Satire is a tricky business, and making a successful one requires writers and filmmakers capable of hitting their targets with elegant precision. The genre's hit-to-miss ratio is less than encouraging, perhaps because making a great satire looks easier than it actually is. Push too hard, and you'll be charged with preachiness. Don't push hard enough, and you'll end up with something pointlessly toothless. Fail to deliver genuine laughs, and your attempt to maintain a certain tone becomes irrelevant. For every Dr. Strangelove or Brazil or Being There or In the Loop, there are a dozen wretched imitators.
Unfortunately, David Cross' directorial debut Hits succumbs to a lot of the genre's worst tendencies: it's a shrill, irritating movie filled with obnoxiously stereotypical characters and a mostly-aimless “the world is filled with morons!” message. If you've seen much of Cross' stand-up, perhaps this won't come as a big surprise: he's a funny guy, but stridency is his kryptonite.
Hits is a sprawling ensemble film of sorts, but mostly centers on the separate frustrations of a middle-aged man named Dave (Matt Walsh, Veep) and his teenage daughter Katelyn (Meredith Hagner, Men at Work). Dave is a low-income guy living in upstate New York, and he seems to spend the majority of his free time finding things to complain about. He's upset about the potholes in the road, restaurants changing their menus, snow piling up on his street, etc. He takes most of these grievances before his small town's city council, where he is always hastily dismissed after his three-minute time limit runs out.
Meanwhile, Katelyn has dreams of becoming a pop star, and plans to achieve that goal by auditioning for The Voice. Unfortunately, she has to record an audition tape first, and the only guy in town with a studio is a creepy lech (Jason Ritter, Parenthood) who demands sexual favors in exchange for his (less-than-useful) services. As the film proceeds, Katelyn finds herself willing to go to ever-increasing extremes for the sake of getting a little fame.
There are fleeting moments which suggest that Cross (who also wrote the film) has a bit of empathy for these two delusional people, but those scenes are vastly outnumbered by scenes in which Cross seems to be sneering at them. He's certainly sneering at everyone else in the film: the Brooklyn hipster (James Adomian, Comedy Bang! Bang!) who discovers Dave's frustration and attempts to present him to the world as a Mr. Smith-esque folk hero, the hipster's baby-obsessed wife (Erinn Hayes, It's a Disaster), the white teen (Jake Cherry, Night at the Museum) who casually uses the n-word in his lame freestyle rap, Dave's blustery redneck pal (David Koechner, Koechner-ing pretty hard here), the dumb police officers called into the mix every few scenes or so, the rigid city council members obsessed with wrapping their city in red tape, etc. These characters are rarely afforded the opportunity to sound like real people, as Cross gives them dialogue that sounds like an angry intellectual's scoffing imitation of the idiots he hates. “I heard it on Alex Jones, so it must be true!” shouts one character, saying the sort of thing that no one ever actually says out loud.
The film borrows bits and pieces from a host of other satirical films (the “American moron as American icon” theme is certainly a popular one), but the film it resembles most strongly is Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America, in which an angry, bitter man and his young accomplice started murdering everyone that got on their nerves. That wasn't a perfect film, but at least it had a measure of weary self-awareness – it recognized that angry rants from bitter cynics were just as tiresome as people who text during movies. Hits is written and directed by a man who doesn't seem to realize that his voice is no less absurd than those of his characters.
I feel as if I'm piling on at this point, but it should be noted that Cross isn't much of a director. There are more than a few scenes that feel weirdly slack (as if we're watching a film that's only 70% finished with the editing process), and basic things like blocking get fumbled with some regularity. He's got a lot of good actors at his disposal, but he either wastes them (Julia Stiles delivers the year's most uneventful cameo) or neglects to give them sufficient direction (I don't know what James Adomian is going for, exactly, but it doesn't work). It's encouraging to see the talented Matt Walsh given a juicy leading role, but the build to his big third-act moment – in which he delivers a speech that sounds as if it might have been written by the reprehensible political blogger Matt Walsh – doesn't mesh well enough with the payoff.
If Hits is remembered in the years ahead, it won't be for anything the film itself contains but for the unusual manner in which it was released. Cross released Hits on BitTorrent as a “pay what you want” affair in addition to using Kickstarter to help secure a limited theatrical release for the film. There's something interesting: a whole bunch of ordinary folks chipping in to help out a movie that has nothing but spite for all of humanity.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Year: 2015