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Something in the Utah mountain air must have softened the brains of the Sundance Film Festival judges who awarded American Movie the Grand Jury Prize for documentary. As a half-hour short, director and cinematographer Chris Smith’s profile of hapless Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, wannabe-filmmaker Mark Borchardt might have been marginally amusing. At 100 minutes, it’s an endurance test.
Scrawny, long-haired Borchardt is a piece of work. At 30, he’s a self-admitted failure—a manic, borderline-alcoholic high school dropout who barely supports himself by delivering newspapers and cleaning cemetery toilets. He has fathered three children with a girlfriend whom he refuses to marry, and lives in a squalid house with a mounting stack of unpaid bills. One of his older brothers suspects that his true calling should have been as a stalker or serial killer. His weary enabler-mother does what little she can to help him; his exasperated father has given up on him.
But in Smith’s eyes—and, he hopes, ours—his subject is redeemed by never wavering from his dream. Inspired by George Romero’s Living Dead films and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Borchardt has been shooting, but seldom completing, home movies (The More the Scarier) since his childhood and yearns to create a magnum opus—Northwestern, a panoramic regional epic. Lacking sufficient funds for a production of that scope—or to pay his $81 overdue-tax penalty—Borchardt hatches a scheme to direct Coven, a 35-minute horror movie that he intends to market by direct mail. If he manages to sell 3,000 videocassettes of Coven (a title he consistently and willfully mispronounces with a long o) at $14.95, he figures he can raise enough money to produce Northwestern. But the only person he can find to invest in this harebrained project is his 82-year-old Uncle Bill, a sly but physically and mentally frail pensioner who inhabits a trailer.
Much of American Movie consists of Borchardt delivering stream-of-consciousness monologues (nearly every sentence maddeningly punctuated by the word “man”) to Smith’s indulgent camera. These gabbling marathons are occasionally interrupted by enigmatic visits by recovering burnout musician Mike Schank, the loquacious would-be filmmaker’s Laconic Other. With his glazed eyes, caterpillar moustache, beatific smile, and inexhaustible wardrobe of tie-dyed T-shirts, Schank provides Buster Keaton-ish comic relief. Even in his addled state, he’s more appealing than his driven buddy, contributing several lyrical guitar solos as well as the score for Smith’s documentary.
Nearly as aleatory as its subject’s existence, American Movie plods along, alternating Borchardt’s semi-coherent rants with scenes of Coven’s calamity-ridden shoot and exploitative visits to Uncle Bill’s trailer. The film ends on what purports to be a triumphant note: Coven’s premiere at a local movie house. Surprisingly, the few excerpts we’re shown of Borchardt’s Bergmanesque black-and-white footage are considerably more intriguing than anything in Smith’s color cinema-verite footage.
American Movie’s publicity machine, and most of the bewilderingly enthusiastic reviews the picture has received, portray the documentary as “one man’s quest for the American Dream.” Time for a reality check. If that national myth can be stretched to include a hungover, mildly demented, motor-mouthed geek’s three-year struggle to complete a derivative, schlock horror short, maybe it’s time that we boarded ships and returned to where our ancestors came from.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t venture within three miles of a Rob Schneider farce bankrolled by Happy Madison, Adam Sandler’s newly formed production company. But Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo’s goofy trailer gave me a few chuckles so, to the astonished relief of my fellow reviewers, I volunteered to cover it. Perhaps not the wisest decision, but one I don’t regret, even though, as regularly happens these days, most of the best laughs appeared in the preview.
The movie’s plot line misleadingly promises a sex comedy. Fish tank cleaner Deuce (Schneider) agrees to house-sit for his client Antoine (Oded Fehr), an oily high-priced male prostitute. After accidentally wrecking Antoine’s high-tech beach pad, Deuce resorts to hustling himself in order to repair the damage before hot-tempered Antoine returns. Abetted by a quickly acquired pimp, T.J. Hicks (Eddie Griffin), Deuce sets out on a series of assignations with, among others, a giantess with a runaway pituitary gland, an obscenity-spouting Tourette’s syndrome sufferer, a narcoleptic given to nodding out in the middle of bowling lanes and bowls of soup, and an androgynous Macy’s Parade blimp called Jabba Lady. In the course of his new profession, Deuce meets and falls for lovely blonde Kate (Arija Bareikis), the model of perfection—except that she’s missing a body part that normally comes paired.
Schneider and Harris Goldberg’s mock-erotic screenplay masks their true interest: excretory humor. Unless you share my embarrassing weakness for infantile potty jokes, keep your distance from Deuce Bigalow, which features a half-dozen scenes set in bathrooms and a preoccupation with buggery that would make a hardened prison inmate blanch. (To prove that the poop never falls far from the scoop, fish-waste specialist Deuce turns out to be the son of a restaurant men’s room attendant.) Here’s a far-from-complete anatomy of the movie’s sources of humor: a spermy condom abandoned on a pillow, butt waxing, farting, diarrhea, analingus, belching, drool, and a turd in a drinking glass. These emetic gags are supplemented by other Rabelaisian elements: breasts in wet T-shirts, a cop obsessed with his spindly penis, a cookie-peddling Girl Scout exposed to porn movies, the avid consumption of Jacuzzi-sodden food, exhibitionism, and a rare tropical fish liquefied in a food processor.
Although hardly the most endearing or prepossessing of comics, Schneider is comfortably cast as the pro tem hustler with a heart of gold. The secret of his brief success as a sex worker is making his clients, however imperfect, feel good about themselves. He earnestly employs this strategy in his pursuit of Kate. While Deuce attempts to convince her that her physical infirmity in no way diminishes his ardor for her, director Mike Mitchell undercuts the emotional uplift by framing Kate’s blind roommate in the background, cracking eggs onto what she thinks is a griddle but is, in fact, the kitchen floor.
As I was leaving a mall sneak preview of DBMG, a teenage couple in front of me succinctly debated the movie’s value. The young man hugged his partner and exclaimed, “That was funny.” She shrank away from him, replying, “That was disgusting.” Both were right. CP