When superstar YouTuber and world-class dumbass Logan Paul stumbled into the international spotlight last year for disrespecting a dead body he found in Japan’s “Suicide Forest,” adults of the world, for whom the kid-friendly world of YouTube performers like him is like a bizarre, inscrutable foreign language they do not speak, were once again flummoxed.
They wondered how a toxic jock like Paul — a quintessential Ugly American barely into his 20s and, as his Japanese misadventures proved, not the savviest character — could amass a budding entertainment empire with millions of adoring subscribers.
As parents of small, YouTube-loving children like myself can wearily attest, however, “quality” isn’t exactly an important criteria for the six-and-under set when they log on, looking for something to gaze at for a while. It’s usually enough to find something sufficiently broad to appeal to pre-critical minds desperate for loud noises, bright colors, and kinetic movements to fill their sensation-craving heads.
This is where YouTube superstar “Fred,” as played by young actor Lucas Cruikshank, comes in. The astonishing and, sadly, enduring popularity of this character reveals the generational disconnect at the heart of YouTube stardom. To kids, Fred is a digital-age Pied Piper that small children apparently find endlessly amusing. The three-minute video “Fred Goes Swimming” has been seen over 70 million times. I imagine at least some of those views came from sadists using it as torture to extract information from unwilling sources.
To adults, Fred’s nasal, nails-on-a-chalkboard whine is a buzzing, intense, nuclear-power irritant that’s unbearable even in short, manic bursts. Yet someone nevertheless imagined it would be a good idea to extend Fred’s widely and rightfully hated shtick to feature length. Because the small, undiscriminating children who constitute Fred’s disturbingly vast fanbase are not professional film critics, generally, the end result, 2010’s Fred: The Movie, earned the dreaded Zero on Rotten Tomatoes.
Here’s a quick tip: as fellow The Zeros entry Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie illustrates all too vividly, if something has to tell you that it’s a movie in its title, it’s probably not much of a movie. Fred: the Movie is no exception, but it’s also a failure and an embarrassment on every other level as well.
The film opens with a flurry of Fred’s patented fourth-wall-breaking, squealing-directly-at-the-audience shenanigans as he introduces us to his world, which is suffused with loneliness and despair at a level seldom seen outside Todd Solondz films. Understandably friendless high schooler Fred spends his days stalking crush Judy (visibly embarrassed British pop star Pixie Lott), getting relentlessly bullied at school, pining for the return of a dad who abandoned him but who appears in fantasies as a muscle-bound, endlessly aggressive John Cena (who seems to be playing himself, although that’s never established explicitly), and doting on a sloppy, alcoholic mother (Saturday Night Live’s Siobhan Fallon) who is perpetually hungover, bleary-eyed, and in need of a nap after another regrettable, drunken one night stand.
The film centers on its protagonist’s Quixotic attempts to win the heart of his crush by finding a way for them to sing together, a process that mostly involves Fred screaming semi-coherently while talking compulsively to a camera that he rightfully treats as his only friend.
Fred: The Movie deviates so dramatically from the template of even the flimsiest, most perfunctory children’s movies that it threatens at times to devolve into an avant-garde stream of consciousness. It doesn’t feel like we’re being entertained by an exuberant, if divisive, goofball. Instead, it feels like we’re being given a window into the tortured psyche and feverish, myopic imagination of someone genuinely unhinged. This isn’t a geek’s fun adventure to track down the girl of his dreams; it’s a nervous breakdown in cinematic form, a waking nightmare from which Fred can never escape.
Fred seems incapable of processing reality. When Judy and her parents move, he thinks she’s been kidnapped by Asians. When a man talks to him in Spanish, he assumes the stranger is a space alien and that he’s gone insane and is no longer able to understand human language. Every misunderstanding sparks yet another helium-pitched tantrum that’s drawn out sadistically to get this baby just barely to feature length.
