Movie of the Month: Local Legends (2013)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Britnee, Brandon, and CC watch Local Legends (2013).

Brandon: Last summer, I became unhealthily fixated on the outsider art projects of Matt Farley and his Motern Media brand. Even after reviewing a dozen or so Motern movies for Swampflix, I found myself compelled but unable to fully communicate the value of Farley’s novelty songs and horror-comedy parodies to anyone who had the misfortune of listening to me babble offline. Part of the appeal of Farley’s cinematic output in general is that it’s so aggressively localized that it feels unknowable to newcomers outside his dorkily wholesome New England community. The recurring cast of family & friends that consistently populate Farley’s backyard film productions do become gradually familiar as you sink further into his Motern catalog, but there’s also a mystique to the unfathomable consistency of that recurrence. As much as Farley is making parodically silly horror movies & Dr. Demento-style novelty songs around his new England neighborhood, he’s also documenting the evolution & aging of an insular community of people the outside world knows nothing about. There’s a vast wealth of material in the Motern catalog, but no immediate context to what you’re watching or listening to, so that the only way to fully understand what Farley is accomplishing with his buddies (most notably his frequent director-of-choice Charles Roxburgh) is to watch all of his available movies. Even though the films are generally short & hosted on easily accessible sites like YouTube, that’s a daunting recommendation, especially in an era where audiences are used to knowing practically everything about a film’s cast, plot, and production history before we experience the finished product for ourselves. Understanding Matt Farley’s work requires obsession, as it requires a hunger for small context clues spread over an untold number of film productions (I can’t even tell you exactly how many movies he’s produced, since even that information is mysteriously inconsistent depending on the source).

It turns out that attempting to piece together the mystery of Matt Farley’s decades-long dedication to microbudget film production & novelty songwriting through context clues in interviews, Motern Media’s website, and the Important Cinema Club podcast episode where I first discovered his work was essentially a waste of time. In addition to being the most self-aware man alive, Farley is also radically dedicated to existing in the public sphere as an open book; if you want any details about his life’s work, all you have to do is ask. He even frequently includes his phone number (603-644-0048) in the end credits of his films and the lyrics of his songs so that you can call him to ask questions directly. Interviewing Farley about his life & work is also a redundancy in its own way, though, because Farley has already laid out the essential details for all to see in a feature-length narrative film titled Local Legends. Without shame or apology, Local Legends is a 70min infomercial for Matt Farley’s various outsider art projects. The film states in matter-of-fact, brazenly honest terms how & why Farley makes music & movies, as well as where you can find his work & support him financially. In addition to being a feature-length commercial for the Motern Media empire, Local Legends is also an artistic masterpiece, easily my favorite Matt Farley production. Any questions I’ve asked myself about his day to day routines, the amount of outside fanfare he’s seen for his work, and the context of where his community of adorable weirdos fits in on his local arts scene are answered plainly in the movie, which triples as a narrative feature, a documentary, and an essay film on the joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the 2010s. Even beyond the convenient insight it provides into Farley’s Warhol-esque media factory, however, Local Legends is just stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time regional artist’s self-portrait, something I strongly identify with as an amateur film blogger & podcaster in our own insular, localized community. Local Legends is a paradox, in that it could not exist without decades of back catalog art projects informing what Farley is saying about the nature of outsider art in the film, but it’s also a crowning achievement that feels like a philosophical breakthrough for Farley just as much an outsider’s crash course in his oeuvre. It’s a crass act of self-promotion, but the product being displayed is often about crass self-promotion & amateur hustling, which are necessary for a modern artist’s survival & longevity.

The only thing that complicates my love for this self-portrait of an outsider artist its blatant debt to known sexual abuser Woody Allen. As this is one of his select few productions not directed by career-long bestie Charles Roxburgh, Farley’s choice to write, star in, and direct Local Legends himself with an auteursist omnipresence recalls the unembarrassed narcissism of Woody Allen’s own self-indulgent oeuvre. Farley, of course, verbally acknowledges this debt to Allen (something that has aged horrifically in the last six years, for extratextual reasons you’re already aware of). He both shoots the film in a digital black & white that recalls Woody Allen‘s visual style and makes in-dialogue references to touchstones like Annie Hall just so you know that the affectation is purposeful. This high-brow aesthetic is amusing in contrast to Farley’s aggressively unpretentious novelty songs about poop & microbudget rubber-monster horror comedies, but it’s still a cringey impulse all the same. I like to think of Local Legends as the perfect Matt Farley introduction because it encapsulates so much of his peculiar personality & day-to-day amateur art production, but recommending someone watch it means asking them to think about Woody Allen, which spoils the mood at best, potentially triggers the viewer at worst.

