If you’re going to put a standup comedian into a big, climactic fight scene, it better be really funny. That’s just one of many rules you may not realize were in place before watching The Machine, a feature-length extension of standup comedian Bert Kreischer’s most famous routine. It’s a story about how the former Florida State University frat boy and prolific partier took a college trip to Russia, where he bumbled into confidence with the Russian mob and wound up helping some gangsters rob a train. It sounds enough like a set piece from an early-2000s studio comedy that the impulse to make a long-form version makes sense – at least on paper.
Here, Jimmy Tatro plays the college-aged Kreischer in flashbacks, but he doesn’t enter the movie until a ways in, because The Machine makes a strange structural choice. It starts with Kreischer, playing a version of himself, already a famous comedian, dealing with the aftermath of his viral-hit routine. His fame has exacerbated his proclivities toward hard partying, the glorification of which has taken a toll on his family life, even as it sends his podcast shooting up the charts. Kreischer’s success also brings him to the attention of a Russian mobster, whose precious family-heirloom watch was stolen during Kreischer’s robbery. The mobster sends his icy daughter Irina (Iva Babić) to retrieve Kreischer and (improbably) bring him back to Russia so he can locate the watch. Eventually, those flashbacks kick in, supplying the particulars of Kreischer’s original Russian jaunt and brief, accidental life of crime.
The decision to put present-day Kreischer front and center drops viewers into Bert’s unpleasant home life, full of friction with his teenager daughter Georgia (Jessica Gabor) and worsened by a visit from his needling father Albert (Mark Hamill), who winds up accompanying him on his return to Russia. With its early US-set scenes, the movie asks for an extraordinary amount of buy-in for anyone unfamiliar with Kreischer’s story, which is treated alternately like a globe-rattling, unavoidable pop hit and a matter of intense curiosity for anyone unfamiliar with it.
This double hubris does illustrate the bind the film-makers find themselves in: do they retell the story straight, and risk boring Kreischer’s fans? Or do they attempt to elaborate on the story, and risk alienating anyone without a pre-existing interest in what makes Bert Kreischer tick? The Machine does both, but ultimately favors the latter, which involves a fair amount of comedian navel-gazing (easy enough to do; one of Kreischer’s trademarks is his shirtlessness). He’s essentially retelling his signature story without the built-in jokes of his own narrative, and reflecting on it years later. In the process, Kreischer creates perhaps the first-ever legacy sequel to a standup special (and certainly the first one to follow up just seven years after its release).
This ambitious undertaking might make more sense if the movie rooted itself more firmly in a specific period. It’s a minor detail in the grand scheme of things, but the film’s time-passage math is scattershot: at one point, Kreischer talks about these events happening around 20 years ago, which doesn’t match with his movie-given age of 48; based on that figure, the story should be taking place around 1993, but Kreischer’s pop-culture references (and the movie’s impressively high-quality needle drops) come from noticeably later in that decade (which is still more than 20 years ago), while his wardrobe showcases T-shirts out of the mid-1980s. Maybe this is all reconciled in the original routine.
A few stray jokes land; Albert has a funny line, deeply dad-like in its self-seriousness, about how he took a “vow of nonviolence” after reading a Nelson Mandela biography, and there are a couple of great gross-out gore gags. But among all the Russians, only Irina registers as a comic character, and only just barely.
The film’s director, Peter Atencio, cut his teeth on the Key & Peele sketch series, as well as the duo’s feature film Keanu; he knows how to bring genuine cinematic effects into absurd situations. In this particular movie, though, he seems to be studying from the book of the Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips, shooting for slickness rather than sight gags – or maybe the screenplay simply didn’t supply the raw materials to create those gags. Either way, The Machine is as surprisingly stylish as it is surprisingly unfunny. The final and grimmest surprise is how the movie attempts to give Kreischer some therapeutic growth, premised on an eventual hogwash revelation about a comedian serving as a de facto protector of the people. Expecting audiences to cheer with excitement as Kreischer guzzles vodka and becomes an unstoppable fighting machine is bad enough; hoping that they’ll take away some valuable life lessons about balance and being yourself seems an awful lot like denial.