“VHYes” is barely 72 minutes long, but that’s just one reason this outlandish picture barely qualifies as a feature. For another thing, it’s almost halfway through before anything approximating a story emerges; even then, it’s such a pale, sickly thing you’d be forgiven for thinking you had imagined it.
Set at the tail end of 1987 and shot entirely on VHS and Betamax tape — a gimmick your eyeballs are unlikely to appreciate — this rough, at times sophomoric comedy from Jack Henry Robbins shoots for satire and lands mostly on inanity. Unfolding as a series of fragmented sketches apparently strung together at random, the movie forces us to watch as 12-year-old Ralph (Mason McNulty) uses his new camcorder — and his parents’ wedding video — to tape his late-night channel surfing.
Absent any clear through line, these rapid-fire, faux-retro vignettes are visually exhausting and, after a time, deeply aggravating. Their authentic ugliness cannot be overstated (as those who recall this chaotic period in after-hours television will attest), and their jokes mostly lack punch or punch lines. Spoofs of sitcoms, infomercials and true-crime shows crash into one another, buffered by forlorn snippets of the original wedding tape and clips of Ralph’s interactions with his best friend, Josh (Rahm Braslaw).
Occasionally, a parody is given time to land. A riff on “Antiques Roadshow,” featuring Mark Proksch as its spectacularly ignorant host, is amusingly dumb; and a segment with Charlyne Yi as a geeky music fan, broadcasting shows from her parents’ basement, perfectly nails the twin public-access vibes of enthusiasm and ineptness. Mostly, though, the movie feels like an excuse to recycle material from Robbins’ earlier comedy shorts: “Hot Winter” — a pornographic look at climate science — and the charmingly weird “Painting With Joan,” featuring the divine Kerry Kenney as an artist with Dennis Rodman sexual fantasies.
Even when the ghost of a point materializes — that recording ephemera can be a self-soothing behavior — “VHYes” is too unsophisticated to develop it. Instead, it offers agonizingly derivative social commentary from an author (played by Mona Lee Wylde) who views our relentless taping as precipitating mankind’s demise. Her predictions veer from the preposterous (crops will remain untended while farmers film their cows) to the clichéd (a celebrity will be president). None of them are funny.
Little more than a collage of meaningless nostalgia, “VHYes” makes you wonder how it found its way into a movie theater. Though I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that two of its actors, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, are also the director’s parents.