So, Boomer, were you able to look past Local Legends’s Woody Allenisms enough to get a feel for Matt Farley as his own distinct, persona? How effective of an introduction (if not an outright infomercial) was this film to the Motern Media empire for you as a previously uninitiated viewer?

Boomer: I had never heard of Farley before watching this gem, but I found the unpretentious absence of pomp and utter lack of any kind of self-deception in his compartmentalization of his art charming and refreshing. When the first season of Star Trek: Discovery premiered a while back and I signed up for CBS All Access in order to watch it (if you think I wouldn’t pay $10 a month for Star Trek, you don’t know me), my roommate grew temporarily (thankfully) obsessed with The Bold & the Beautiful, and when I couldn’t figure out why, he explained that he was attracted to art that felt like he could have made it, and the overall cheapness of the early seasons of that soap opera made him feel better about his level of cinematic skill. Local Legends is much the same: it feels like a movie that a group of friends could have made, because it is exactly that. At first, I was a little turned off by this, as the early scenes of Farley’s non-comedic stand-up were accompanied by sparse laughter and painful silences, and I wasn’t certain if this was supposed to represent that Farley thought he was a great comedian and that he simply didn’t have the budget to project his own image of himself. Once the film starts moving along and you realize that the “legends” in the title is self-deprecating and not self-aggrandizing, it’s a more pleasant experience. It wasn’t until he’s singing the name “Theodora” repeatedly that I really got my first belly laugh, but from that point on, it was chuckles aplenty. That was the moment that I felt like I really understood Farley, both as a creator and as a persona, and perhaps as both.

I really loved Local Legends. As an introduction to Farley’s overall body of work, I assume that it gives one a pretty clear picture of his other films; I particularly liked the use of footage from Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! and the explanations of how each person in Farley’s life played a role in his productions, and what that role was. You also get a pretty clear picture of Farley, down to his habit of walking around town while listening to Red Sox games and even occasionally raising his hands in order to let the blood that’s pooled there drain back into his body, which is so specifically odd that I have to believe Farley the person shares this trait with Farley the character. My favorite scenes were those between him and his bandmate Tom in their practice space, discussing the way that Millhouse’s showcase went from museum to bar to home basement, laughing at the absurdity of it all but recognizing the familiarity and inevitability of this devolution (Millhouse himself is a great character, with his clipart promo flyers and indestructible optimism).

Overall, this is a pretty optimistic movie, and strangely uplifting in its way. I certainly felt effervescent upon completion. The Woody Allen references struck me as odd, since it’s not as if the allegations against him aren’t exactly new (as with Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, and others, concerns crop up and are well-publicized, then they recede beneath the waves as the news cycle moves on, only to reappear years later to the apparent sudden surprise of the internet, a pretty ample demonstration of our society’s pathologically—even criminally—short attention span), but it’s not really a surprise as I’ve often found that—and this isn’t intended as an insult to Farley personally—that straight white men find it easier to separate the art and the artist than people who’ve experienced marginalization in their lives. That said, I wasn’t terribly happy with the way that Abby was presented as “crazy.” As an appellation, this is so often applied to women for absolutely no reason other than behavioral double standards. Although she did ultimately demonstrate that she had a couple of screws loose, her immediate demonization for no other reason than that she misrepresented the extent of her Billy Joel collection seemed like gatekeeping gone awry, which made me side against Farley, at least at first, which may be the reason it took me longer than normal to warm up to him as a protagonist. CC, what did you think of the character of Abby? Was she deserving of the scorn she received? Does her comparison against Genevieve feel weird to you?

CC: Abby’s characterization bothered me as well. I recently saw her same overly-clingy girlfriend type included as a character on the Hulu show Pen15 and I didn’t care for the trope there either. It’s time for the stalker-ish, emotionally manipulative, “crazy bitch” stereotype to die completely (unless we’re talking about outliers like Isabelle Huppert’s role in Greta, since at least she has nuance and motive outside her relationship to a male character). I also think cultural gatekeeping and derogatory humor hinging on another person’s inability to appreciate “good” culture (which are inherently rooted in misogyny and cultural & racial chauvinism) need to end. Abby represents both of these things.

