Things are not going too well for lifelong friends and former child beauty pageant competitors Kate (June Diane Raphael) and Chloe (Casey Wilson). Pushing thirty, they are unsettled and scraping by with dubious jobs. Kate sells her eggs to parents unable to conceive while Chloe dances (badly) at a dodgy nightclub. It is all very different from the lives they imagined for themselves not to mention that led by their childhood nemesis: pageant queen turned celebrity author Laurel (Alicia Silverstone). So when faced with the chance to compete in another pageant, the friends set off on a road trip to recapture the crown that eluded them as children. Naturally since neither is the sharpest tool in the box, misadventures ensue.
Frustrated by their experience scripting the studio comedy Bride Wars (2009), comedians, writers and real-life friends June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson turned to Kickstarter to fund this indie vehicle for themselves. As well as an accomplished character actress, Raphael co-hosts the hilarious bad movie podcast 'How Did This Get Made?' while Wilson was a performer on Saturday Night Live and starred in the sitcom Happy Endings. Both are gifted comedians who have been terrific elsewhere. Yet sadly, though fitfully amusing, Ass Backwards falls largely flat. The frustrating thing is there is the germ of a great comedy here. Raphael and Wilson bring a welcome and fresh twist to a theme very popular of late with male comedians: stories where embarrassingly immature adults struggle to grow up. Here Kate and Chloe are hopelessly delusional about their present lives but also fixate on past failures. Both suffer a case of arrested development, be it clinging to childish knickknacks or obsessing over a relationship that ended nine years ago. The characters have great comic potential but a rambling plot fritters away many of the wittier observations.
Adopting a road trip structure conceptually similar to Dumb and Dumber (1994), the film opens with twin trickles of pee before a camera pan reveals our two leads squat bare-assed urinating on the roadside. Admirably fearless when it comes to physical and character comedy, Raphael and Wilson mine a similar vein of confrontational, gross-out humour that worked successfully for other writer-performers like Kristen Wiig and Amy Schumer but plays more hit-and-miss here. In place of finely honed gags the laughs are more scattershot. Among their misadventures the ladies spend a night at a forest retreat for ageing radical feminist/lesbians, embarrass themselves in front of snarky teenagers at a spring break pool party, lapse into a hilarious game of one-upmanship performing at a strip club (run by Raphael's real-life husband and podcast co-host Paul Scheer), and share a jail cell with their favourite reality TV star (Brian Geraghty) who also happens to be a dangerously unstable meth addict. Along with Scheer and Alicia Silverstone, the writer-producer-stars secured cameos from other performer-friends including Bob Odenkirk as the sarcastic pageant host, Vincent D'Onofrio as Chloe's deadbeat yet touchingly kind dad and Jon Cryer as the flustered pageant coordinator.
Despite a sloppy first third and a half the film gradually coheres and grows funnier. Along with a surprisingly moving montage with Kate and some schoolchildren dancing to the Divinyls' trash pop classic 'I Touch Myself', the disastrous pageant provides a fair few laughs. What redeems the film is a certain pathos that stems from the heroines challenging the fixed notion there are only winners and losers in life. Indeed the climax is almost ingenious in inverting the stock story arc in movies as their triumph involves acknowledging an inability to learn anything. Yet there is no escaping that Ass Backwards could and should have a been a lot funnier.