Director: Roman Atwood, Ben Pluimer
Cast: Roman Atwood, Vitaly Zdorovetskiy, Dennis Roady
Watch Natural Born Pranksters online in the UK: Netflix UK / YouTube / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
If you’re buying a movie called Natural Born Pranksters, you know what to expect. And that’s exactly what Lionsgate will be hoping for with this feature-length outing for YouTubers Roman Atwood, Dennis Roady and Vitaly Zdorovetskiy, who have a large combined following of 28 million subscribers through their various channels.
The challenge, though, is whether short-form pranks can work within long-form content: can people really be entertained by what are normally pick-up-and-put-down jokes for 100 minutes? It’s not a new question: pranks have been on our screens for years, all the way back to Beadle’s About, which ran for a staggering 10 years on ITV. It’s somewhat fascinating, then, that even after Punk’d and other shows, YouTube, the birthplace of the new wave of TV and TV talents, should find itself awash with prank videos too. There’s something oddly retro about seeing a bunch of victims being duped into something by some other people, as if it’s a novelty that’s only just been invented.
Aside from humanity’s penchant for schadenfreude, though, what Natural Born Prankers really emphasises is the importance of likeability when it comes to practical jokes. Here, our trio try to keep things diverse, with a variety of stunts – there are a string of long pranks, punctuated by small, quick-fire gags to keep the pacing up. But whether it’s seeing them confront masseuses with erections or (most bizarrely) pretend to steal petrol from a man’s car, Atwood, Roady and Zdorovetskiy can’t change one constant: they all come across as cruel.
They’re most likely kind and lovely in person, but their humour is mean-spirited in a way that Jeremy Beadle, for example, never felt – in an age where marketing companies repeatedly set up elaborate stunts to get promotional campaigns to go viral, perhaps the only way to generate clicks and buzz is to go bigger or go nastier. And while Lionsgate (which deserves credit for its consistent investing in YouTube talent) may have put a decent chunk of money into this, Natural Born Pranksters never feels like a lavish production; even one cannon-based stunt that does prompt a giggle for its sheer gross-out nature is performed to just half a dozen people in a car park. Going nastier, then, is the option left.
The comparison that springs to mind while watching the movie is Jackass, but if that comedy worked on a baser, simpler level, its stars also had charisma to go with their masochistic streak. Here, our trio of young males titter to themselves, as they hide and watch the potential destruction of a marriage, then they jump out and applaud themselves for doing it in the first place. It’s telling that the most amusing pranks are a brief shot of them dressed as cops in the street – a gag too short for us to spend time with the trio – and a rare behind-the-scenes moment where they prank each other. It’s equally revealing that, while one of the three is apparently arrested for possessing a hoax bomb, the film isn’t brave or imaginative enough to dive into that issue and tackle it head-on. Even their police stunts could have been used to explore the way that unsuspecting members of the public trust authority figures.
Either would give substance to this bunch of disconnected sketches across an hour and a half. As far as YouTube outings go, this pales in comparison to the site’s similarly low-budget original documentary A Trip to Unicorn Island, which follows one of its own stars, Lilly Singh, on a world tour of 30 cities – a global series of stunts would prove a far more ambitious and interesting project for these natural born pranksters than what they serve up. As it is, fans will know exactly to expect – and whether you find these pranksters fun to watch or not, it’s a shame that they never genuinely manage to surprise.
Natural Born Pranksters is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.
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