Farley portrays Abby’s intense version of attention as suffocating. At the same time, he’s releasing movies and music about himself, so he seems to crave attention. Those two impulses are self-contradictory. I don’t know why her character was included in the film in the first place, since her presence is not especially important to the plot other than for him to complain about her clinginess. If Local Legends is a parody of movie tropes and character types, it would have been better off to either poke fun at the trope instead of participating in it or to just remove Abby from the picture entirely.

I think I need to note, for transparency’s sake, that I have felt a lot of angst and anxiety writing this response. It makes me deeply uncomfortable writing anything remotely critical about Matt Farley’s work (even if my criticisms are also directed towards a larger cultural milieu) knowing that he will definitely read this, as evidenced by his admission in Local Legends that he routinely Googles himself daily, if not hourly.

Britnee, does the knowledge that Matt Farley is for sure going to read this conversation change how you respond to and write about his films?

Britnee: The fact that Matt Farley will read our conversation does linger in the back of my mind as I’m getting ready to write about my thoughts on Local Legends, but that doesn’t make me feel weird or uneasy about discussing this film in the Swampflix world. The internet is a pretty intense place to exist as a public figure and Farley really puts himself out there, so I’m certain that he’s already come across lots of praise for his work while suffering his fair share of harsh critiques as well. He honestly seems like the kind of guy who thrives on those negative comments about his art and uses them as inspiration to make even more films and songs. I’m feeling pretty chill about him creeping on our conversation at this point, even if it’s not all positive.

I remember Brandon recommending Farley’s films in a “What Have You Been Watching Lately?” segment on an old episode of The Swampflix Podcast. Even though I had no idea who or what he was talking about, his enthusiasm while discussing Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! was enough for me to add the film to my movie watchlist (and yet I still haven’t seen it yet). When I realized that Local Legends was a film about Farley’s art projects, I was interested to see what he was all about. It was not at all what I expected. I was expecting rowdy guys with long hair and rock band t-shirts (sort of like Jackass without all the stunts), and I was so wrong. The cast of Local Legends is pretty much a group of average white suburban guys doing pretty basic, ordinary things in the weirdest way possible. For example, Farley walks around his sunny, all-American town while leaving free CDs of his bizarre music in random places on the street for strangers to find. It made me laugh so damn hard. The style of humor in Local Legends is very particular. It pokes fun at the everydayness of life while exuding tons of awkward energy, and I’m totally into it.

I’m still not quite sure if the film was supposed to be a comedy, a true documentary, or a mix of the two. Brandon, did you have a hard time deciphering reality from fiction in Local Legends?

Brandon: Conveniently enough, Matt does frequently point out in real-time the few instances where he has to stretch the truth to fit the means of his budget. I’m thinking particularly of the scenes set in his rent-paying “day” job wiping old men’s butts at a nursing home; Matt informs the audience in-narration that he did not have permission from his employer to film on-site, so the scene was staged in his parents’ basement instead. A major part of the genius of Local Legends is the total lack of vanity in those types of admissions. Of course, this film is more a half-fictionalized reenactment than it is a true documentary, but I do personally believe every anecdote displayed onscreen to be blatantly honest recollections of things that actually happened. In fact, I know the self-portrait Matt Farley constructs in Local Legends is true to life, because the second we (a lowly, amateur film blog from over a thousand miles away) posted our reviews of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas last summer, he was retweeting & promoting them to his dedicated audience of Motern converts and sending us personalized thank you notes, which rings true to his confession in the film that he obsessively Googles himself for amateur reviews of his work. I also know it to be true because I recognize my own life in small-scale art projects (from this blog to long-forgotten punk bands to my dead-end college degree in Poetry) through the minor joys & embarrassments that are depicted in all their naked honesty here. The world of amateur art production on display in Local Legends is radically ordinary & relatable in a way you don’t normally see from the more glamorized, curated social media profiles of self-promoting hobbyists like myself & my small-time artist friends. No matter how shameless my self-promotion of Swampflix can get or how pointless the effort of running the site may seem to anyone outside my immediate circle, however, I’ve only experienced a microscopic taste of Farley’s commitment to building Motern by hand over the last two decades. There’s something truly refreshing & inspiring about his transparency in explanations of how he keeps that ship afloat.

