It’s a romantic comedy cliché: Boy goes on outrageous quest to win back the girl of his dreams, an adventure fueled by derring-do and impassioned speeches that gain urgency as the violins swell. Onscreen, those manic you-complete-me moments make audiences swoon. But in reality, they’d look like “Bad Trip,” a squirm-worthy exercise in vicarious humiliation that welds the rom-com formula to a gross-out prank show. Directed by Kitao Sakurai and produced by “Jackass” co-creator Jeff Tremaine, “Bad Trip” hands lovelorn loser Chris (Eric André, who co-wrote the film with Sakurai and Dan Curry) a safe word (“popcorn”) and the keys to a hot pink Crown Victoria, and sets the comedian loose to terrorize unsuspecting bystanders along a northbound interstate from Florida to Manhattan, where he intends to profess his love to his middle school crush Maria (Michaela Conlin of “Bones”).
Riding shotgun is Lil Rey Howery as Chris’ best friend Bud, and on their trail storms a terrifyingly incognito Tiffany Haddish, tatted and volatile, posing as Bud’s older sister Trina, a sociopathic prison escapee who barges into restaurants brandishing Chris and Bud’s picture and convinces strangers they might have to testify in a murder trial. Will these good citizens rat out Andre’s besotted Chris, who drips pathos like a leaking hose, and the charmingly sincere Howery? Alas, the average civilian lacks the courage of a movie hero. Groans one man, “I wasn’t ready to be Samuel L. Jackson in ‘The Negotiator.’”
The result is sniggering slapstick that’s two-parts biological fluids and one-part salute to the innate empathy of mankind, often in the same scene. Take the zoo tour where Chris attempts to impress Maria by sneaking into the cage of an amorous gorilla for a selfie. The scene quickly becomes repellant for reasons better left to the imagination. Yet his fellow tourists’ concern adds a dash of sugar, even if their advice is merely untested hunches (“Don’t look him in the eye!”) or relationship insights (“Would she go out there for you?”) that could wait until Chris has pulled up his pants. Not everyone is so kind. When Andre and Howery barge into a barbershop with their unmentionables conjoined in a Chinese finger trap, a knife-wielding man chases them down the street. (Afterwards, Howery nearly quit.)
“Bad Trip” is an extension of Andre and Sakurai’s eight-year creative partnership on Adult Swim’s “The Eric Andre Show,” five seasons of aggressive performance art disguised as a talk show. Andre disables the part of his amygdala that restrains him from holding strangers’ babies until they cry or unnerving guests with cockroaches and jump scares. The goal of his stunts isn’t to make his patsies angry. It’s to make them feel as though reality has cracked open under their feet, to tectonically upend normal codes of behavior so that even the audience is unsettled by their own laughter. Is it funny when Haddish pretends to break out of a police van and pressures a witness to lie to the cops? Yes and no. But while it’s possible to have empathy for an individual, in the aggregate, the movie’s marks become hilarious carnage.
Sakurai’s favorite hidden camera closeups aren’t of people snarling in anger (though there’s plenty of that). It’s of someone slack-jawed that they’d entered someplace benign — a juice bar, a car wash, a grocery store — only to suddenly bear witness to Andre’s extreme joy or shame. His Chris suffers the emotional equivalent of Johnny Knoxville shooting himself out of a cannon. When Chris asks a random guy on a bench if he should surprise Maria in New York, the man advises him to go for it. When Chris leaps up and starts to sing, the now-invested stranger grins, “He’s in love!” But when Chris jazz-dances into a mall food court, a shopper kicks in panic. Someone that happy has got to be dangerous.
However, Andre’s social experiments prove that the majority of Americans truly want to be helpful. This makes the film oddly heartening, whether from an Army recruitment officer who gives Chris a needed boost, or from a diner waitress who edits the sex out of a draft of Chris’ climactic profession of love. “Be more romantic,” she advises. How long? At least “30 minutes to an hour.” As the end credits roll, “Bad Trip” plays a montage of people learning they’ve been pranked, which eases the psychic damage. That the pranksters are the most imperiled by their hoaxes offers a bruising absolution. Still, as Haddish barges up to a policeman to ask him for a kiss, it’s hard not to pray: It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.