Expressing cynicism about a bunch of silly four-minute video shorts on Saturday Night Live is tricky business. After all, the whole point of Please Don’t Destroy, a trio of SNL writers who also make their own self-starring pre-taped sketches, is to offer a fresh, youthful shot of lunacy into an otherwise-regimented variety-show format, just like the Lonely Island (Andy Samberg and friends) and Good Neighbor (the Kyle Mooney/Beck Bennett collective) before them. But while the PDD boys have a sketch-comedy background similar to their SNL predecessors, presented with TikTok-quick pacing, there’s something ever-so-slightly cloistered about their work – and not just because most of their bits are set in the same cramped writing office, or even because two-thirds of them have a direct family connection to SNL.
Despite their jokes about being clueless losers, PDD lacks a strong tension between their sensibility and the institution that’s housing them – there isn’t any room for the mischievous suspicion that this mainstream show doesn’t know exactly what to make of them. In fact, SNL seems all too aware of what to do with their new favorite sons: Try to turn them into the next Lonely Island. Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain feels like the premature next step in that plan, an attempt to give these goofsters a Hot Rod- or Popstar-like dorm fixture of their own.
Or, given Foggy Mountain’s canceled theatrical run and the involvement of producer Judd Apatow, maybe the sights were set on an SNL crossover hit à la Anchorman. Studio comedies could certainly use the fresh blood. In the streaming era, it often feels as if the genre has been stripped of its energy, sensibility, and laughs, leaving behind only vestiges of high concepts and familiar stars. The Treasure of Foggy Mountain bears the unmistakable signs of young men allowed to follow their ridiculous whims. John (John Higgins), Martin (Martin Herlihy), and Ben (Ben Marshall) are man-children who may have indulged too many of those whims over the years, and now are left, in the tradition of other Apatow features, wondering whether it’s time to grow up.
The three guys are roommates and work together at an outdoor-supply store run by Ben’s dad (Conan O’Brien), which Ben hopes to take over some day – not because he’s especially outdoorsy or business-savvy, but because he thinks his dad will love him more if he succeeds at it. (He may not be wrong.) Martin, meanwhile, wants to buy a house with the religious girlfriend who’s making him get an adult baptism. John feels left out, because his friends are starting to express at least nominally adult ambitions, while he misses their youthful camaraderie. So when they have the unexpected chance to track down a long-lost and ultra-valuable treasure hidden somewhere in a local mountain, John spearheads a mission for greater glory.
In theory, this is a fine clothesline on which to hang various comic sequences. In practice, sending the three boys into the woods gives them too much time away from other characters, like O’Brien’s perpetually irritated dad, and more time for the stars to revert to their fallback shtick: Having one of them do something extremely weird or misguided while the other two scream in confusion and terror about how little sense it makes. (Call it “Why would you do that?!” comedy.) Sometimes, to mix it up, all three of them scream in confusion and terror, and admittedly, some of this is funny, as it can be on SNL. However, stretched out to feature length it rarely allows the group to develop a personality, individually or collectively. The PDD guys don’t form a comic trio so much as a round-robin: They all take turns doing the same schtick.
That’s not to say that the whole movie is performed in a vacuum. Meg Stalter shares some funny scenes with Higgins as his newfound crush, it’s delightful to see O’Brien goofing around in a fiction film, and a CG hawk steals a surprising number of scenes. For that matter, the three leads have a gangly, try-anything appeal, and as writers they clearly know how to color their material with off-kilter jokes. (There’s a great gag with a mysterious figure in a real estate listing.) That’s evident from their SNL work, the best of which tends to be the sketches they write for the live show, rather than their hit-and-miss videos.
Foggy Mountain, then, is a repository of some great jokes that almost entirely lacks a genuine point of view. When a Will Ferrell character acts like an imbecile, he’s usually grappling with an outdated sense of American masculine dominance. Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island spoof the puffed-up swagger of contemporary pop music, an act of self-negging fandom. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett often filter their doofiness through early-’90s junk culture, paying homage to their childhood faves while satirizing their limited emotional range. Please Don’t Destroy looks at extended adolescence through the lens of… other comedies like this. It bites the style of arrested-development classics like Hot Rod or the underseen Mystery Team without their bizarre conviction. To ask just one style question that director Paul Briganti should have posed: Why is this movie narrated by John Goodman? He barely has any jokes and imparts very little exposition. What’s the point, if it’s not providing laughter or clarity?
Comedies don’t need to build toward a big central idea to be funny. Some of them barely need to be coherent, let alone thematically resonant. That’s the great advantage of comedy: big laughs can trump a lot of shortcomings. But The Treasure of Foggy Mountain is so similar to so many better comedies that it’s hard to get around how empty it feels – like a victory lap without the race.