The Machine Review
The obvious litmus test for whether one will enjoy The Machine is one's tolerance for the comedy stylings of Bert Kreischer. Bert's fast-paced confessional stand-up is polarizing among comedy fans, but those who find him annoying likely won't change their mind after this film. Those who find him hilarious have already purchased their tickets, and they'll get what they paid for and more.
Director Peter Atencio is well-versed in working with comedians. His primary accomplishment was directing every episode of the enduringly beloved sketch comedy series Key & Peele. The film was written by Kevin Biegel, best known for co-creating Cougar Town, and Scotty Landes, who turned in the screenplay for Blumhouse's Ma. The project technically began when Legendary Entertainment picked up the rights to Kreischer's classic routine in 2019.
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The legend of Bert Kreischer is accepted as stand-up comedy lore at this point. Kreischer was a sixth-year undergrad at Florida State University in the late-90s, just in time for the school to be celebrated for its party scene. The same year, he was personally granted the same honor by Rolling Stone. Director Oliver Stone set out to make a film about Kreischer's life, but that project fell through, eventually giving the world Van Wilder. In 2016, Kreischer's stand-up career was well underway when he released the Showtime special that would define his career. The tale of his tangle with the Russian mob went viral, launching his career to new heights. A few decades ago, a network would have offered him a sitcom that would probably be canceled after three seasons. In modern Hollywood, they handed him The Machine.
The Machine depicts Bert Kreischer as a fictionalized version of himself twenty years after his fateful class trip to Russia. His relationship with his oldest daughter has fallen apart after a public disaster. Bert has taken a break from performing and started seeing a therapist to fix himself, but his road to recovery hits a snag at his daughter's sweet sixteen party. A dangerous Russian mobster named Irina arrives suddenly, demanding an item Bert stole twenty years ago. Since Bert has no idea where her treasure is hidden, Irina will be dragging Bert and his dad across Russia to jog his memory. Along the way, Bert will have to come to terms with his past, learn to connect with his father and embrace the Machine within.
The Machine isn't pretending to be anything it's not. The plot is a bit by-the-numbers to leave room for the punchlines, shootouts, and family drama. The action is surprisingly enjoyable for a film led almost entirely by newcomers to the genre. As expected, Kreischer is fine at playing himself. He doesn't sell every emotional beat, but people who enjoy his unfiltered persona will find much of his authentic self in the role. He also gets at least one Jackie Chan-esque comedic fight scene that works exceedingly well. Jimmy Tatro of American Vandal fame is note-perfect as young Bert. It may be the role he was born to play. Mark Hamill is great as Albert Sr. He only gets to step out of the vocal booth and Jedi robes on occasion, so it's hard to recall how good of a performer he is. Iva Babić as Irina might be the film's secret weapon. She's threatening, funny, and compelling in action scenes, her motivation is the driving force of much of the narrative, and she's frequently the most charming person in a film with Mark Hamill. Here's hoping this film launches Babić to stardom somewhere. The cast is one of many ways in which The Machine outperforms any reasonable expectations.
It all comes back to Bert. There are some interesting thematic elements in The Machine as it relates to the titular performer. His relationship with his wife, children, and self-image are clearly altered to fit the narrative, but sharp edges of truth appear in the script. Kreischer takes a lot of accusations of faking his stand-up stories. The film addresses that concern directly with his father's consistent downplaying in the first act, then spends the rest of the movie playing them out in vivid detail. In fact, the idea that Kreischer is a creatively bankrupt performer comes up in the flashback sequences. Most of young Bert's gags are shameless references to popular American films that haven't reached Russia yet. The playful sexism of many of Kreischer's jokes is played against the story of Irina killing dozens to be taken seriously. All of these daggers are framed as jokes and obstacles. It's as if Bert was convinced he'd only ever get to make one movie, so he addressed every concern he could think of in that 112-minute feature. The Machine isn't just a film for the fans. It's got something for the haters too.
The Machine is considerably better than it needs to be. Anyone could've made a feature-length dramatization of the original stand-up routine, but this film combines that idea with a stronger exploration of Kreischer's career and public image. There's a recurring gag or two that doesn't work, but it hits more often than it misses. Throw in a couple of outstanding performances, some unique action cinematography, and a lot of heart, and The Machine earns its title.
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