Maybe the best thing about The Ten -- a new anthology comedy assembling ten short vignettes, each based on one of the ten commandments -- is how it starts with that premise (famously used by Krysztof Kieslowski in The Decalogue) and immediately, casually, chucks it in the dustbin. "Honor thy mother and father" leads to a vignette where a mother (Kerri Kenney-Silver) explains to her two African-American sons that their father's never been part of their lives because they were conceived during the '80s, when she was having lots and lots of sex with celebrities. Their father is, in fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger; since having their real father bond with them would be impossible, she's hired a local Arnold impersonator (Oliver Platt) to come hang out with the boys. ...

No, the scene's focus isn't parent-and-child interaction and the currency of respect that should flow through that relationship; the scene's focus is Oliver Platt in a leather jacket and wraparound shades, playing football with his two long-lost not-sons, murmuring fatherly endearments in the strangulated Teutonic tones of a bad Arnold imitation. That, to me, is funny; who cares if it really explores the ideas in the correlating commandment? The other good thing about The Ten is that it functions like the comedy equivalent of one of those gimmicky sushi places where the little boats float in front of you on an oval unstopping river; if the piece in front of you isn't to your taste, another one will be along very shortly. Directed by David Wain and written by Wain and Ken Marino, The Ten is uneven, lumpy, jumpy and lurching; compared to the machine-groomed plastic-smooth misery of recent big budget comedies like License to Wed or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, that human-crafted, made-by-hand feel is a welcome breath of fresh air.

In many ways, The Ten is a throwback to '70s-'80s anthology comedies like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, or The Groove Tube, or Amazon Women on the Moon or History of the World, Part I. And, like those comedies, The Ten comes with the diamonds and the rough all included in one big bulky package -- along with the sincere hope on the part of the creators that every member of the audience will find something chuckle-worthy in the film's mixed bag. Wain's previous film, Wet Hot American Summer, was wildly funny in spots, but fell apart when it tried to work as a coherent narrative; with The Ten, Wain seems to acknowledging his past in sketch comedy (as a member of The State) and ... giving us some sketches. And, thank God, some of them are very funny.

Some sections of The Ten worked better for me than others, and I'm sure that'll be the case for other audience members. I loved seeing Liev Schrieber as a mustache-wearing cliché cop early on, but his lead role in a later segment -- as a suburban husband and dad obsessed with his neighbor's acquisition of a CAT scan machine, who then begins a ruinous program of one-upsmanship that leaves both of their lives ruined -- was devastatingly hysterical.

Winona Ryder plays a woman who, on her wedding night, sees a ventriloquist act that makes her leave her husband for an all-consuming affair with ... the dummy. The premise is a little odd, and that's funny in and of itself; Ryder's commitment to the part, though, is absolute, which makes it hilarious and, yes, a little scary to watch. And Paul Rudd plays our narrator, Jeff Riegert, who finds his personal problems intruding on his task of introducing the individual segments while standing in front of two huge tablets, especially as his wife (Famke Janssen) and mistress (Jessica Alba) start popping by the set.

The Ten is smart -- gags keep coming back in circular fashion; there's a perfectly-timed quote from Shakespeare; the mealy-mouthed relationship-talk of modern television is mocked with laser-sharp precision. ("Yes, you were there for me ... When my husband was embedded in the ground. ...") But The Ten is also stupid -- when one character asks "Do you need me to spell it out for you?", you see the punchline coming and still laugh; potty talk plays its part; a room full of naked men who've gathered on Sunday morning to ditch church and listen to Donna Summer b-sides deliver a rousing musical number that revolves around the rhyming properties of "prude," "misconstrued," "you'd" and "nude."

And yes, some of these gags work better than others, but Wain and Marino's script keeps in there, throwing curveball after curveball. Justin Theroux and Gretchen Mol star in a brief, brisk skewering of every 'love on holiday' storytelling cliché; an animated sequence where a heroin-dealing rhino with a tendency to lie can't save his community from a group of STD-spreading sex fiends culminates in a pulsating, pop-art animated group-grope that's stylish and squirm-inducing; co-writer Marino plays a doctor who kills patients "As a goof. ..." and then returns later on, with Rob Corddry's fellow inmate trying to seduce Marino away from his current abuser as the two talk about their feelings in the gentle, civilized tones of a Lifetime Network movie of the week.

With books like The God Delusion, The End of Faith and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything on the best-seller lists recently -- and The Bible still moving plenty of copies -- you might think that maybe we're finally ready to talk about religion in modern society, about whether or not thousand-year old ideas have a place in modern civilization, about the role of God in modern life. And maybe we are, but that's not what The Ten is. The Ten's a wacky, hit-and-miss, shotgun blast of a comedy that stands apart from the corporate commodity comedy's become in major-studio Hollywood-- and while it isn't for everyone's tastes or funnybones, perhaps the best thing about it is how it never tries to be.

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Interview, David Wain and Ken Marino
Cinematical's Sundance Review of The Ten
categories Reviews, Cinematical