Dicks: The Musical Confuses Making Comedy With Inflicting It on an Audience

The big selling point of Dicks: The Musical is its exuberance, its brassy “Let’s put on a show!” bonhomie. The long and short of Dicks is this: It originated as a gonzo two-person underground theater piece conceived and performed by two members of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson. They’d always loved musicals, so they thought they’d write one. What began, as Sharp has said, as “a funny little half hour crazy queer musical,” eventually became a movie script. Then it was a script with a director: Larry Charles has been something of a medium for a certain kind of mad genius, finding ways to capture the weird-ass magic of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Brüno, The Dictator) and Bob Dylan (Masked and Anonymous) on the big screen.

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But Dicks: The Musical is so raucously pleased with itself and its checkerboard of absurdist gags that it feels less like a living, breathing movie and more like an outré bingo card, dutifully filled in one square at a time: Incest, rampant male and female horniness, female genitalia that has “fallen off,” small, weird creatures in diapers who have been snatched from the New York sewers and turned into prized pets. Dicks packs it all in, yet it amounts to so little.

Sharp and Jackson play Craig and Trevor, identical twin brothers who are also staunchly heterosexual bros—the movie’s opening sees them bedding various ladies with cartoony voraciousness. It turns out these two were separated at birth; they recognize their shared lineage only when they become cutthroat rivals working for the same company. (It’s a supplier of teeny-tiny parts for robot vacuums, and their new boss is a foxy ballbuster played by Megan Thee Stallion.) After Craig and Trevor get over their uncanny resemblance to one another—it takes about 10 minutes—they decide to reunite their estranged parents so they can be a family again. Trevor poses as Craig and meets, for the first time, his mother, Evelyn (Megan Mullally, working way too hard), a cracked, kooky, sex-starved loner in a wheelchair whose home is a cluttered wonderland of kitsch. And Craig, disguised as Trevor, has his first encounter with pops Harris (Anthony Lane), a debonair former explorer who now favors smoking jackets and velvet slippers, and likes to stay close to home with his beloved caged pets, a duo of spooky-looking, leering mini-cretins he calls the Sewer Boys. He has also recently come out, a development that would surprise no one. (This is perhaps the movie’s one witty grace note, over-the-top and delicate at once.) From this setup, mayhem is supposed to ensue.

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But madness doesn’t so much ensue as bang the audience on the head repeatedly, like Tweety Bird with his mallet, only not as subtle. It’s not that you couldn’t do something with the essential idea: who says a debauched version of The Parent Trap, in the right hands, wouldn’t work? But never do Sharp and Jackson stop to question whether what they’re doing is actually hilarious; they’re just so convinced it’s hilarious that they barrel through—they’ve confused making comedy with inflicting it on their audience.

The musical numbers come one after another, stacked tightly with no breathing room in between. The songs have a corny, campy vibe that would be enjoyable in smaller doses. In an early number, each twin laments that “the only one who understands me is me,” a riff on the duo’s mutual self-centeredness that hints broadly at what’s to come: not only are these two gay, they’re a love match made in heaven. But their grinning and mugging is tiresome almost from the start. It’s a relief when Lane shows up, because even with his magnificent charm and verve, he brings the energy down to manageable levels.

But not even he, good sport that he is, can save Dicks. Absurdist humor needs to be at least mildly grounded in reality; you can have ugly baby sewer mutants in your script, but there still needs to be at least a dream-logic reason for them to be there. Why, exactly, does Harris—an aesthete in every way—love them so much? And why would he be drawn to the sewers in the first place, when he clearly adores the drama of swishing capes and fine Persian carpets? Dicks is good for a few mild yuks when Bowen Yang shows up, in tiny, silvery shorts, as God. But it’s so in love with its own paint-by-numbers craziness that it ceases to feel inventive at all.

There’s something else: Dicks is clearly engineered to become an instant cult classic. But a movie becomes a cult classic when audiences find their own way to it, delighting in what they see as a private, personal discovery. The whole point is that it isn’t something that’s been sold to them. I’ve heard people say, with a gasp, “How did this movie even get made?” So many dick jokes, the incest thing, a loony puppet vulva that flies through the air! Our jaws are supposed to drop in awe and admiration. And there’s something to be said for pushing the boundaries of good taste in any era, particularly one in which gay rights—along with the idea of artistic freedom itself—are being threatened. But Dicks is so calculating that it unintentionally mitigates every moment of potential shock. It’s begging to be praised as bodaciously, gloriously queer—and it is that, but that doesn’t make it a great work of unhinged humor. Dicks is so in love with itself and its own overworked kooky world that it treats the audience like the outsider in a threesome. Sometimes the self is the least interesting part of self-expression.