Charlie Day is a funny dude. We’ve seen it for fifteen seasons on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the record-breaking series he’s been writing and starring in, plus comedic supporting roles in Horrible Bosses, Pacific Rim, and most recently The Super Mario Bros Movie. But Day is known for a certain kind of motor-mouthed humor. The high pitch of his voice is instantly recognizable. And yet you barely hear it at all in Day’s feature directing debut, over-the-top Hollywood satire Fool’s Paradise, in which he delivers a silent, physical comedy performance in the vein of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
A passion project that Day has been developing for more than a decade, Fool’s Paradise is the kind of movie you only get to make once you’ve reached a certain echelon. Your Rolodex needs to have been built up for years to pull together the kind of all-star ensemble that Day has assembled. It also doesn’t hurt to have been navigating the back lots and casting calls of Hollywood for a while, grinding it out and figuring out the ridiculous pomp and circumstance of show business.
Day, who also wrote the script, takes on a double acting role, too. He plays an egotistical actor on a Billy the Kid movie, who gets so full of himself that he just decides not to act anymore, hiding out in his trailer making ludicrous demands. Enter a big shot Hollywood producer played by the late great Ray Liotta, who discovers a mute, escaped mentally patient who is a dead-ringer for the actor. So the producer decides to just use the new guy instead. Accidentally given the name Latte Pronto, the clueless guy is manhandled by make-up artists and shoved in front of the camera. Despite not knowing what the Hell is going on, and of course not speaking, Latte becomes an instant hit, whose silence is deemed a deeply artistic choice.
This is Hollywood, though. Everyone is so pretentious and stuck in their little bubble that Latte Pronto, who on the surface appears to be a dim-witted bozo, is treated like a genius. Day delves into all of the stereotypes and has fun with them. You’ve got the vapid leading lady (Kate Beckinsale), who quickly married Latte to glom onto his fame; you’ve got Adrien Brody, always great at playing goofy, as the poster boy for fading actors dangerously engulfed by personal demons. At one point, he and Pronto go racing down the street at high speed while downing hard liquor and blasting guns into the air. Pronto is oblivious to how all of this looks, but not to how dangerous the situation is. He just doesn’t understand it.
Other fun roles include Dean Norris as a bullying studio exec, Edie Falco as a stuck-up talent agent, Jason Bateman as shoddy crewman, Jillian Bell as a personal self-help guru, Jason Sudeikis as the vain director of a Fast & Furious knock-off, Common as a poor man’s Wesley Snipes, and too many more cameos to count. The sheer number of guests adds to an endearing “anything can happen” atmosphere, with Latte Pronto literally being escorted into one absurd scenario after another, until inevitably he is no longer the “next big thing” but an overnight has-been.
Latte’s story dovetails with that of Lenny, a down on his luck publicist with no clients and fewer prospects. Played by Ken Jeong, another actor whose gift of gab was established early, in his case the Hangover movies, Lenny is the actual heart of the movie. While undoubtedly incompetent, Lenny, who came from nothing and fantasized of making it big in Hollywood, refuses to fail at finding his piece of the American Dream. When Latte becomes his one and only client, Lenny does literally anything to try and keep him happy. They forge a kind of friendship; two people who would be overlooked if it weren’t for the other. It’s the best, most emotional performance that Jeong has given in a long time.
The biggest problem with Fool’s Paradise, and it’s a substantial one, is that it doesn’t have anything new to say or fresh jokes to tell at Tinseltown’s expense. Sure, the old Hollywood stereotypes exist, but it has also undeniably changed in the decades since these satires were more frequently made. Day has recruited a bunch of his famous friends to help make his vision of the kind of movie he loves so much a reality, and they throw themselves into it with all of their force. So committed were they to Day’s vision that when he added a bunch of new scenes and asked them to return, three years after the original shoot in 2018, everyone showed up. That level of dedication is felt throughout the movie, as well as Day’s affection for Tinseltown and all of its flaws. Day, following in the intimidating comic shadow of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Steve Martin, and Peter Sellers, has given himself a plum role that has no hope of measuring up. But then, the goal of Fool’s Paradise isn’t to surpass the great Hollywood satires, but to celebrate them. Day can be proud that he accomplished his goal in the manner that he wanted and with the people who cared enough to make it a reality.
Fool’s Paradise opens in theaters on May 12th.