James Duval, the man who played Frank the Rabbit in Donnie Darko, is the star of this intriguing stoner comedy-drama, whose wacky/terrifying premise almost lives up to the legendary interdimensional bunny. He plays Sid, an inveterate LA toker and online gamer (Challenger is his digital ID) who, 40 years old and going nowhere, decides to bury himself alive and livestream the ordeal on the internet. Based on the YouTube videos of some Russians who’ve done the same thing, he believes it will bring him good luck.
The ploy is all the more surprising, because for the first half-hour writer-director Paul Boyd keeps us firmly in Lebowski land. Sid is Echo Park’s resident friendly neighbourhood dealer, handing out complimentary joints to the schoolkids he sells kush to. After being replaced by a robot in his last job and with his rent in arrears, he’s resigned to being “a loser”. He can’t even win at Tinder: he finishes a date cable-tied to the bed by a dominatrix. He’s eventually freed by Logan (Coy Stewart), the twentysomething gaming partner who agrees to supervise the burial.
I, Challenger is at its best when it plays the self-interment idea just seriously enough, hovering on the edge of absurdity. But tonally Boyd is a bit uncertain, letting Duval go too big with the bachelor pothead shtick in the early stages (he smokes a joint that pivots back and forth on a rotator fan). That it’s hard to sustain any comedy once Sid is six feet under and fretting over his mobile signal is understandable – though the film remains fundamentally too affable to ruthlessly extract the high tension of the likes of 2010’s Buried.
Despite this, I, Challenger always retains the kind of well-meaning brothers-under-the-herb optimism of the stoner genre, while being more imaginative than most. Duval, who makes an endearing dummy, has a great hallucination scene where he’s beamed up into a gaming laptop looming over the LA horizon like an Independence Day spaceship. But surely they should have called the film Dude, Where’s My Coffin?