Command This!

'The Ten' is alternately hilarious, horrendous and extremely offensive

I guess if you were going to make a film about the Ten Commandments, the first question you'd have to ask is, "Which Ten Commandments?" Because there's the Protestant 10, the Catholic 10 and the Jewish 10, all of which parse Exodus 20:2-17 a bit differently. There's also the Deuteronomy 10 (Deuteronomy 5:6-21), which differs a bit from the Exodus 10. And then there are the other 603 commandments, which are known for feeling mopey and left out.

In spite of the confusion, every now and then, someone manages to get all Levantine and make a movie, like, for example, The Ten Commandments, starring the man I like to call "My President," Charlton Heston. Or there's Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, which tackles the Ten Commandments one at a time.

And then there's The Ten, which rips off the Kieslowski idea and does it the way God intended the Ten Commandments to be done: as a series of comedy sketches.

Some will find this sacrilegious. Indeed, in one segment, the talented and eye-pleasing Gretchen Mol engages in a romantic relationship with a man who claims to be Jesus. So if the idea of a hot blonde getting it on with an early-first-century, apotheosized Middle Eastern man is offensive to you, you should probably stay away from The Ten.

But the larger question is: Should anyone see The Ten? And here, there's a problem, which is basically the problem of any sketch-comedy film: There are some good parts and some bad parts, and even though the good parts are very good, the bad parts range from dull to groaningly awful.

But that's pretty much how sketch works. Even in its heyday, Saturday Night Live was only about 28 percent funny, with the rest being sawdust and filler. Monty Python's Flying Circus peaked at about 44 percent funny, and Donny and Marie rarely topped 80 percent.

The Ten limits itself to 10 sketches, plus a framing device that winds up forming the basis for the final sketch. In order, the sketches are: Funny, Funny, Awful, Mediocre, Huh?, Offensive Enough to Convince Howard Stern to Stump for Censorship, Meh, Pretty, Painfully Clever, Meh. So, yeah, the first two sketches are good, and then it's like sitting in the audience at an amateur improv show where your nephew is performing with his new group, "The Underpants Assassins." Which is to say, yikes.

A lot of these sketches actually reek of the errors of improv: notably, the idea that sex between men is automatically funny, and that guys in prison are inherently hilarious. Combining these elements, there's even a sketch about prison rape. I'm pretty sure if the sketch was about a man raping a woman, no one would have thought it was funny, but in the minds of America's improv-trained comedy writers, a man anally raping another man is kind of like a guy on a desert island sitting beneath a lone coconut tree: While it would be tragic in real life, in art, it is the soul of wit.

Other than that crapfest, the rest of the movie is at least bearable, and the cast is full of little beacons of humor. Like, Mol turns out to be great at comedy, which I'm sure will make her agent happy. And Paul Rudd, who used to be a Serious Actor, has now firmly joined the ranks of the Buddy Hacketts and Marty Feldmans of the world, and I mean that in a good way. Most surprising is Liev Schreiber, who was, until 2 p.m. yesterday, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, but in The Ten, he shows a strong talent for deadpan.

Unfortunately, he doesn't have great material to work with. The Ten was written by Ken Marino and David Wain, alumni of the comedy group The State, and they're tremendously enamored with the unexpected. They keep it in check during in the first couple of sketches, but the later ones are just a series of zany left turns. In Schreiber's headlining piece, he plays a man who covets his neighbor's CT scan machine. It's clever, but then it seems like every line of dialogue was written after Marino or Wain said, "Hey, what if ..." and then inhaled a huge cloud of nitrous oxide.

So The Ten is kind of like life itself: If you can make it through the dull stretches and the offensive bits, there are a few happy moments. Can we ask for anything more? Seriously? Can we? Because I want more.

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