Thanks to an inopportune slot in the August release schedule, I can’t help stacking The Ten up against Superbad, and it’s never going to win that contest. The difference is that while The Ten, a comic collection of stories based on the ten commandments, is funny and unwilling to set arbitrary content limitations and taboos, it’s also barely relevant to anything. No surprise, created as it is by veterans of The State. Watching this flick, you’re not going to recall that time you slept with a ventriloquist’s dummy or bought your fifth CAT scan machine. It’s funny but forgettable fluff.
The Ten does have one advantage: an absolutely massive cast, almost all of which gets at least one scene to shine. If you dig Oliver Platt (is it possible not to?) you’ll probably love him playing a fake dad to a pair of black teenagers; Justin Theroux disappears under a wig to become Jesus; Bobby Cannavale shines as a friend enticed into spending Sundays naked in A.D Miles’ home.
Anchoring the comedic decalogue is Paul Rudd, typically working on a stage in front of a pair of stone tablets featuring the commandments. Rudd’s story arcs over the others as he splits with his wife (Famke Janssen) in favor of sweet young Jessica Alba. Rudd’s delivery is spot on, especially when he swerves towards a vague Woody Allen riff, but several of his framing segments feel amateurish regardless. I found it difficult to shake the feeling of watching a rehearsal.
I was disappointed that many of the stories actually bore little more than a passing meaning towards the commandment associated with it. So while Thou Shalt Not Steal is vaguely about theft (with Winona Ryder, natch) that’s only vaguely the point — it’s much more about watching her get the hots for an inanimate object. Though I suppose that’s good enough in this case.
In fact, much of The Ten feels like an elaborate outline for a regular old comedy film. Characters recur from one segment to the next; Mather Zickel’s newscaster Louis LaFonda is prominent in the first tale, about a skydiver who gets stuck in the ground, then appears in several other episodes, with a central role of his own in one tale. Paul Rudd’s relationship with Jessica Alba and Famke Janssen and Ken Marino’s doctor who ‘goofs’ and goes to jail also feel like part of this pseudo-movie.
Then there are the segments that are simple sketches leveraged into that framework. The most obvious is the story about a lying rhino that, despite creative work by the studio that animated for Wonder Showzen, looks much like the amazing comic strip Underground by KAZ.
Most of the time, I just didn’t care that the structure was rickety. How can you when Ken Marino and Rob Corddry do for rape what Jodie Foster couldn’t, and when a gang of weiner dogs instigates an orgy to knowingly infect a town with STDs? Or when the narrator in Gretchen Mol’s Mexican rendezvous with a holy man explores tangents like the wonder of the word ‘vagina’? When The Ten is irreverently and inventively funny, as it often is, the other problems don’t seem so important.
Obviously I was OK with Mol’s bit. (I’ve got a weakness. Sue me.) But Platt’s felt thin from the first moment, as did Liev Schreiber’s tale of one-upsmanship in which he and his neighbor both invest in a ceaseless series of medical machines.
Jessica Alba gets laughs by playing right into the assumptions most people hold about her, and a vaguely glammed-up Winona Ryder gives the first entertaining performance I can remember from her this decade. Remarkable what going cowgirl on a dummy will do for your career.
As an actor’s showcase, The Ten notches a win more often than not, and the lack of relevance pays off in unpredictability. But so much of the film should be quotable and lasting, and instead it just fizzes off into a cloud of vague memory. If I sat and watched the movie again I know a dozen gags would come back to life for me as they rolled. But thinking about it now I’m at a total loss to recall anything but the most outrageous moments. With the recent glut of killer comedies, that’s too fleeting to be worth more than a passing glance.