Not to be confused with an adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” comedy troupe Broken Lizard’s “Quasi” tells a story that’s truer to the Oxford definition of its title than the 1831 Victor Hugo novel that inspired it. Kevin Heffernan settles uneasily into the director’s seat usually occupied by colleague Jay Chandrasekhar for an underdog story more interested in leveraging funny pronunciations of French words for underwhelming laughs than in creating real characters — much less a visual backdrop that doesn’t look like a second-rate Renaissance Faire.
Set in a 13th Century France that narrator and sometime Broken Lizard collaborator Brian Cox helpfully informs us “sucked,” the film centers on Quasimodo (Steve Lemme), a social outcast who works in the torture chambers of King Guy (Chandrasekhar). There, in a search for a cure to his own physical deformity, he develops the hottest, most pain-inducing device on the market, “the rack.” Quasi’s upbeat friend Duchamp (Heffernan) tries to cheer him up by offering one of his Papal Lottery tickets — and the amateur torturer wins, earning an audience with Pope Cornelius (Paul Soter). Ahead of that meeting, Guy instructs Quasi to assassinate Cornelius, who the king assures him is a danger to France and “a total asshole.” He also meets Catherine (Adrianne Palicki), Guy’s thoughtful new queen, who develops an unexpected affection for the disfigured peasant after he rallies his fellow torturers for a protest about oysters.
When he finally meets the pope, Quasi receives conflicting orders: Kill Guy instead. So he hatches a plan with Catherine to fake his death, but Duchamp, resentful of Quasi’s newfound popularity, reveals his pal’s hiding place to Lucien (also Soter), their torture-chamber supervisor. Captured by the King’s guard and sentenced to death, Quasi resigns himself to his fate as a victim rather than operator of the rack — until Catherine makes a fateful discovery that promises to change the course of French history.
Given that this project is piloted by Broken Lizard, it’s clear that “Quasi” is meant to be a comedy, but there are enough long stretches where no jokes are even attempted that you’d be forgiven for thinking that laughs were only an incidental goal. The writing team of Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske smartly excise virtually any gags making fun of the title character’s disfigurement — they don’t try to eat their cake and have it too like the Farrellys often have —but nothing has been inserted in their place except for exaggerated pronunciations of words like “croissant,” and a steady stream of reminders of how awful the period was for the poor and unfortunate.
The fact that the film was made inexpensively, though not a vice in and of itself, is not especially compensated for by Joe Collins’ cinematography, which renders Heffernan’s compositions flat, stagy and small. Only a sex scene in a dungeon achieves a modest degree of atmosphere, but it’s purposefully undercut by Lemme’s slurping as the ill-mannered Quasi — a comic juxtaposition the rest of the film seldom exploits. Otherwise, the story’s tether to Hugo’s novel or general historical precedent is almost nonexistent, reducing palace intrigue and peasant uprisings to window dressing for the core troupe members to play against one another in multiple roles.
While Lemme exudes convincing charm as the title character, only Broken Lizard ensemble outsider Palicki finds the right balance between “commitment to the bit” and winking self-awareness, bringing a palpable intelligence but also go-along fun to her role as a royal who feels more comfortable with the oddball commoners. As the entitled, casually cruel King Guy, Chandrasekhar continues to show why he’s a standout among the group, but if the team (rightfully) planned to approach the casting anachronistically then why not add more performers (especially those of color) instead of just giving the rest of the Lizard team anemic secondary roles where they could be doubly underwhelming?
The film’s shortcomings feel even more egregious in the shadow of Mel Brooks’ recent “History of the World, Part II,” which not only broadly surpasses the imagination used here but serves as a much better example of how to deconstruct period events with modern humor. Not that the group has ever been particularly political, but it also doesn’t bother to exploit its story’s haves/have-nots dynamic or its petty, overindulged power brokers to draw any parallels to contemporary scenarios or figures. It’s also clear that Heffernan and his collaborators hold a special affection for Quasi, so delivering something sweeter and kinder than the material typically associated with Broken Lizard further compromised his comedic potential.
But ultimately, even in a cinematic landscape that is especially starved for comedy, Broken Lizard’s latest feels more like a tax shelter than an oasis. Less “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” than a sub-“Not Another French Gothic Novel Adaptation,” “Quasi” squanders an opportunity to give Hugo’s iconic character an overdue glow-up, instead settling for a version that won’t even ring a bell to the people already familiar with his story.