Mad Buddies is a return to conventional storytelling for Leon Schuster, whose box office achievements have been limited to South Africa with over-the-top local characters like Mr. Bones and Mama Jack. While these films have been runaway commercial hits, they haven't managed to mimic the international appeal of The Gods Must Be Crazy. The madcap toilet humour, slapstick comedy and distinctly South African flavour just hasn't caught on. As such, Mad Buddies fits a similar profile to There's A Zulu On My Stoep (aka Yankee Zulu) except it's about 20 years too late.
One white guy and one black guy on an adventure together... it's a classic combination for most buddy movies. However, it's not a first for Schuster. There's A Zulu On My Stoep came at a turning point in South African history, and the gimmick played off the times with some funny fish-out-of-water and body swapping comedy for Leon Schuster and John Matshikiza. Unfortunately for Mad Buddies, stars Leon Schuster with Kenneth Nkosi, have the chemistry working for them, but not the politics.
Twenty years ago... having a black guy and a white guy walking together on the side of the road would have turned heads. Nowadays things have progressed to the point that the only thing that would turn your head, is if they were holding hands or kissing. The gimmick just doesn't have the same friction, and while this is actually a good thing for our country, it just doesn't translate as strongly into a taut concept comedy.
Leon Schuster and long-time director Gray Hofmeyr co-wrote the Mad Buddies script, which took about 18 months to finalise. However, it needed an extra dimension. The physical comedy and gags have always come first, but there's so much untapped potential at the heart of this buddy movie. Each character comes from a different and distinct culture and heritage, yet they've been reduced to generic every-man types.
You can't help but feel that they could have given each character more depth and a bit more background than one or two unfortunate encounters. Mad Buddies wants to be heartwarming, but there's very little to resonate with, other than solidarity when each character simply represents a race. As a result, the story is lightweight, reducing the characters to real-life cartoons in a Tom & Jerry dynamic with their common goal of reaching Joburg by foot as the only real driving force.
Framing the story within a reality TV show helps to draw the audience in as spectators, but adds another complicated set of underlying problems, creating a rather fragile suspended reality when the tourism department can back a TV show in lieu of prison time, CGI wildlife have personalities and the undercover reality show cameramen and vans go undetected by the main characters for long stretches.
This distances their world, softens the consequences and puts all the emphasis on slapstick physical comedy and situational gags. The game of cat-and-mouse keeps each character getting the better of the other as their sense of mutual trust gradually improves, moving from surviving in the wild to scheming their way out of precarious The Hangover-inspired situations, involving a police car and eccentric small town locals.
Mad Buddies has two charming co-leads in Leon Schuster and Kenneth Nkosi, who have good chemistry and make the most of their loosely-knit characters, Boetie and Beast. Schuster plays his usual ordinary, middle-aged white guy derivative with a few tricks up his sleeve, while Nkosi glides into Schuster's world - immersing himself in the manic, crude and over-the-top brand of humour without flinching.
They're supported by Schuster's longtime sidekick, Alfred Ntombela, and beautiful up-and-coming actress, Tanit Phoenix. This time around "Alfie" has his own subplot as a tourism minister desperately trying to leverage the reality TV show. His bowler is a literal tip-of-the-hat to Charlie Chaplin and he steals every scene with his larger-than-life personality, infectious laugh and his own stunt work. Tanit Phoenix grapples with a stock standard femme fatale, whose sole ambition is to seduce the co-leads into continuing their mission and ensuring her reality show's every success.
Then there's the product placement, which wouldn't have been as prominent if Trevor Noah wasn't so famous now. At the time of filming, the stand-up comedian was Cell C's poster boy and his inclusion is unnecessary and distracting. Not only is his cameo limited to a few flimsy lines, but the much talked about Cell C "copyright" logo on his shirt just dates the film and echoes the costly embarrassment.
This is basically an unnecessary low budget South African reinterpretation of Dumb & Dumber, except the plot is pedestrian and predictable, the humour is base and puerile, and the characters are simply figureheads. You can appreciate what the film-makers were trying to achieve, there's plenty of charm and the physical comedy is impressive at times, but for all intents and purposes it would have been just as funny as if it'd been filmed as a silent movie like The Artist. Mad Buddies has loads of potential, but if it's going to reach an international standard, the script, story and characterisation need to be taken more seriously.
Mad Buddies will still make a killing at the South African box office thanks to Schuster's leagues of fans, who will laugh every time Alfred Ntombela walks into a door. It's a watchable lightweight popcorn comedy that doesn't take itself (or anyone) too seriously, making this winning (albeit low-brow) formula immune to criticism. Fart, rake and falling down gags aside, if Schuster ever wants to step it up to the international arena, his movies are going to have to get more street smart.
The bottom line: Half-baked