This was really distasteful, all in all. Just... ick.
CW: sexual assault
All right, plot: three friends work at a downward trending amusement park. After borrowing an evil book from the fortune teller, they jokingly make a blood oath on it, only to have the friend who reneges on it (by not giving a mint to the other upon request) get dragged into hell, with the other two in tow. The oath-violating friend is kidnapped, and the other two set out in a bumbling manner to rescue him. Subplots include the Devil being in love with an angel and trying to trap the other two to pass off to her, and a half-devil, half-demon woman searching for her long absent father, Orpheus (AKA, an expert in getting people out of hell). The whole thing is an a semi-claymation style that should be more endearing than it is.
Ok, so not a great premise, though in general, I'm always willing to give the "deal with the devil" archetypal plot a go. But the voice cast is an excellent array of some top level comedians: Bob Odenkirk as the devil, T. J. Miller as Augie, one of the two friends (Nick Swardson plays the other; I don't know him, but his performance was good enough); Rob Riggle as Curt, the friend whose soul is in trouble; Susan Sarandon as an angel; Danny McBride as Orpheus; and supporting roles from Maria Bamford, H. Jon Benjamin, Jennifer Coolridge, Kumail Nankiana, Brian Posehn, Paul Scheer, Greg Proops, Dana Snyder, and Paul F. Tompkins, and, while not exactly a comedian, Mila Kunis as Deema the female devil . It was basically that cast list that convinced me to try the film, despite its low Amazon rating.
Nope. In terms of plot, it doesn't work because of the sheer number of times a character acts without any particular reason, or changes their mind on a dime. Every character in the movie is kind of gross, with the exception of Deema. How much you care about the outcome depends on wanting the leads to get out of hell and rescue Curt, and I was actively rooting for failure at points. It's demeaning to all its female characters--of the four significant ones, two are supposed to be comical because of their grotesque bodies (fatness and age), and the other are ridiculously sexualized. The male characters in regards to the women are either "Good Guys," horndogs, or alternate randomly between the two. And Orpheus' backstory and the movie's climax hinge directly around tree rape.(The worst thing that can ever be leveled at the Evil Dead series is that it popularized tree rape as a comedy trope.)
Let's unpack that last one. By far the most interesting idea the film has is that Orpheus is an action hero/smuggler type, but in person, he's also a self-important asshole. Danny McBride in general is hit or miss for me, but I think he does pretty well in the role. But it's heavily implied that the reason for his behaviour is a tree molestation. And at the end of the story, our heroes lead the devil into a tree rape ambush. It's all gross, and doesn't improve with repetition.
A frequent debate in comedy is what, if anything, should be off limits. On the one side, you have people arguing that comedy that's racist or misogynist or turns rape into a punchline trivializes and normalizes certain modes of thought. On the other hand, you have basically the free speech argument, that comedians should be free to say what they want, and that humour can be a useful tool for critiquing social issues.
In virtually any circumstances, I'd defer to the former argument, and absolutely understand anyone who refused flat out to tolerate jokes on one of these subjects. For me personally, my response to the second argument is that yes, you're free to say that--but being free to say something doesn't also free you from the consequences of saying it. And yes, humour can be a useful tool, but in that case, message, execution, and audience come into play.
For example, let's compare this movie to Amy Schumer's "Friday Night Lights" sketch in 2015. (And yes, there are a lot of valid arguments that can be leveled against Schumer too, but for the argument at hand, the focus is the sketch.) It's a sketch about the prevalence of rape culture in sports, and it works for me. The humor makes a statement about the connection between rape culture and sports, by exaggerating the players' sense of sexual entitlement. In Hell and Back, it gets a decent amount of humor around Orpheus, through the juxtaposition of our notion of an ancient Greek hero known for his devotion to love against his actual character as a jackass fratboy. But the tree rape doesn't have that humour. Basically, it seems to be playing on three ideas:
a) it's funny because it's a reference to Evil Dead
b) it's funny because men being raped is inherently funny
c) it's funny because powerful men being raped by trees is inherently funny
a) is really more a substitute for humor rather than actual humor. b) and c) are basically just ways of trivializing rape against men, which just perpetuates really awful notions about masculinity. It's gross, and I think a lot less of the film for including it, and a little less of the people associated with the film.
Incidentally, my favorite gag of the film is a repeated gag where Paul F. Thompson voices a soul undergoing very small amounts of hellish torments.
Demon: "Welcome to Pizza Hut Taco Bell. What'll you have?"
PFT: "I think I'll have a medium pizza with pepperoni."
Demon: "All out! Only tacos! Because you're in hell!"
PFT: "Oh, I see."
Demon: "Now ask for a cheese pizza."
PFT: "All right. Could I get a---"
Demon: "No! Welcome to hell! Order again!"
PFT: "You know, I think I see where this is going."
More of that. Less tree rape.