It's impossible to write about David Wain's The Ten without making passing reference to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. The former, originally made for Polish TV 20 years ago and first shown in the United States in 2000, offered a modern-day take on the Ten Commandments, interpreting each within the confines of a Warsaw apartment complex. The latter found the English comedy troupe bidding adieu with fierce and occasionally grotesque bluster (care for a mint?). Their comedy -- infused with a disdain for religiosity that was always hinted at, but was rarely so obvious -- had never seemed so ugly and angry.
The Ten, obsessed with prison rape and puppet dicks, doesn't possess the grand ambitions of Kieslowski's work or the ham-fisted fury of the Pythons' finale. It's from the guys who brought you Wet Hot American Summer, a film whose sole ambition was to remake Meatballs. Theology, they ain't all that interested in.
The Ten is just a star-studded, half-baked, take-it-or-leave-it "goof," in the parlance of the surgeon played by co-writer/co-star Ken Marino, whose character is keen on leaving instruments inside his patients' bodies because it makes him giggle. The Ten doesn't want you to ponder the existence of God, just to laugh. And you will, more often than not.
With recurring characters gliding in and out of sketches, The Ten demands your patience, but rewards your fortitude. It's that most fragile of big-screen beasts: the deadpan comedy in which coarse jokes and puerile gags are presented as "ironic," "clever," and "dangerous." It grows increasingly frantic and dopey as it goes, culminating in a musical number in which A.D. Miles and Bobby Cannavale observe the Sabbath by throwing nude Sunday-morning parties and performing Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack's "Tonight I Celebrate My Love."
Earlier this year, Marino appeared in Diggers, a sweet, gentle dramedy he wrote as a tribute to his late, clam-digging dad. The Ten feels very much like its photo-negative -- a playful punch in the nuts after that reassuring pat on the back. At its worst, it's occasionally uneven -- you will not find many critics who agree on which sketches are funny.
In one of the best, Gretchen Mol makes an appearance as a good-girl librarian, who travels to Mexico and finds herself nailed to the bed by a handyman named Jesus (Justin Theroux). In another, Liev Schreiber's mustached cop becomes envious of his neighbor's stash of CAT-scan machines.
Weirdly, the sequences featuring Paul Rudd (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) are letdowns. Rudd acts as the film's narrator, only he keeps getting interrupted by his nagging wife (Famke Janssen) and his girlfriend (Jessica Alba), who, for some reason, wants a pony. Their love triangle deflates the movie; their scenes, performed on a soundstage filled with giant tables, stop whatever momentum builds from sketch to sketch. As it turns out, nothing gets in the way of a good prison-rape joke like romantic comedy.