I’ve seen a number of movies I felt would’ve worked better as short films instead of as feature length ones. Usually it’s because there’s too little story, too little creativity, or too few original ideas to sustain 90+ minutes. But Jamie Greenberg’s Future ’38 might be the first time I’ve seen a film that should have been a scene in a sketch comedy show. And that might even be a stretch. Perhaps a better fit would be one of those interminable sketches used by late night TV shows as bumpers between guests and musical numbers. The film has a simple set-up and only one halfway decent joke. And though a good deal of effort and passion obviously went into squeezing that set-up and joke for all they’re worth, the result is a film that feels abominably overlong despite its 75 minute runtime.
The aforementioned set-up is charming enough: the film is described in an introduction by Neil de Grasse Tyson as a supposedly lost film from 1938 about a time traveler who visits the year 2018 to help the US government find a secret weapon to defeat the Nazis. In essence, the film is what a 2017 director thinks 1938 directors would think of 2018. Zaniness and camp ensues. The time traveler, Essex (Nick Westrate), quickly befriends Banky (Betty Gilpin), an out-of-work actress who speaks like a hyper-caffeinated Katharine Hepburn. Together, they discover and thwart a plan by Germany’s cuddly leader Lamont Hitler (Toms Riis Farrell) to steal Essex’s secret weapon, go back in time, and give the Nazis the power to conquer the world.
Yes, it’s deliberately light-hearted and kitschy. Naturally, the scenes set in the 1930s are in black and white and the modern footage is shot in eye-searing color, all the better to accentuate the deliberately preposterous Lisa Frank-esque costumes. Real-life technologies like hand-held mobile devices are given preposterous corollaries, my favorite being the film’s prediction of the internet: a massive ticker tape machine that spits out the answers to direct questions. And the film can hardly go 30 seconds without making jokes about newfangled innovations that seem suspiciously familiar—the most cringe-worthy being Banky inviting Essex to dinner at McDonald’s (“A quiet Irish place!”) for hologram food nicknamed V.R. for “Victual Reality.” You get the drift.
The best part of the film is the script. Greenberg has an ear for joyously ridiculous dialogue that probably took a lot more work to write than it might seem. My favorite joke in the film comes from the revelation that homosexuals are called “jolly” in this universe instead of “gay.” It’s a minor detail, but one I found irresistible.
The problem is that Future ’38 is too modern to be an effective tribute to classic Hollywood and too one-note to be an effective comedy. Much of the film is shot on location in New York, so all of the odd futuristic props and costumes seem especially out-of-place contrasted with New York’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century architecture (and not in a fun way, either). Only the opening scenes set in the 1930s have any true grasp on classic Hollywood film grammar—everything else feels like it was shot on a camcorder by a group of high schoolers. And again—I can’t stress this enough—the film just isn’t funny. Subpar filmmaking can be forgiven if a film is genuinely funny: the Marx Brothers movies were full of ridiculous acting, meandering plots that went nowhere in particular in a hurry, and hokey special effects. But because they’re funny we’ve treasured them as classics. But Future ’38 isn’t funny. It simply grates on the nerves.
I almost wish they had played the whole film straight. I was astonished to find one scene involving notes Essex left Banky from his future self after completing his mission to stop the Nazis moved me. It seems Greenberg can write and directly authentically compelling material. It’s a shame the rest of the film was such a bore.