim has declared himself Jeffrey’s new father, and Reggie has become “Uncle Reg.” Reggie accepts this, because what else is he going to do? The scene is scored to twinkly piano music, as if it were heartwarming.
Say what you will about Reggie’s store, at least it has a history. Elsewhere in the film is a middlebrow restaurant called “Inbreadibles,” in which everything—the food, the utensils, the napkins—is made out of bread. This is the sort of gimmicky restaurant that tends to pop up in gentrifying neighbourhoods (as I write, Toronto’s Bloordale is bracing for GarfieldEats—“North America’s first Garfield-themed restaurant”—which will serve pizzas shaped like the tubby tabby). And in a movie full of depressing businesses, none is sadder than “El Hat,” which is nothing more than a small stand in the middle of the mall with a few dozen hats strewn on it—the vaguely Spanish name tacked on in a pathetic attempt to give it a sense of identity.
On the other end of the economic spectrum is the film’s villain, Tommy Schlaang (Robert Loggia), the Murdoch-meets-Al Capone CEO of a vast multimedia conglomerate known as The Schlaang Corporation. According to the opening credits, Billion Dollar Movie is a coproduction of The Schlaang Corporation, Schlaaang Films, Schlaaang 21 Productions, and The Schlaaang Group (all subsidiaries of Schlaang Inc.) and is presented with Schlaaang Sound® (this was seven years before the Disney/Fox merger). The film opens with a fake ad for The Schlaaaang Super Seat™, a cross between a La-Z-Boy and Charlie Chaplin’s Feeding Machine. Among the seat’s features: it injects IV needles into your veins “to synchronize your emotions with the movie”; inserts air tubes into your nose to guide your breathing; and places your feet in stirrups “to give you a viewing experience you’ll never forget!” The Schlaaang Super Seat™ serves two functions: 1) it lulls consumers into a passive, infantile, and uncritical state, and 2) it is an expensive, worthless piece of crap.
Against a backdrop of poverty and decay, Billion Dollar Movie is filled with consumption and excess. When we first meet Tim and Eric, they have just wasted one billion dollars of Tommy Schlaaang’s money to make a terrible movie, blowing their budget on such pointless extravagances as a diamond suit and a $500,000/week “personal shopper and spiritual guru” named Jim Joe Kelly (Zach Galifianakis). Jim Joe is one of several hucksters in the movie, alongside Ray Wise as a spiritual healer who proselytizes for a mysterious ritual called “Shrim,” and Tim and Eric themselves, who start a public-relations consulting agency called Dobis (short for “Doing Business”) after being chased out of Hollywood. Grifters like these insist that no matter your circumstances, you have the power to change your life—the subtext being that your misery is entirely your own fault.
Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie is the sole feature-film spin-off of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which ran 2007 to 2010 on Adult Swim. Both the show and the movie are manufactured entirely from clichés and coated in a Teflon layer of irony. Existing on the same evolutionary chain as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Mr. Show, but even more surreal and fast-paced, Awesome Show simulates the experience of rapidly flipping through every TV channel until they all melt into the same paste. In particular, it draws heavily on the tropes and aesthetics of the most ephemeral, bottom-of-the-barrel visual culture: corporate training videos, public access TV, local newscasts, and the sorts of commercials that run at 3am.
Its episodes are dense with guest stars, but the mainstream celebrities (ranging in magnitude from Ben Stiller to Jeff Goldblum to Frank Stallone) and comedians (Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, David Cross) have to share space with celebrity impersonators and human oddities. Like Andy Warhol, Heidecker and Warheim reduce celebrities to dehumanized, affectless signifiers (in their world, there is little difference between Robin Williams and David Born, a professional Robin Williams impersonator). Like Warhol and David Letterman, they revel in the cognitive dissonance of putting weird showbiz wannabes like David Liebe Hart, James Quall, and Richard Dunn on TV. Using performers like these raises some tricky ethical questions, but in a TV landscape where everything is phony and slick, the only place where Heidecker and Wareheim find authenticity—and therefore beauty—is in people who are phony and unpolished.
When Billion Dollar Movie was released in 2012, mainstream critics mostly treated it as if it were just an ordinary lowbrow TV spin-off (Roger Ebert’s withering half-star pan is particularly uncomprehending). Nothing in these reviews prepared me for how much less joyous the film would be than its TV forerunner. Its vision of the world is relentlessly bleak, full of cruelty, loneliness, violence, decay, and defecation, and unfolding inside that potent symbol of late capitalist rot: the dilapidated mall. Work is not virtuous or ennobling in this film — it’s something that people do to survive, and at worst, it’s a form of indentured servitude. The things that make life bearable – love, friendship, family – are fragile and corruptible, and can be taken away from you on a whim. All of this is depicted through polished cinematography (by future Black Panther d.p. Rachel Morrison!) and with treacly music, smothering the many cruelties in hilariously unearned sentiment.
On that first viewing, I laughed from beginning to end, but still left the theatre feeling ambivalent, and even a little disquieted. I was put off by what I perceived as Heidecker and Wareheim’s nihilism. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Barack Obama was up for re-election around this time, and in lieu of transformational change, the story of presidency had become about how history bends (very, very slowly) towards progress. Now that Obama’s pathetic tenure is over, and history has bent itself into The Trump Era™, I suppose I’m more receptive to Heidecker and Wareheim’s counter-narrative.
Powerful forces condition us to believe that capitalism is the only system that works, and therefore the best of all possible worlds. In this context, Heidecker and Wareheim ask: why is everything so terrible? Where I once saw nihilism in Heidecker and Wareheim, I now see something very human. Billion Dollar Movie is a sourer experience than Awesome Show, and one reason is that it is primarily a Hollywood pastiche, and Hollywood allows for less of the kind of weird, accidental beauty that you can find on cable access TV. Companies like the Schlaang Corporation rule us, and Hollywood is their enthusiastic propaganda arm. To resist, Heidecker and Wareheim co-opt everything cheap, dishonest, pandering, and reactionary in Hollywood’s toolbox. In a cruel and unjust world, irony is a coping strategy.