As a comedy, Local Legends does filter this radical honesty through a layer of irony & self-deprecation, which can be a little difficult to read if you aren’t familiar with Farley’s very particular brand of humor. I just can’t believe that someone this self-aware doesn’t see the irony in spending every waking hour of his day scheming to make movies & music, then repeating the phrase “I hate artists,” so often that it’s effectively a personal mantra. There’s also a hilarious disconnect between Farley’s aggressive lack of pretension and his demand that people stop still when he enters a party so that he can hold court & talk about himself at length. He wants to be recognized as both a relatable everyman and The World’s Greatest Living Artist, to the point that his milquetoast appearance and his self-obsessed narcissism are both a kind of exaggerated performance. I even read a little irony & self-deprecation in his deplorable treatment of Abby in the picture. I have no doubt that sometime in Matt’s life some girl somewhere (somewhere in New England, at least) really did proclaim to have “all of Billy Joel’s albums” when she only had his Greatest Hits. Instead of the healthy “Who cares?” response most people would have in that situation, it was an encounter that frustrated Farley so much that he held onto it long enough to restage it in a fictionalized movie just to dunk on her one more time. Even within the picture, it’s a frivolous “slight” that he just can’t let go, recounting it over & over again to friends like a lunatic. It’s not something that makes him look cool or superior, not least of all because his snobby gatekeeping in the film involves the most basic-taste shallow cuts imaginable: Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, The Beatles etc. When you get to the core of what really bothers Matt about Abby, it’s not that she’s unfamiliar with Billy Joel’s discography; it’s that she’s not especially interested in his own. Abby can’t sit still through a screening of his slasher film Freaky Farley, doesn’t find any value in his novelty songs and, worse yet, dares to have her own artistic ambitions that Farley himself doesn’t understand (costumes that are designed for art gallery display, not to be worn). I totally agree that his characterization of Abby as “crazy” is gross (and uncomfortably participates in a myriad of misogynist tropes), but it culminates as an ironic, comedic bit when Matt defines that craziness to his bandmate Tom as her being obsessed with herself. All Matt Farley wants to talk about in this picture is Matt Farley; truly no one in the world is more self-obsessed. So, I can only read that complaint as a self-deprecating joke.

Beyond its function as a documentary & a comedy, Local Legends is also a straight-up informercial. Farley not only gives publishes his phone number and mailing address in the film for anyone who wants to contact him with professional prospects, but he also explains where you can order his physical media online and the exact math of how he pays his bills by streaming tens of thousands of novelty songs on Spotify. In brutal honesty about the search-optimization aspect of his songwriting process, he details how he’ll find a buzzword like “gluten” to use in a song title because it’ll get instant hits for merely existing, regardless if it’s any good. He shrugs, “People don’t care. They just want a song about gluten.” This commercial crassness is a sign of exhaustion more than anything. Farley is entirely disinterested in fretting over artistic integrity. He even builds a meta-commentary within the film where a Corporate Asshole version of himself issues executive commands to his subservient Artist’s side on how to improve the profitability of his various projects, including the very film you’re watching. It’s entirely understandable how he became cynical too, as he portrays in brutal self-cruelty all the various, barely concealed insults artists suffer from family & friends who do not understand the significance of their passion, dismissing it as a silly hobby rather than a worthwhile life’s pursuit. By crassly pandering to the sillier aspects of his work to increase his profits (and, thus, make it possible for him to continue working), Farley only intensifies outsiders’ dismissal of his art as mindless, anyone-could-do-it frivolity. They were never likely to find his backyard horror comedies and novelty songs about diarrhea worthwhile either way, though, so all he does by leaning into the more profitable aspects of his work is help ensure Motern’s longevity. It’s maybe the only example of shameless commercial cynicism I could think to call admirable, if not outright heroic.

Speaking of Farley’s Corporate Asshole doppelganger, it’s the only element of Local Legends I can recall that could be described as a break in reality. Matt continually shatters the fourth wall in his narration to the audience (which he does out of spite because a screenwriting how-to explicitly advised against it), but something about Corporate Asshole Farley feels like a fantastic outlier in the film’s general relationship with reality. Boomer, what did you make of Farley’s dual role as the businessman version of himself? Is that device justified in the context of the film, even though it is such an in-universe anomaly?

