August 8-14, 2007

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'The Ten'

The 12: Thou shalt not watch TV naked. (At least, not in proximity of a photographer.)

Not a Prayer

'The Ten' an irreverent take on Commandments

By Jeff Latta

You'd think that somebody would have thought of this before. But no one from SNL has ever done it, and neither has anyone from MADtv, SCTV or The Kids in the Hall (although their 1996 feature Brain Candy came the closest). Finally, David Wain and Ken Marino--two of the main minds behind the early '90s MTV sketch comedy show The State--have called upon their past employment and crafted a feature film with the distinctive format and feel of a sketch comedy show.

Taking their inspiration from the highest source imaginable, the duo's screenplay (directed by Wain) tells 10 short stories, each based on one of the Ten Commandments. Recruiting all 11 State alumni, as well as an all-star cast (Paul Rudd, Winona Ryder and Oliver Platt, just to name a few), Wain and Marino's film is irreverent and quirky, with a wholly original style of humor. Each story's premise takes just about as indirect a way as possible to get to the commandment in question. Half the fun of this extremely enjoyable film is trying to figure out where they're going with this.

For "Honor thy mother and father," for example, the story line follows a set of grownup, clearly African-American twins birthed to a white mother and father. Upon their father's passing, they finally decide to ask Mom who their real Pop is. It turns out Mom was a celebrity reporter back in the day, and she swears that their real daddy is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since she can't haul in the real deal, as he is busy playing Governator, she hires an entirely unconvincing Ahnohld impersonator (Platt) to take over as their father. It doesn't take her long to realize that who she actually meant to say was Arsenio Hall, but the closest the impersonator can come to that is a bad, half-hearted Eddie Murphy voice. But by then the twins have decided to do what the Bible says and honor their new father, even if he is a piss-poor celebrity impersonator doing a bad impersonation of a man who isn't even their real father.

The rest of the stories are too entertaining to spoil, not to mention too intricate to actually describe. This is the type of humor where you either get it or you don't, better compared to the awkward randomness of Strangers with Candy or South Park than to the more conventional Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller vehicles.

Besides being chock-full of over-the-top non-sequiturs, the stories are also equally clever in subtle ways (for example, Ryder is the star of the "Thou shall not steal" piece). The interconnectivity between the stories is likewise understated and provides another layer of humor to the already hilarious film. Characters float throughout the stories, popping up for brief cameos in one commandment before taking center stage for their own.

The Ten is notable for a risky choice on the part of everyone involved; everything and everyone plays it as straight as possible. No matter how strange the goings-on get (and things get very strange), the entire cast play their parts as if this is all just another ordinary day. Some scenarios work better than others, but the constantly changing story lines keep the film from getting bogged down by any of its own shortcomings. At a brisk 95 minutes, the last Commandment feels as fresh as the first.

With the wacky premises and decidedly adult content, there is plenty for religious types hoping for spiritual affirmation to be offended by. Stories of murder, prison rape, puppet sex . . . On second thought, there's plenty for most everyone to be offended by. And how does one end a sketch-oriented film, one without any real dramatic thrust or rising action? Why, with a musical number titled "It's Not Crude to Be Nude on the Sabbath" of course.

Movie Times 'The Ten' plays at select North Bay theaters.

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