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'Bad Trip' Review: Hidden-camera comedy reveals some interesting racial dynamics

Eric André makes his feature debut as a writer, producer and lead actor with this ambitious, surprising story that crosses some provocative cultural lines.

Eric Andre and Lil Rel Howery star as Chris and Bud in 'Bad Trip,' a hidden-camera comedy about two friends on a road trip to New York so one of them can reunite with his high school crush.
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

André's comedy is frequently confrontational, but he turns hidden-camera gags into an interesting comedy centering blackness in spaces — on screen and in real life — that aren't always safe.

For

  • 🚗 Tiffany Haddish is brilliant and fearless as Trina, an escaped convict looking for her brother after he stole her car.
  • 🚗 If it's possible to reclaim a joke as wildly inappropriate as the final fate of Mr. Beaks in 'Trading Places,' this film does it.

Against

  • 🚗 No one watching this film should look for deep feeling from the story, which feels like a clothesline for the comedy.
  • 🚗 André's determination to push the envelop as far as it can go sometimes goes past being funny, not just into uncomfortable but to overlong and obnoxious.

The best hidden-camera comedies work not when they’re pranking or making fun of unsuspecting people but when they get onlookers involved, and engaged, in a situation they might typically avoid. Conceived by iconoclastic comedian Eric André, produced by Jeff Tremaine (Jackass) and directed by Kitao Sakurai (The Eric Andre Show, and more recently, FXX’s Dave), Bad Trip doesn’t quite navigate this razor’s edge as well as, say, the original Borat, but it reaches the heights of some of the best gags in the Jackass movies, and it explores black spaces — and more crucially, black characters in white spaces — in a way that neither of its predecessors would, for uniquely ambitious, even seemingly dangerous payoffs. Using a satisfactorily conventional premise as a clothesline for gags that run a gamut from incisive social commentary to pure scatology, Bad Trip delivers risky, frequently hilarious business.

André plays Chris, a small-town car wash employee who accidentally crosses paths with Maria Li (Michaela Conlin), a high school crush he perhaps understandably lost touch with many years ago after graduation. After a mishap with an overpowered vacuum, he’s unable to even try to confess her his feelings until he runs into her a year later; but when she explains that she’s curating art for a gallery in New York, he enlists his best friend Bud (Lil Rel Howery) to drive north and surprise her at her new opening. Without a vehicle of their own, Chris persuades Bud to take his sister Trina’s (Tiffany Haddish) impounded car, not realizing that she has broken out of jail and will stop at nothing to get it back.

As the two best friends travel north, they stop frequently to sample cuisine and explore the local sights, such as at a zoo where Chris’ determination to take a selfie with a gorilla to impress Maria lands him at the business end of the animal’s anger — and affection. But as Trina follows them in hot pursuit after stealing a police cruiser, Chris and Bud start to reflect on the growth they’ve made in just a short time, and in direct contrast to the lack of growth they’ve made since their high school heyday, leading to some important epiphanies as they reach New York for Chris’ date with destiny.

Even before last year, when this film was originally intended for release, the idea of a black hidden-camera show, or one centered around a black performer, seemed like an extremely challenging idea to pull off without putting everyone involved in some extremely uncomfortable situations. The fact that Bad Trip uses this both to look at some of the familiar scenarios of previous comedies, and also to place André in white spaces as a deliberate and sometimes shocking juxtaposition, certainly speaks to his and filmmakers’ fearlessness, but it also speaks to the unique opportunity that they have to explore that their predecessors didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t.

Mind you, much of the humor comes from fairly traditional set-ups involving wild, unpredictable behavior in public settings, with bystanders reacting in real time; André uses his hands to make beverages for customers at a smoothie business, for example, and later stages an elaborate musical number at a mall food court as diners watch in minor astonishment. But the filmmakers use his interactions first to drive the plot — such as when he consults an older black man on a park bench for advice how to handle his crush — and then use those wild escalations to show the unique position black people frequently find themselves in when they’re around other people of color, in contrast with being around whites.

For example, early in the film, Haddish establishes that her character Trina is bad news by showing up at Bud’s job to demand money. She interrupts as he helps a pair of white women, steals cash out of the register, and then hands some to them (as well as her ankle tag) as she makes a fast exit. Afterward, she “escapes” from prison via a parked bus where a black man is scrubbing graffiti from a nearby wall. As she chats him up, he encourages her to run away; but no sooner than she takes off, the prison driver (stuntman Allan Graf) returns, asking him if he saw anyone. The man freezes against the wall, uncertain what to do — betray this black woman or get himself into trouble with the authorities. This is simply a situation that would never happen in a white-led hidden-camera comedy, at least not without really treading some problematic lines for comedic manipulation.

Haddish leads at least as many of these sequences as André, and she not only does she never break character, she always takes them in unexpected directions, such as when she (as a character who’s an escaped convict) approaches a cop to ask if he can help recover her car, and then extends the exchange by flirting with him. But if André is not quite as versatile an actor as she is, his commitment to protracted and increasingly awkward bits makes him consistently watchable on screen, whether he’s pretending to destroy his hand in a blender or projectile vomiting on a group of white people after falling off the top of a bar. Lil Rel sort of brilliantly plays a co-conpirator and straight man at the same time, getting into plenty of embarrassing hijinks of his own but primarily acknowledging the foolhardiness of whatever André is undertaking.

There are a number of other truly gobsmacking scenes I won’t spoil, but if Andréand his collaborators didn’t redefine hidden-camera comedy, than they at least re-framed it in a way that feels exciting, new, and has something to say that’s not only based on the sheer curiosity of “what do ordinary people do when a guy puts his hand into a blender?” And so, to that end, Bad Trip is not just a superlative entry in this limited canon, but one of the funniest movies of the year. As always, your aptitude for cringeworthy comedy figures heavily in how much there is to actually “enjoy,” but given its unexpectedly relevant take on race and social situations, there’s tremendous value here, not just in spite of but especially where things get uncomfortable.

Bad Trip is available on Netflix now.