Boomer: I like it. So much of the film’s runtime is centered around an apparent lack of self-awareness: about the repeated pattern of Millhouse’s unrealistic dreams inevitably spiraling into a performance in which there are more participants than spectators and the implication that this is not the first time this has happened and certainly won’t be the last; about the marketability of his and Pete’s collaborations (which I love); about Abby’s clear inability to recognize her failings. We of Swampflix are a pretty savvy bunch, but even I find myself sometimes deciding whether I like something based upon whether or not I think the media in question is “in on it” with regards to a character’s unlikeability or its awareness of how ridiculous it is (see: Syfy’s The Magicians), and it can be a deciding factor for me. Were it not for the presence of Business Asshole Matt, I don’t think we’d be arguing over whether or not Matt Farley is self-aware, since he clearly is, but I for one would definitely have taken a little longer to be certain about that. It also allows for the most truly surreal part of the movie, when the creepy man who always asks Matt for directions and then offers him a ride apparently gets what he wants, as Business Asshole Matt rides off with him into the monochrome sunset. It textualizes the subtext of Matt’s interior monologue, and that really works for me on a comedic level, even though it makes no sense on a realistic one. It’s like the scene in which Matt’s bandmate pulls up and they joke about why there’s a woman in the backseat, and it’s clearly for continuity so that they can have the camera in the front for reverse shots, but it draws attention to itself in a way that I like.

CC, of all the odd characters who populate Matt’s town, who was your favorite? I had a fondness for the creepy man in theory, but I also really liked Soup.

CC: I was also fond of Soup. It was a pleasant surprise to discover late in the film that his name was literal after getting to know him for so long only as Matt’s basketball partner. Anytime you need soup, Soup is there to offer it for you. He has a fridge full of it just ready to go. Be warned, though. Soup is under the impression that soup is a useful thing for everyone on all occasions, when it’s actually very limited. Most people only need it when it’s cold outside or they’re sick, which makes his bottomless soup fridge an absurd service. Soup’s only negative trait was that he tells Matt to stop being so hard on Abby, even encouraging her more stalkerish behavior because Matt should find it flattering.

Millhouse was also very funny in that he is insanely optimistic, to a pathological degree. As the comedy show he is promoting is downgraded from a legitimate venue to his mother’s basement, he just continues on chipperly as if everything’s going great. He’s basically the human version of that “This is fine.” dog from the burning-house comic panel. The only time he loses his cool is when he’s shouting at his mom for doing laundry and not keeping her dog quiet during the basement comedy show. Keep in mind that he’s in his 50s. It’s pathetically funny.

Speaking of the movie’s portrait of a local stand-up comedy scene, it seems like that’s not what Local Legends is really selling as an infomercial. The amateur stand-up community is mostly just the setting, and what Matt is actually selling here is his movies and music. Britnee, which were you more enticed by after seeing the film? Did Local Legends do a better job as a commercial selling Matt Farley’s novelty music or a commercial selling his backyard movies?

Britnee: The film sold me on his music much more than his movies. The part of Local Legends that made me laugh until my face hurt was when where Matt explains his career in novelty songs. I absolutely love silly songs (Weird Al, Tim and Eric, etc.), so his music immediately grabbed my interest. I even wrote down “Look up The Toilet Bowl Cleaners!” in huge letters in my notepad to make sure I wouldn’t forget to delve into the world of Matt Farley poop songs. The Toilet Bowl Cleaners have since completely taken over my morning drives to work. Why just this morning I listened to “I Pooped in Santa’s Lap” as I pulled into the parking garage, and it was just what I needed to start the day off on the right foot.

While listening to The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, I discovered another one of his musical projects, The Singing Animal Lover. Thankfully, The Singing Animal Lover has over 80 songs about animal poop. Just when I thought there couldn’t be any more poops songs, I was blessed with poop songs at a whole new level. I just find so much comfort in knowing there’s a neverending supply of silly songs for me to listen to from Matt Farley alone.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I really connected with the whole Billy Joel situation. In the past, I used to get so annoyed with people who claimed to be superfans of an artist/band, but only had their greatest hits albums. I now know that is such an incredibly dumb way of thinking, but I was once that douchebag.

CC: I know I’ve already compared Millhouse to one meme cartoon, but besides the “This is fine.” dog he also reminds me of Milhouse Van Houten from The Simpsons. Think about it: He lives at home with his mom. He’s overly loyal to his friends. And no matter how much everything is failing around him, he always maintains that “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!” attitude.

Brandon: Since we initiated this conversation about a month ago, I’ve had my most surreal interaction with Matt Farley to date. While I was recovering from the sunshiny haze of Mardi Gras this past Ash Wednesday, Matt posted a song about me titled “Brandon Ledet Reviews Movies Excellently,” which you can listen to at any time on platforms like YouTube & Spotify. It was truly an honor, albeit a mildly terrifying one that made me briefly question reality in my dazed state. The only way I can think to repay him for the experience is to continue sharing the song in places like this so that the effort will contribute to the fractions of pennies that correlate to his streaming statistics, so that maybe more movies like Local Legends can get made in the future.

