A scattershot commentary on the film industry from writer-director-star Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), the kindest thing one can say about Fool’s Paradise is that it’s too toothless to actually offend anyone, though that doesn’t exactly reflect well on its claims on being a satire. Aimed exclusively at the sort of person who uses the term “Hollyweird” unironically, the film follows a mute-by-choice naif (Day) who, through remarkable happenstance and the absurdity of the movie business, is instantly elevated to superstardom, only to be chewed up and spit out just as quickly. For his first time in the director’s chair, Day has surrounded himself with an impressive ensemble of actors, most of whom pop up for only a handful of scenes, all embodying the assorted sycophants, flunkies, phonies, and blowhards that your conservative uncle’s Facebook posts are convinced populate the industry. No archetype is too lazy or zinger from a Jay Leno monologue too moldy for this film. There’s plucking low-hanging fruit, and then there’s scooping apples out of a ditch after the cart has crashed on the side of the road. And then there’s Fool’s Paradise.
Introduced at a mental hospital, where we learn that he has the “mind of a five-year-old or, say, a labrador retriever,” Day’s unnamed patient possesses an affable disposition and the ability to be easily led, which the film seems to argue makes him perfectly suited for a career in acting. After being bounced for lacking insurance, dropped onto a bus, and driven downtown, the character finds himself selling bags of oranges next to a thoroughfare when he’s spotted by Ray Liotta’s film producer — this is already the second posthumous film from Liotta released this year after this past winter’s Cocaine Bear — who finds himself in something of a bind. Overseeing a troubled production about the life of Billy the Kid, he’s saddled with a difficult leading man (also played by Day) who drinks all day and refuses to leave his trailer. When his doppelganger presents himself out of the blue, the producer throws him into his car and drives to set with the intention of having him serve as a stand-in for the day (Liotta’s tendency to bellow for his assistant to bring him a “Latte, pronto!” also inadvertently leads to the still unnamed man to assume the expression as his nom de guerre). But after the film’s actual leading man accidentally hangs himself in either a method acting exercise gone awry or possibly (probably) an autoerotic asphyxiation mishap, the production turns its eyes to “Latte,” who may not be able to speak but as a warm body and dead ringer are nonetheless good enough.
With his self-involved co-stars (Adrien Brody and Kate Beckinsale) mistaking his dogged silence and tendency to stare directly into the camera during takes for an exciting new acting technique, and the Hollywood machine of agents, business managers, personal stylists, and a parasitic publicist (Ken Jeong, playing the same note of needy desperation for nearly 100 minutes) spinning up around him, Latte is soon on the rocketship to fame and fortune. Based solely on the buzz of his Billy the Kid performance, Latte books a comic book hero role (Mosquito Man… or maybe it’s Mosquito Boy, nobody in the film can quite remember) finds himself in a celebrity marriage with Beckinsale’s Angelina Jolie-esque movie star and inexplicably embroiled in assorted scandals, all while his team continues to bleed him dry. It’s not long before the money’s gone, the phone’s stopped ringing, and Latte is bound for the gutter once again, although, in this town, you’re never very far from your next triumphant reinvention or comeback.
Long in development — the film first went into production back in late 2018, and later went through reshoots during Covid— Fool’s Paradise superficially resembles Hal Ashby’s Being There, with everyone who encounters Day’s simpleton projecting depth and ambition onto Latte’s pliability and sweet-natured mugging. It’s a comparison the film invites itself during a late stretch where Latte is even floated as a political candidate and is buttonholed by an intimidating industrialist — John Malkovich, playing one of the Koch brothers in all but name — who gives a monologue that could best be described as General Ripper’s “Precious Bodily Fluids” speech from Dr. Stangelove, if the subtext were text. The scene even ends with a cutaway to an oil derrick spewing crude, lest anyone somehow miss the point. But that’s really the entire film in essence: there aren’t jokes so much as sketch comedy prompts about soft targets. Actors are reckless buffoons, starlets are free with their bodies and flaky, cocaine makes you act like a goofball, directors feign depth but are actually dull materialists, spiritual gurus are con artists, and on it goes.
In truth, Fool’s Paradise doesn’t have anything provocative or counterintuitive to say about movies, politics, or celebrity; it’s simply content that everyone will pick up on the references and that nobody’s feelings get hurt. Day, whose longtime comedic persona is almost wholly defined by his screechy irritability, is giving an entirely physical performance here, shuffling along downtown Los Angeles in a pork pie hat as if he were the Little Tramp — one of the few things working in the film’s favor is its effective use of off-the-beaten-path locations — and emoting through his eyes and forehead. But there’s no Chaplin-esque pathos to be wrought from material this facile, nor are there any inspired, Keaton-like pratfalls to be found in Day’s direction. The gag always works its way back around to these people and this business being fundamentally unserious and unreliable, and that the only one with his feet on the ground is a mental patient. It’s nice that Day was able to pull in so many of his famous friends to lend a hand to his first feature, but one wishes that he’d worked through his disdain for his profession the way most wealthy people do: by going to therapy. It certainly would have been cheaper. Probably funnier, too.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 19.