During the crushing months of the COVID-19 pandemic, sketch comedy group Please Don’t Destroy provided much-needed relief with a string of endlessly rewatchable two-minute sketches released on social media. Their videos begin with an absurd premise and accumulate increasingly bizarre twists at a relentless pace, the filmed equivalent of a great riff in your favorite group chat. In what seemed like no time at all, the trio was hired to write for Saturday Night Live, producing a series of pre-taped sketches in the tradition of The Lonely Island. On SNL, Martin Herlihey, John Higgins, and Ben Marshall have continued to achieve the kind of viral success rarely merited by the show’s live sketches. Granted, the excitement of their meteoric rise has been tempered somewhat by the revelation that Herlihey and Higgins are the sons of longtime SNL producers, which might also explain how they got the green light from Universal to produce a feature film less than a year after their TV debut. Their road to stardom may not have been steep, but now that they’re Made Men, they’re faced with translating their short-form comedy to a full-length movie, a challenge that has bested many more seasoned SNL cast members. Can an act who does their best work in two-minute bursts hold our attention for an hour and a half? Sort of. Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain is a trifle, but on a laughs per minute level, it’s a much better time investment than a current SNL episode.
PLEASE DON'T DESTROY: THE LEGEND OF FOGGY MOUNTAIN ★★ (2/4 stars)
Like in their sketch work, John, Martin, and Ben portray fictionalized versions of themselves, lifelong friends who share a house in the suburbs and what is essentially a single brain. There is no clear “straight man”/“wild card” dynamic between these three; rather, they each offer a very slight variation on “naive, fast-talking adult child.” This, however, becomes the crux of the film’s conflict, as each of them is totally unprepared to cope with adult life on a practical or emotional level. Ben aches for the approval of his businessman father (Conan O’Brien), Martin’s girlfriend Amy (Nicole Sakura) wants to buy a house that he can’t possibly afford, and John worries that he’ll be left behind when his two buddies finally get their acts together. Fate offers them the opportunity to solve all of their problems at once when they discover a map to the long lost treasure of Foggy Mountain, worth roughly $100 million. The trio embarks on a quest to become rich enough that they don’t ever actually have to grow up, but they’ll have to stay one step ahead of park rangers Lisa (Meg Statler) and Taylor (X Mayo) and a crazy cult leader (Bowen Yang).
This plot mostly serves as connective tissue between Please Don’t Destroy’s typical bite-sized bits, allowing the team to play around with ideas that would be too thin to work as their own standalone sketch. For example, there’s a bit in which Martin tries to entice Amy with an online listing for a more affordable house, but every photo includes a weathered old woman who moves closer and closer to the camera, as if haunting both the house and the listing. The idea is introduced, escalated, and abandoned before it can get stale, even if that means never actually resolving the joke. It’s a sort-of cheat that lets them skip the hardest part of sketch comedy writing, but it’s also preferable to the way SNL’s live sketches overstay their welcome.
Just as with PDD’s sketches, a lot of Foggy Mountain’s fun is derived from watching funny people jam. The rapid-fire cutting and cross-talk suggest that the actors have been bouncing jokes off of each other for a few minutes and we’re seeing the highlights. Co-stars Meg Statler and X Mayo easily blend into this brand of super-cut comedy, while Conan O’Brien steals his scenes as an immovable object to PDD’s unstoppable force. The film never becomes more than the sum of these parts, but the parts are in working order.
Truthfully, it’s hard to decide where to set the bar for The Treasure of Foggy Mountain. On the one hand, it’s a debut feature from a group of promising young comedians whose best work may still be ahead of them. On the other hand, not many promising young comedians are getting studio budgets to work with in the year 2023, which makes any result short of excellent feel like a wasted opportunity. Mediocre SNL-derived feature films used to be a Hollywood perennial. Is it fair to hold Please Don’t Destroy to a higher standard than A Night at the Roxbury? In any case, Foggy Mountain arrives at a time when the Herlihy, Higgins, and Marshall could use a big win to prove that they deserve their platform. Last season, Please Don’t Destroy resorted to remaking one of their viral hits for SNL, and just this past week, the trio was accused of not only callously exploiting the war in Gaza (debatable) but of wholesale appropriating bits from Twitter (probably true). The Treasure of Foggy Mountain is not Please Don’t Destroy’s answer to Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and it won’t cement them as the next generation’s comedy saviors. They may well have such a masterwork in them, but this isn’t it.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.