As played by Cruickshank, Fred’s baseline is screaming, writhing, look-at-me hysteria. There’s no way that could be sustainable over the course of a feature film. It’s not even sustainable over the course of three minutes.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers assume audiences won’t tire of Fred yelling at the top of his lungs about whatever he’s freaking out about at any given moment. The character’s popularity on YouTube unfortunately backs up that assertion when, in fact, Fred’s obnoxiousness leaves you pining for supporting characters that might provide even the briefest respite from the titular abomination.
As if to acknowledge that even Cruickshank himself and the target audience for Fred: The Movie will grow weary of Fred, Cruickshank plays a dual role as a vaguely metal-head burnout named Derf, who’s more appealing and less annoying than Fred pretty much by default. Fred is so insufferable that he not only requires a strong comic foil, but an entire world of characters who are not him, just to be bearable.
Fred: The Movie isn’t completely worthless, though. There’s a germ of a good idea in the weird fantasy sequences involving John Cena. It’s the only time the film’s half-assed surrealism and lazy absurdity pays off. The wrestling superstar commits to this silliness, and to incongruous bursts of paternal concern, with a deadpan commitment that foreshadows his unexpected evolution into a sought-after comic actor later in the decade.
The movie would be easier to take if it had any underlying sympathy for its protagonist. But it sure feels like the film itself would shove Fred in a locker, give him a wedgie, and subject him to all manner of good-natured and not-so-good-natured bullying if it had an opportunity to. Fred: The Movie is a weirdly sour, misanthropic endeavor that takes unseemly delight in piling one humiliation after another onto its obnoxious protagonist.
The movie really hits a nadir when Fred finally makes it to Judy’s party and, after being humiliated by bullies in front of his mocking classmates, proceeds to vomit profusely on Judy’s chest before fleeing in horror. It’s like the pig’s blood scene in Carrie, only more disturbing and not as funny.
In a meta twist, the puke video makes Fred YouTube-famous, which provides us with many, many more opportunities to see our hapless protagonist projectile vomit all over the object of his desire. Fred: The Movie does not afford its protagonist much in the way of dignity, and I haven’t even touched upon the instances in the film where Fred soils himself.
“Why do people even want to watch other people on YouTube! It’s weird! It’s creepy! I don’t get it! I just don’t get it!” Fred howls in despair at people laughing at his humiliation and misfortune. The lines are supposed to ring with wry self-deprecation. Instead, they feel like the only emotionally authentic moment in the film.
Fred: The Movie tries to marry the YouTube aesthetic — insufferable caricatures screaming directly at the camera, jump cuts to create a sense of movement and kinetic energy even when there is none, relentlessly manic pacing, broad physical comedy, free-floating misanthropy — to cinematic storytelling with singularly unappealing, unpalatable results. Watching Fred: The Movie is like spending 83 minutes inside the mind of its title character. It’s a horrible place to visit for even a brief trip, but stretched out to feature length, it feels like an eternity.
In their bid to appeal to the tiny attention spans of very young children, YouTube stars like Fred crank everything up to 11, including, unfortunately but inevitably, the irritation level. Despite its title, Fred: The Movie isn’t a movie: it’s a harrowing endurance test.
Fred: The Movie doesn’t merit the “movie” part of its title, but it earns its consensus Zero by transferring the awfulness of YouTube to a new medium. Critics rightly roasted the film en masse, if only as retribution for having to live with Fred’s nasal whine in their abused psyches. The world being what it is, however, the movie’s toxic response did not keep it from spawning two sequels.
That’s right, not only is Fred technically a movie, he’s a trilogy that stands as yet another enduring testament to the low, low standards and equally low expectations of the depressingly easy-to-please audience for YouTube superstars like him and Logan Paul. Unlike Fred, Paul is not, remarkably, an outlandish fictional character cruelly mocking the stupidity and immaturity of today’s obnoxious man-children, particularly those obsessed with YouTube superstardom. He merely comes off that way.