Andy Samberg has always toed the line between hilariously smart and juvenile, and just plain juvenile, however, across two seasons of Fox’s surprisingly strong “Brooklyn Nine Nine,” he’s shown his particular brand of humor can be tempered with character and emotion, without losing a bit of edge. But perhaps the former “Saturday Night Live” player feels he’s lost a step going to network comedy, because given the chance to not just stretch his wings, but grind them with his crotch, he swings the pendulum back the other way in “7 Days In Hell,” delivering one of the crudest laffers of his career. Unfortunately, it’s also one of his unfunniest.
Taking the shape of an HBO Sports documentary, the faux doc chronicles the historic, titular Wimbledon tennis match, and the personal and professional history of the two rivals at the center of the sports battle: the ‘80s hair-metal rockin’, head-band wearing Aaron Williams (Samberg) and the talented but quite dim Charles Poole (Kit Harington). Following the talking heads and flashback format of an HBO or ESPN documentary, right down to the slim 45-minute running time, it’s ample room to have fun with a sport ruled by tradition, in a structure ripe with possibilities to break the mold. However, screenwriter Murray Miller (“Girls,” “King Of The Hill,” “Clone High”)—who also executive produced this mini-movie alongside Samberg—makes the mistake that if a story or character is wild enough, the laughs will just naturally follow.
Operating on one, unwavering level from pretty much the first moment, Samberg’s extreme take on the bad boy athlete feels culled from a leftover ‘SNL’ sketch and tossed into a movie, not unlike something Lorne Michaels would do with popular characters from the late night show (with mixed success, at best) during the ‘90s. Aaron Williams’ outrageous behavior is only fitfully amusing, and the various levels of his fall from grace as he hits bottom, before rising again for the famed tennis match, unsurprisingly involve drugs and unwise business ventures. Meanwhile, a very game Harington plays the Mommy’s boy, coddled, athlete perfectly, but he too rides one single note, that isn’t so much wearisome as uninteresting as the minutes tick by.
Not surprisingly, it’s in the moments of nuance and context to the film’s story where “7 Days In Hell” finds its brightest lights. Michael Sheen almost runs away with the entire effort as a skeevy British TV host, a role that is certainly a bit more dangerously fun and brave following the Jimmy Savile scandal. Lena Dunham brings a delightful punch as Aaron’s unlikely Jordache sponsor, Karen Gillan sparks as Charles’ former girlfriend (you wish there had been more time with her character) and David Copperfield has great fun sending up himself. The notable thing about all these appearances is that, compared to the lead roles, they are delivered in a lower register, and give the comedy a chance to breathe and shine. That’s not to say “7 Days In Hell” is completely humorless when Samberg and Harington are in focus. In fact, I would by lying if I didn’t mention that I wasn’t thoroughly amused by streaking incident that winds up leading to an extended sex gag. It’s lowball humor, but it also works because the joke is allowed to build to a payoff.
However, “7 Days In Hell” is largely a string of punchlines without much set up. It’s a hodgepodge mix of dick jokes, sex jokes, drug jokes, and occasionally, sports jokes, that often lack focus or direction. Aaron Williams is crazy, Charles Poole is painfully reserved and dumb, and there isn’t much in the way of dynamics. But it doesn’t have to be this way. “Anchorman,” for example, has similarly one-dimensional characters, but it works because the movie gives them space to play against each other, mocks their behavior, all while slightly sending up the newsteam community. By comparison, “7 Days In Hell” simply leans on raunchier humor and let’s it do most of the heavy lifting, while Samberg and Harington interact very little.
Competently directed by Jake Syzmanski, who has logged time on both “Brooklyn Nine Nine” and “Saturday Night Live,” he does a solid job of recreating the mixed media format of sports documentaries, and nails the presentation style. But when it comes to comedy there’s not much in the way of a fine touch. Perhaps it’s a blessing that “7 Days In Hell” is as short it is, because any longer, and it might actually be a real trip to the nether world. [C-]