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Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Civilization of Maxwell Bright (2005)

This one was always going to be interesting. The title character, Max Bright, is the stereotypical guy's guy, and he's played by Patrick Warburton. Warburton is so completely the stereotypical guy's guy that a Dallas radio show awards a 'Patrick Warburton Manliest Man Award. He has a notably deep voice that has led to him being in demand for voice acting as well as acting. He's best known in this household for playing Kronk, the huge but dumb sidekick in The Emperor's New Groove, which we've seen more times that can comfortably be imagined, and that's another stereotypical guy's guy role that he plays to perfection. Others would know him as Joe in Family Guy or any number of other animated series. He's been in plenty of them.

The thing is that he looks precisely like he sounds. He doesn't look much different to Kronk: he's 6' 3" tall, is powerfully built and has a very hairy chest. Standing next to other people makes him look huge, not just taller or wider but huge in every way. And here he plays and deconstructs culture's stereotype of people who look and sound like Patrick Warburton. Maxwell Bright runs the Max Bright Television Emporium, he lives for football and poker games and he can't pee when someone else is in the room. His house is a complete slum but his shiny red sports car is immaculate. He swears like a trooper and drinks like a fish. And he's a complete asshole who has no respect for anyone, especially women, who are the bane of his misogynistic existence.

We first meet him running naked out of his house chasing an equally naked girlfriend who's already split his head open, and who promptly belts him one in the chest with a garden hoe right in front of the cops. Feuding with women seems to be a pretty common occurrence for Max, especially as every cop he tussles with is also a woman, and he's fed up with it, with all of it. He wants a woman to do what she's told, whenever she's told and then get the hell out of the way. So he ponies up $100,000 for an Asian mail order bride called Mai Ling. Six weeks later Mai Ling arrives and his life promptly changes.

Initially he's the same Max Bright. 'It's a bit messy', he tells her when she first sees his house. He isn't kidding and he isn't just talking about his house. He also happily approves of her but is completely taken aback with the realisation that she has to approve of him too. Gradually though his status as the man who can dissipates as his business collapses, his possessions are repossessed and he's diagnosed with terminal and untreatable cancer. And here the story really begins because he's forced to look at his life in the face of his death, at who he is and who he has been. Luckily he has a rather special wife to help him through it, who though he didn't realise it when they married, used to be a Buddhist nun. She's played by Marie Matiko, who I'd not previously heard of but who does an excellent job.

This is a low budget independent film, regardless of the calibre of the actors involved (not just Warburton but Jennifer Tilly, Simon Callow, Eric Roberts, Kurt Fuller, Carol Kane and others), and it shows. Some of the handheld camerawork is annoying and the sound, especially early on, is inconsistent, so that some of it is too loud and some too quiet. However the film has power and resonance and soon all these minor complaints vanish as it unfolds. The broad sweep of the film is pretty obvious but it still ventures into places we don't quite expect. The tone at the end is utterly different from the tone at the beginning. Though it's neatly bookended, it feels like a completely different film, yet the progression from beginning to end is consistent.

I wonder how this one evolved. It obviously belongs to David Beaird, writer and director, who I know as writer and producer of a highly underrated 1993 TV show called Key West that unfortunately only lasted a single season of 13 episodes and which is currently and sadly only available through the efforts of fans. Two of the regular cast from that show appear here: Jennifer Tilly as the doctor who tells Bright that he has cancer; and Leland Crooke, who is so uncredited here as a graveyard caretaker that he isn't even credited as uncredited in IMDb. Yet the focus of the film, the title character, is Patrick Warburton, who fits the part so well that it must have been written for him. The circle completes with the knowledge that Warburton is the screen husband of Jennifer Tilly in Family Guy.

I love this sort of connection game with independent film: it's usually playable and the connections give an insight into how films come together to be made. I watched The Civilization of Maxwell Bright as a recording from the Sundance Channel but as it finished I felt like I was sitting in a theater, amongst the applauding audience with some of the cast and crew present, ready to walk down to the front for a Q&A session. My hand would have been up to ask about how it all came together: who came up with the original idea, who brought in who, who was always going to be on board... the energy and cameraderie of independent film is often very palpable and it seeps onto the screen. This is no exception. And yes, this showed locally, at the Scottsdale Film Festival, with a Q&A from Patrick Warburton and I wasn't there.

The other thing that sometimes comes to independent film is a different way of providing a message. Many are preachy to the extreme, many are subtle, and only a small percentage go the dumbed down, explain everything route that pervades Hollywood mainstream product. This one isn't preachy and it isn't dumbed down but its subtlety is strange. Most of the film is far from subtle, in fact it's about as in your face as it gets with full frontal nudity and some scenes of stunning cruelty: not least the first poker party with Mai Ling present and the blistering display of honesty in Max's empty house when he verbally destroys the only real friend he's ever had. Eric Roberts is stunning here. Yet the film's message is delivered very subtly indeed, with the use of spirituality, the meaning of marriage and the nature of redemption all magnificently handled. Highly recommended for a lot of different reasons.

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