Boomer: Originally, I was going to suggest that we call Farley and see if he would write a song for us, but as it turns out, he already wrote one for Brandon, so I’m not sure what else I can contribute, other than to note that I am extremely curious about the yearlong album-a-month project that he did.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
May: Britnee presents Belizaire the Cajun (1986)
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Big Sick (2017)

The Big Sick might be the sole Judd Apatow production to date that would benefit from a longer runtime. Written by real-life married couple & longtime comedy world mainstays Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon, the film attempts to cram the bizarre true story about their personal relationship into the structure of a traditional romcom. In that respect, it’s mostly successful. The film is touching, sweet, and darkly funny in its awkward, vulnerably human reactions to an impossible romantic scenario. However, by molding a real, nuanced story into the shape of a three act, trope-laden genre structure, the film tends to glaze over some of its most essential relationships in a way that distorts its focus & undercuts its own power. Over time, The Big Sick turns out not to be about romance at all, but about unlikely partnerships that form in its absence. When its romcom genre structure demands that it return to that romance, then, the overall result is a picture that somehow isn’t self-aware of the emotional hook that makes it feel truly special in its best, most distinctive moments. With a little more screentime & a little less adherence to genre that may not have been the case.

Kumail Nanjiani stars as a younger version of himself, an aimless college graduate trying to stay afloat in the Chicago stand-up comedy scene & to maintain a relationship with his devout Muslim parents despite his own secular, Scorsese-esque crisis of faith. A Pakistani immigrant family, Nanjiani’s parents & brother push him to both pursue a more lucrative career & to submit to a traditional arranged marriage romance. Instead, he pays rent as an Uber driver & falls in love with a white girl. It’s a move his brother disappointedly calls cliche & his parents disown him over. The most shocking aspect of this family-destroying relationship isn’t that it bucks against Islamic values, however. Nanjiani’s life is disrupted when his new, white girlfriend, furious that he’s kept their relationship a secret as long as possible, is bedridden with a medically-induced coma and is faced with the precipice of death. He meets her family for the first time while she’s unconscious in the ICU & they’re technically broken up, leaving the parents suspicious as to why he cares enough to wait by her side. The questions this situation raises are vast in range. Will the girlfriend’s family remain cold to Kumail’s concern for their near-dead, comatose daughter? Will Kumail’s own family invite him back to the fold despite his secularism & apparent disregard for tradition? Will the girlfriend accept him back in her life when she recovers? Will she recover at all? These questions have all been answered by the real life history of the couple who penned the screenplay, but their tension still makes for a great dramatic plot for a modern, heartfelt romcom.

Because Nanjiani stars as (a slightly fictionalized version of) himself, the story mostly follows his personal trajectory as he’s alienated by his cultural, professional, and romantic conflicts. This narrow focus works exceptionally well in the film’s second act, but allows the narrative to stray from its most interesting character dynamics in the bookends of that center: Emily’s coma. Before the coma, Kumail’s relationships with his girlfriend & the eligible Pakistani women his parents pressure into him auditioning are rushed, never given enough room to develop in a significant way. Zoe Kazan is endearing as (the fictionalized version of) Emily, but the screentime she’s allowed isn’t pronounced enough to make her relationship with Kumail feel worth the trouble & commitment it stirs. The Pakistani women are even less fortunate in that respect, essentially reduced to a pile of interchangable photographs in a cigar box. A slightly extended runtime could’ve fixed either deficiency, which is a truly strange thing to wish for in an Apatow production. Instead, the most significant relationship formed onscreen is between Kumail & Emily’s parents. Ray Romano (who is staggeringly impressive here) & Holly Hunter (who’s also great, but less surprisingly so) shape the heart of the film as they cautiously allow Kumail into their lives as Emily’s parents. They’re tense, emotionally vulnerable people suffering their loneliest, most terrifying hour and there’s genuine power in the way they recognize that same hurt in their daughter’s estranged boyfriend. That’s why it’s disappointing when the movie’s romcom genre trappings steer its third act back towards Kumail’s less-defined relationship with Emily (for wholly understandable reasons) instead of resolving or deepening the dynamic that made for its funniest & most devastating moments, his relationship with her parents.

