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You have to be a fan of actor Steve Zahn to be able to appreciate the loony mayhem that is director Fred Wolf’s Strange Wilderness. Fortunately, this is one prerequisite that I’ve aced ever since I witnessed my fellow Minnesota native initially playing the sweet, closeted Reality Bites character amidst a terrific ensemble of actors in Ben Stiller’s directorial work.
Balancing out blockbusters with indie films, he followed this up with more great little-seen turns over the years (Safe Men, Happy, Texas), but it wasn't until he finally stole the spotlight away from such larger-than-life celebrity presences as Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, and Don Cheadle, first in Hanks’ underrated, sunny ‘60s feel-great musical comedy That Thing You Do! before he brought a bizarre mixture of humor and pathos to his small time hoodlum turn in Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant Out of Sight that people started to pay attention in a bigger way.
Although unfortunately, despite some truly memorable and instantly quotable laugh-out-loud moments in this film penned by Fred Wolf and Peter Gaulke that finds Zahn starring as the inept son who’s inherited his deceased Jack Hanna-like father’s nature television series, Strange Wilderness loses its way shortly after the characters hit the road in a series of escalating, tired, gross out, and cliched “outsiders on a journey” gags.
And despite the fact that only a third of the way into the roughly 90 minute movie, most viewers will feel like channel flipping as though they've stumbled onto the movie on television and moreover feel the strange sense they’ve seen it all before in countless other Happy Madison productions from executive producer Adam Sandler-- the main reason that the film succeeds at all (in the precious few times that it does) and what kept me watching for its entire running time was none other than Steve Zahn.
Coming right off of an impressive dramatic portrayal in Werner Herzog’s acclaimed Vietnam-set biopic Rescue Dawn co-starring Christian Bale, Zahn is instantly believable in familiar comedy mode as the fictitious version of Peter Gaulke.
The ill-prepared host of the now laughably awful series a three a.m. time slot-- Gaulke’s show is just weeks away from justifiable and long overdue cancellation by network executive Jeff Garlin. So in one last ditch attempt to bring back the viewers and make his father proud, Zahn leads his group of even more clueless staffers (including Allen Covert, Jonah Hill and Justin Long) on a journey to find Bigfoot by traveling down into central America.
Kick-starting their ambition to see it as a movie by crafting their own version of it on video for potential financiers-- Wolf acknowledges that time and again they encountered “a lot of people interested in making it into a TV show… until Adam Sandler and his producing partner Jack Giarraputo read the script.”
And overall, Wilderness is a movie that holds our interest for the first portion as we see some of the characters in action creating what has to be the worst animal show ever captured on film-- making the screenwriters’ initial feedback that it would’ve probably worked best as a television show seem especially true in hindsight.
As they improvise and challenge one another to be funnier, you can sense Long’s polite discomfort as he apologetically blames his crude outbursts on his character rather than himself (while seated next to the legendary Borgnine) but it’s a great example of just putting a bunch of creative and comically gifted people in a room together and letting them rip.