Taken on straightforward terms, Fired Up! is disposable teen comedy at its most perfunctory: fitfully amusing if we're being generous, cursed with two unusually unlikable lead actors, needlessly contrived, completely predictable, aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator.

I do not choose to take the film on straightforward terms.

When I watch this film, what I see is not a cardboard PG-13 sex comedy; or rather, I see that and I don't care. Fired Up! is rather a kind of anti-movie, peculiar and terrible in the most garish ways conceivable, closer perhaps to surrealism than legitimate Hollywood narrative cinema. First-time director Will Gluck and first-time writer Freedom Jones haven't just made a crappy cheerleader movie, they've made something that violates tens of rules governing classical filmmaking, not apparently because they are incompetent but because they are simply disinterested. I don't suppose that this was their conscious aim; Nor do I care what their conscious aim might have been. Even if it's by accident, Fired Up! is perhaps the most experimental film released to mainstream American cinemas in months, if not years.

If this happened by accident, I expect it was partially because the film, in its broadest strokes, isn't something that would inspire anyone, be they a brilliant artist or an anonymous hack. The concept is something that feels like it was conceived solely to fill a studio's marketing requirements: it must have elements that appeal to teenage boys and elements that appeal to teenage girls, and it must come in with a PG-13 rating so that those teenage boys and girls can pay to see it. That translates into a film that is equal parts cheerleading wish-fulfillment and horny boys' adventure: best friend jocks Shawn (Nicholas D'Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) are none too excited about football camp this summer, for it means two endless weeks without girls, but when they learn about a cheerleader camp (300 nubile young women, virtually no other males) going on at the same time, they decide that quickly jumping ship from one team to the other guarantees them a sexual paradise like they've never imagined.

See, if I'm Will Gluck and Freedom Jones, I don't "want" to make this movie, though I certainly want the attendant paycheck. But really, nobody expects Fired Up! to be a masterpiece, or particularly enjoyable in any way, so why not have some fun making it? And on a film set, fun is always doing things that are weird or needlessly difficult, rather than using the same damned shot-reverse shot set-up that every American movie has used for the last 90 years. The moment when I was certain that I was watching the result of filmmakers dicking around just because they could comes when Shawn and Nick arrive at camp: the teeming masses of lithe high school girls are presented in a stupidly elaborate exterior Steadicam shot that weaves between clumps of people, up a flight of stairs and back down, rotating something around 450º over a good thirty seconds. There's only one reason for putting a shot like that in a movie like this: because you fucking well can, and you're drunk on the possibilities of a movie set.

Admittedly, much of the film is bog-standard stuff, but there's quite enough in Fired Up! that's much, much more involved than it needs to be, so that nobody could say in truth that Gluck and company were just cranking out the film. And the parts that took a lot of work and creativity - the Steadicam shot, several scene transitions that use extremely well-hidden cuts to suggest impossible continuity of motion, and occasionally just profoundly weird compositions - are tremendously obvious attention-grabbers. No-one with any kind of affinity for formal analysis could conceivably miss some of these tricks, and the most glaring are the kinds of things that give people an affinity for formal analysis in the first place. Gluck's direction doesn't just exist separately from Fired Up!, as is often the case when it appears that a filmmaker is trying to privately amuse himself when given a rote script; his direction actively distracts from the movie, as though he actually had a vendetta against the story and wished to make it disappear.

I don't know but that I think the same thing about the writing of Freedom Jones, whose name absolutely must be fake. The Fired Up! screenplay - which may or may not have included copious improv, if the end-credits outtakes are to be believed - has a bizarre ambition that belies the projects barrel-scraping concept, and frankly seems to be the work of a mind with no real relationship to actual human culture. To maintain the PG-13 rating, the film relies upon copious, virtually unending euphemisms and innuendos, none of which are particularly confusing; yet they are all extremely strange. Not funny, not whatsoever: almost all of them are given to Nick, who seems unable to relate to anything in life except in sexual terms, and he is an unendingly grating character, played by Olsen in a wholesale rip-off of Jim Carrey's style of mugging. So the euphemisms are not amusing - but they are mesmerising, both for their creativity and their sheer volume. Then too does Jones indulge in a shocking amount of political name-dropping, and this does not even appear to be in the service of non-existent gags: it's just to add color, or something. It is, at any rate, excitingly random.

So much of the film is just so damn strange! The film's requisite villain, an arrogant college freshman, is associated on the soundtrack exclusively with rock songs composed before his birth, from both the '70s and '80s; this makes no sense whatsoever, but it is a theme which is never dropped or treated with anything but the gravest sincerity. The high school kids are more typically set against current pop songs; but there are many of them, used in strange places. In fact, the soundtrack is very aggressive and loud, to the point where we are very much listening to montages more than watching them. Setting that aside, there's the strange manner of the film's sense of humor, which is not zany and loud (like most modern comedies) nor reflexively bawdy (the rest); bawdiness and loudness are components, but by far the most common tack for the gags in this film to take is that they are befuddling. Not befuddling in the sense, "Why would someone think this is funny?" but in the sense, "What the hell is happening?" And that applies both to the rapid-fire, colorful, completely opaque dialogue as well as the narrative framework itself. If the film is not funny, and it very much is not, I think this is mostly because it is so absurd - bearing in mind that absurdism, in its pure form, has nothing to do with comedy and everything to do with anarchy and nihilism.

I have basically just described a bad comedy, and that is because Fired Up! is a bad comedy, and even a bad film, by any standard yardstick. But its badness is aggressive, anxious: it is not the result of doing things poorly, but of doing things that have no earthly reason to be done whatsoever. Looking over what I've written, I see that I have not communicated, and probably cannot communicate, how much of Fired Up! violates the most basic rules of cinematic storytelling grammar; and for this reason it transfixed me body and soul. The film is a disaster that has chanced its way into being a bold, terrifying experiment, where the idea of "good" or "bad", or even the simpler concepts "works" and "doesn't work" don't really matter. It amazed and delighted me simply by dint of existing so far outside of what actual filmmaking is supposed to look like.

Part of me wishes that every movie were so callously disrespectful to the rules; cinema would be a much more exhilarating artform. We'd also probably all be insane by now.

(no rating)
(4/10 as a teen sex comedy)
(8/10 as an avant-garde antimovie)