Real life is obviously more complicated & unwieldy than any two hour romcom plot could contain. If The Big Sick were to capture the entirety of Kumail & Emily’s bizarre story, it’d be twice as long & half as funny than it is in its current, darkly hilarious, emotionally resonant state. I do think that time constraint limited the film’s potential to be its best self, however, since it downplayed a lot of the potential romantic partners in Kumail’s life to instead fully develop his relationship with Emily’s parents, only to double back to the romantic narrative as a convenient genre tool at the last minute. Obviously, if my main complaint about a film is that there could have been more of it, it’s probably a worthwhile & enjoyable picture as is. The jokes are funny. The romantic triumphs are rewarding. The cultural details of the stand-up comedy world setting & Pakistani familial dynamics make for a memorably specific, distinct experience. It’s just a little frustrating that the most significant, exciting relationships of the movie are sacrificed for a more traditional, Apatow style romcom plot instead of being freely explored in the darkly funny indie film melancholy territory they deserve. There are at least a handful of films that have already detail romantic relationships somewhat similar to Kumail & Emily’s story in The Big Sick, as odd & coma-specific as it is, but Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents is something much more unique & worth examining. A better, more self-aware film might have reconciled that, either by narrowing its focus or extending its runtime.

-Brandon Ledet

Mickey One (1965)

EPSON MFP image

three star

“I couldn’t be funny if my life depended on it . . . And it did.”

Two years before his landmark film Bonnie & Clyde effectively kicked off what’s since been dubbed the New Hollywood movement, Arthur Penn delivered something much stranger & more deliberately obscure with that film’s same star, Warren Beatty. New Hollywood’s loosely defined aesthetic has several distinguishing features: anti-hero protagonists, avoidance of tidily happy endings, counter culture rebelliousness, etc. A large part of the movement’s appeal, however, derived directly from young American directors borrowing stylistic technique from the films of the French New Wave, particularly in their approach to unconventional cinematography. The film Beatty & Penn made before Bonnie & Clyde didn’t exactly pull influence from the French New Wave the way their breakthrough hit would. Mickey One was more of a French New Wave pastiche than a direct descendant. It wholesale borrowed everything it could grab from directors like Godard & Truffaut right down to their stark black & white cinematography. Just about the only things Mickey One kept distinctly American were the accents & Warren Beatty’s face. The results were messy & less iconic than Bonnie & Clyde and far too pretentious to strike a chord with American audiences in the same way, but they are fascinating as an artifact. It’s like watching New Hollywood’s unevolved ancestor crawling out of the primordial cinematic ooze. It ain’t pretty, but you can’t look away.

In a dizzying opening credits sequence we’re introduced to Beatty’s troubled charmer protagonist as a hopeless lush. He drinks, gambles, and philanders his way through his minor celebrity as a stand-up at nightclubs owned almost exclusively by mafia types. In what feels like the credits to the world’s weirdest sitcom, we learn everything we need to know about this doofus: his world, his ego, his thirsts, his enemies. It’s chaotic surrealism, drunken delirium, abrasive jazz, kaleidoscopic noir. Much like with the opening minutes of the proto-blacksploitation piece Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, it’s easy to be convinced in Mickey One‘s intro that you’re about to watch one of the single greatest cinematic achievements of all time, only to have that same exciting energy turned around to beat your enthusiasm into mush. A young, handsome Warren Beatty lives the high life in those credits and immediately crashes once they conclude. Instead of serving as a makeshift court jester for the club-owning mobsters he amuses with corny punchlines he becomes a persecuted target for an offense no one can name. We’re never sure if Beatty’s tortured stand-up faulted on an outrageous gambling debt, slept with a mobster’s wife, or, quite possibly, never committed any crime at all. Mickey One stubbornly clouds its central conflict in an oppressive air of mystery. It’s a choice that might have worked if the film’s abrasive, jazz-driven pace & tone ever slowed down long enough to allow the audience to properly sink into its sense of existential dread, but it’s just a little too frustrating as is.

