Devolved sneaks up on you. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, to an extent. What outwardly has the look and feel of a mindless teen party comedy, full of tits and abs and people yelling “wooo!”, harbors some sharp wit. The film doesn’t always hit its mark, but when it does it reminded a lot of a South Park episode, not necessarily in tone but in the way Trey Parker and Matt Stone approach parody – with an undercurrent of sociology mixed in with all the lampooning of pop culture (this is why South Park has always been better than Family Guy). Devolved is the kind of parody I enjoy, because it is satirizing genre conventions, not specific films. Plus it is funny, which sadly seems to be asking a lot of parodies these days.
The set-up is quick and simple. A high school class trip out to sea meets a dire end when the boat the students are on sinks (this all happens before the film begins). The surviving students wash up on a deserted island. As the rules of cinema (or in this case, satire) dictate, all the students can be evenly lumped into one of two categories: the Unpopulars (nerds, exchanges students, burnouts, gays) and the Populars (jocks and cheerleaders). There is also a lone adult, the jock’s coach (Chris Kattan), who has been left unconscious by the wreck. Things get Lord of the Flies pretty quickly, with the leader of the nerds, Flynn (Gary Entin), butting heads with the leader of the jocks, The Rog (Robert Adamson). Flynn wants to build a signal fire, make an S.O.S sign, forage food. The Rog wants to party. Caught in the middle is The Rog’s girlfriend, Peggy (Lindsey Shaw), who is a classic brain stuck in the rockin’ bod’ of a cheerleader.
The film marks the feature debut of John Cregan, from Severin Films. Severin has been behind some impressive DVD/Blu-ray releases recently, most notably an utterly phenomenal presentation of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surrealist masterwork, Santa Sangre, but currently the company is probably most famous (if you’ve heard of them) for their discovery of James Nguyen’s crapsterpiece, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, on the streets of Sundance. Devolved is almost painfully low-budget, but Cregan wisely chose a premise and location that don’t require much money to look appropriate – a beach is a beach, after all. Cregan is clearly still learning the ropes and hammering out his kinks as a director, but his script and general vision shine through quite effectively. Good taste is extremely important for a comedy director. Obviously “taste” is subjective, but too many comedies functioning at Devolved‘s level suffer from going-for-broke syndrome, where any cheap laugh someone thought of is crammed into the film. A solid comedy director knows there needs to be consistency in the tone and style of the film; just because something might get a laugh, doesn’t mean it belongs in the film. Cregan knows this. So when the film missteps – which it does from time to time – it never does so embarrassingly and it is always back on track within moments.
Cregan keeps his story moving. A film like Devolved could easily got locked into a death march of monotony, as our characters endlessly play out the same gags over and over again. But the film wants to elicit humor from the machinations of the plot just as much as it does from dialogue and random gags. So as power shifts and alliances change amongst the group, the film manages to stay fresh.
Despite being a blatantly ridiculous comedy, Devolved also makes the bold decision to try for some heart. When done correctly this can really elevate a comedy, like Superbad. Or it can prove an awkward miscalculation, like the vast majority of Happy Madison films. Devolved lands somewhere in the middle of this success spectrum. Creatively I think it was wise for Cregan to go for some heart, as it prevents the film from being too ironically detached. Peggy, who finally breaks up with The Rog on the island, finds herself drawn to Flynn. There is some rom-com here. Soon Peggy finds herself disappointed with Flynn too, when the nerd becomes corrupted by the power of popularity after Peggy helps him steal control of the island from The Rog. The only problem I had with the romantic subplot was that I didn’t really like Flynn all that much.
I’m not sure if the problem was Gary Entin the actor, or the character, or some combination of both, but for me Flynn fell into a classic cinema-nerd pitfall: presumed likability. I’ve always found it interesting that modern movies so frequently put a nerd as the protagonist. The basic idea is generally the same, that the nerd represents the everyman, the underdog. Now, I think your average person does indeed relate to and view themselves as an underdog, but unless I’m remembering high school wrong, the vast majority of people are not nerds. In fact, let’s be realistic here, your average person didn’t like nerds in school. There was a reason they were “unpopular” and it was not a vast conspiracy by the jocks. This critique is not really directed at Devolved, as the film is a satire of nerds vs jocks films. But, fittingly I suppose, the problem winds up the same – my sympathies for Flynn seem to be expected. Yet based on his actual dialogue and attitude, he seems kinda bitter and pretentious. When viewed in the context of the Lord of the Flies satirical aspects of the film, this actually works quite well for me, as part of the film’s sociological comment seems to be pointing out that nerds and jocks aren’t really any better or worse or different from one another. But in the context of the rom-com with Peggy, I just didn’t want or care if she ended up with Flynn – despite it being a forgone conclusion. In this regard, I think Devolved sometimes flies too close to the flame of the films it is satirizing.
Overall, the cast is about what you would expect. Some good, some not as good. I never liked Chris Kattan on SNL, but his character is unconscious or delirious for most of the film, so he worked fine for me here. The real success story of Devolved is The Rog. As conceived by Cregan, he is a great comedic character. At the top of the film he is nothing more than the archetypical parody of a William Zabka-grade popular douche you would expect from a nerds vs jocks satire. But the character gets more interesting when he assumes leadership of the island, and then more interesting yet when he is banished to live with unconscious Kattan like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Beach. What I liked about The Rog was that he never cracks and descends into madness. The joke is that he was essentially crazy all along, but no one could tell because they were in high school in civilization. The Rog doesn’t want to leave the island, because he knows his life peaked in high school. Here on the island he can rule forever (he stupidly thinks). A lot of Cregan’s characters are funny on paper. What makes The Rog sing is Robert Adamson’s pitch-perfect performance. Adamson, either by design or simply perfect casting, seems to get his role and the tone of the movie more than any of the other actors. The Rog, with his ego-driven who-gives-a-fuck attitude, has all the best lines and moments in the film. My favorite is actually an incredibly small moment, when another character calls The Rog by his real name, Roger, and The Rog responds like one might to a racial slur.
Devolved is not a mini-masterpiece of low-budget comedy, like Clerks or Napoleon Dynamite (though I didn’t like ND), but it is fun and worth seeing. As I said up top, the film isn’t always on its mark, but when it is, it delivers some surprisingly clever laughs. A lot of the film’s shortcomings seem to stem from budgetary constraints, which definitely has me intrigued to see what Cregan can do with a little more support next time at bat.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars