Slumdog comedian

"SNL" alum Chris Kattan exports his desperation in IFC's sweet summer miniseries "Bollywood Hero"

Published August 4, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Rachna Shah (left), Chris Kattan and Pooja Kumar in "Bollywood Hero."
Rachna Shah (left), Chris Kattan and Pooja Kumar in "Bollywood Hero."

"Didn't you play the half-monkey man that ate the peanuts?"

Chris Kattan grimaces at this remark by a stranger at a Hollywood party, but that grimace only reminds us of Mr. Peepers -- or Mango or Gollum or the other manic characters he played in his stint on "Saturday Night Live." As Kattan watches Keanu Reeves attract a circle of hot girls at the party while he only attracts curiosity, he finds himself wanting more.

"When I was a kid I wanted to be Indiana Jones," Kattan tells us in the opening moments of "Bollywood Hero," IFC's three-part miniseries that airs this week (10 p.m. Aug. 6, 7 and 8 on IFC). "This year I told my agent I wouldn't take any more acting jobs until he actually found me something different, a part where I'm the leading man or I’m the hero, the role I always dreamed of playing." Kattan says he wants to "fight the bad guys" and "sleep with attractive women." Understandable, sure, but ... can Mr. Peepers really be serious?

Presumably Kattan plays a desperate, pathetic version of himself in this odd little three-hour romp that's exactly as charming and uneven and hokey as so many indie comedies. Whether Kattan is being humiliated or acting like a jackass or getting dance lessons from the elderly Indian grandmother, he embodies that strange subgenre of toothless indie comedy that makes fun of itself but has no edge whatsoever. Think "The Full Monty." Think "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Funny, yes, but in a way that's almost embarrassing, a way that has you and your mom and your grandmother cackling in unison.

Of course, this lack of edge also makes you root for its beleaguered hero a little more unabashedly than you normally would. Kattan travels to India to star in a movie called "Peculiar Dancing Boy" -- and Kattan is indeed peculiar. But a story this endearingly unpretentious and a lead character this peculiar need your help, don't they? This is the unassuming style that made "Juno" and "Napoleon Dynamite" -- not to mention "Slumdog Millionaire" -- sleeper hits.

"Bollywood Hero" doesn't exactly provide a volley of nonstop laughs, but it has its moments. When Kattan unexpectedly breaks out into song, lost on the streets of Mumbai, the results are truly befuddling. As bizarre as it is, the miniseries' creators definitely capture the romantic spirit of Bollywood, with a little streak of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" thrown in for good measure. Is that Kattan singing? No, it's Michael Penn, who wrote three songs for the miniseries, one of which is a duet with his wife, Aimee Mann.

Too bad Mann and Penn can't stand in for Kattan and his love interest Priya (Pooja Kumar), since their scenes together are uniformly awkward and awful. "You know, ever since I got here you've been really hard on me!" Kattan literally whines at her in one scene. It's as if Kattan himself wants to remind us, every step of the way, that he's not a serious actor.

And it's as if "Bollywood Hero" wants to remind us that it's not a serious film, neither compelling enough to make it to your local indie theater nor broad enough to make it to your local Cineplex. In short, this miniseries feels like an unpredictable experiment, a sweet little summer fling for those looking for some low-impact amusement. Like Chris Kattan himself, "Bollywood Hero" is goofy, disconcerting, slightly pathetic and, every now and then, undeniably funny.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------