Penniless & on the run from faceless, mysterious mobsters, our broken hero finds himself greasy, homeless, as handsome as ever, and hiding under a false pseudonym. After a short period of bottom-of-the-barrel blue collar labor, the spotlight calls to him. He starts gravitating towards the types of nightclubs he used to headline, first as a heckler and then as a performer, despite the danger of breaking his anonymity. A Marcel Marceau-type billed simply as “The Artist” pops up every now & then to mime encouragement and to draw him out of laying low. As his love interest puts it, he’s hiding from he doesn’t know what for a crime he’s not sure he’s committed, but he can’t help delivering corny jokes to mildly amused audiences in the meantime. This all whips by in a blur, only ever settling down for two distinct scenes: one where his mime-muse constructs an intricate Rube Goldberg-style art instillation that reflects his greatest fear (the mob disposing of his body in an automotive junkyard) and one where he “auditions” for faceless mobster club owners, the only visible presence in the room being the menacingly divine shine of the spotlight. Mickey One’s jokes aren’t any funnier than Rupert Pupkin’s in The King of Comedy. Its tone is in a continuous, chaotic shift that never allows its audience to get lost in its world. It’s undeniably messy, embarrassingly pretentious, and has essentially zero potential for commercial value. And yet, you can never shake the feeling that it’s just a half step away from being breathtakingly brilliant.

Distribution companies weren’t sure what to do with Arthur Penn’s French New Wave pastiche in 1965 and silently dumped it in drive-ins instead of giving it a prestigious theatrical release. Fifty years later, I’m still not sure what to do with the badly damaged, mostly forgotten art film mishmash. In an abstract sense I greatly admire the way the source of its Kafkaesque paranoia is never made literal and Beatty’s pre-Clyde anti-hero is made to live out his own stand-up comedy-themed version of The Trial. I was just never given much more than that vague paranoia & some terrible one-liners to associate with the character. It was difficult to care about his anxiety & the beautiful, energetic imagery that borders it in any way outside of distant, detached fascination. There’s never any question why Mickey One isn’t the Beatty-Penn collaboration that broke through instead of Bonnie & Clyde. Its limited appeal is immediately apparent. I do find it weirdly compelling as proto-New Hollywood weirdness, though, and I could easily see my cautious fondness for it growing with a few repeat viewings. The problem is that I can also see my nitpicking annoyances with it growing as well.

-Brandon Ledet

Entertainment (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

Neil Hamburger’s comedy isn’t for everyone. Actually, that’s putting it too lightly. Neil Hamburger’s comedy is atrocious, just godawful, completely useless. Anti-comedy is a difficult trick to pull off. When it works, it’s a brilliant form of audience antagonism à la Andy Kaufman & his ilk (I defy anyone to watch Hamburger’s tirade against the Red Hot Chili Peppers without laughing at least once) but when it fails that antagonism feels like an empty exercise. Who could find a capable comedian intentionally telling shitty, unfunny jokes worthwhile if that’s the only thing they ever do? How is that entertainment? Neil Hamburger (aka Gregg Turkington) asks that question of himself in the pitch black comedy-drama Entertainment.

Entertainment follows a fictionalized version of Hamburger (billed here simply as “The Comedian”) on a stand-up comedy tour through the desolate American West. His opening act is an old-timey clown/mime (played by the immensely talented youngster Tye Sheridan). His venues are a depressing parade of prison cafeterias, hotel conference rooms, and dive bar stages. Bombing is essential to his act, which is true of the real-life Hamburger as well, but the movie takes it to a whole new low. Actual jokes from Hamburger’s routine are repeated verbatim in Entertainment, but any semblance of humor that can be found from in his work has been removed wholesale. All that is left is the antagonism. As “The Comedian” cracks monstrous jokes about rape, makes fart noises, and repeatedly pleads “Why? Why? Why?” in a piercing, nasal whine it makes all too much sense why no one in the audience is laughing. When he becomes savagely combative with them for not rewarding his efforts, you have absolutely no sympathy.

Just as director Rick Alverson disassembled Tim Heidecker’s brand of hipster anti-humor in The Comedy to make it into something unforgivably ugly & self-absorbed, he more or less repeats the trick for Neil Hamburger’s shtick here. Entertainment is about depression, addiction, and the uselessness of pursuing art for the sake of pursuing art, but it paints such an ugly portrait of the artist in question that there’s no sympathy to go around for his existential crisis (and intentionally so). You’re prompted to think “You should be depressed. Maybe you should quit comedy. Maybe life itself isn’t worth the effort for you.” There’s an excess of eerie imagery & spacial pacing in Entertainment that reaches for a Lynchian aesthetic I’m not sure that Alverson fully commands, so overall The Comedy endures as a much more confident, successful example of the anti-comedy-is-useless-cruelty genre the director is carving out for himself. Still, Entertainment stands as a brave act of self-reflection for Hamburger/Turkington & a pitch black drama/dark comedy for the art house crowd at large.

-Brandon Ledet