There’s a flaky moment of lo-fi enchantment in the Quibi version of “The Princess Bride” when Inigo Montoya, played with forthright flair by Diego Luna (that’s just after he’s played by Oscar Nunez and just before he’s played by Finn Wolfhard), takes the sword crafted by his father — the one that got his father killed by the six-fingered man — and gives it to Westley, who is played by Jack Black (that’s just after he’s played by Common and just before he’s played by David Spade). The sword Montoya takes out is a cherry-red children’s umbrella. He hands it over, and in the next shot, as Westley grabs it, it’s a blue toy lightsaber, which is somehow perfect, since when Jack Black says with reverence that it’s the finest sword he has ever seen, you can believe that he’d feel that way about a blue toy lightsaber. The moment, in its way, is irresistible. That it’s also a piece of kitschy, postmodern goofery is part of the reason why.
In the next chapter, which you can arrive at quickly enough since they run four to nine minutes apiece, Westley is now played by Jon Hamm. He gets to act out the scene in which the Zorro-suited swordsman of valor faces off in a lethal drinking game against the megalomaniac pip-squeak Vizzini (played by Patton Oswalt), who bamboozles Montoya with his higher theory of how he’s figured out a foolproof way to win the game. If you had to list the five greatest scenes ever written by the screenwriter William Goldman, then surely this famous barrage of verbal acrobatics is one of them. But will it work on Quibi?
It works terrifically well, since it’s clear from Oswalt’s performance that he has probably seen “The Princess Bride” two dozen times and is relishing the chance to jump into that moment. As for Hamm, he’s wearing a costume-shop black mask and black sneakers, but he’s the first actor we’ve encountered with a presence romantic enough to evoke that of the dashing young Cary Elwes. He speaks his lines in an elegant purr, and something sort of cool happens: You get lured into “The Princess Bride” as surely as if you were watching the original.
But that’s the exception. The Quibi “Princess Bride” was put together by director Jason Reitman, who’d been doing a version of this sort of thing for years with his star-studded staged readings of movies like “The Breakfast Club,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Big Lebowski,” and (yes) “The Princess Bride.” In this case, he went hands-off experimental and let the performers direct themselves at home, for that inner-child-play-acting-in-front-of-the-bedroom-mirror effect of full slapdash innocence. The result feels like two parts Wes Anderson, one part Michel Gondry and one part public-access cable. In other words, made for the YouTube age of parodistic — or it is parasitic? — avatar snark.
I’ve seen the five chapters available so far, which have been dropping daily on Quibi since the premiere on June 29. (They took a break for the holiday weekend.) There are nine more to go. Why should people bother watching? The reason that this project is likely more fun — and, I’d wager, more aesthetically valid — than a full-on movie remake of “The Princess Bride” would be is that while it’s bouncing off our affection for the original, it’s also a sly deconstruction of our love affair with celebrity and stardom. We seek out stars on talk shows to see what they’re actually like, even though what they’re offering there is a performative version of themselves. “The Princess Bride” presents a different kind of peek behind the mask of celebrity. The hook is: Who will choose to reveal what, and how?
The no-frills, quarantine-at-home aesthetic becomes a test of the different levels of star quality. Who, in this context, comes on like a latter-day member of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company? And who, even under these dressed-down, helter-skelter, two-weeks’-of-salt-and-pepper-Covid-beard conditions, has what it takes to shine through and grab you and actually get you to suspend your disbelief?
As an essentially non-ironic person, I’ve watched the Quibi “Princess Bride” looking for a lark that could, on occasion, sweep me up, and I found it in Hamm’s camp-free capriciousness, in Mackenzie Davis’ impassioned caress of a turn as Princess Buttercup, and in the luscious way that Luna delivers Montoya’s most famous line, turning the word “prepare” into three full syllables.
There’s a kind of running contest as to who can be the most inspired Vizzini (Oswalt? Rainn Wilson? Angela Kinsey?), and the winner turns out to be Nick Kroll, who kills with his uncanny impersonation of Wallace Shawn’s seething lisp. And there’s one moment that’s triumphantly ridiculous and sincere: Neil Patrick Harris shows up as a perfectly dashing Westley, who having taken off his mask and revealed his identity to Buttercup proceeds to give her a passionate smooch — which, given that Buttercup is now played by David Burtka in a cheap wig, creates resonances as true to the original as they are beyond it.
But, you may ask, where is all this going? What, really, is the point?
The point is to provide a soupçon of shaggy escape at a difficult time. In that spirit, I would say that I vastly prefer “The Princess Bride” (at least, after 30 minutes of it) to the lead-balloon EDM gaiety of Netflix’s “Eurovision Song Contest.” But, of course, the other point is to plant Quibi on the map of our appointment viewing. And on that score the jury is very much out. The short-film app had the misfortunate to launch on April 6, three weeks into the pandemic, which seemed like the worst of karma. But “The Princess Bride” has sought to give Quibi a shot of showbiz relevance precisely by capitalizing on the pandemic. It has made this viewer, for one, all the more receptive to the idea of a daily dollop of diversion. But if and when the world normalizes, the need for such dollops may drop away.