Thursday 19 April 2012

FDR: American Badass! (2012)

Director: Garrett Brawith
Stars: Barry Bostwick, Lin Shaye, Bruce McGill, Ray Wise and Kevin Sorbo
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
After seeing the trailers for Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury and FDR: American Badass!, I knew I had to see these films, a rare sentiment for me given that modern American comedies are more likely to have me curling up in a ball and pretending the outside world is a figment of my twisted imagination. Having opened up my Phoenix Film Festival experience this year with the latter, I realise what drew me to them and I wonder if I've stumbled into one of those game changing moments in film history that can only be truly acknowledged in hindsight. The key player is Ross Patterson, a former stand up comedian and small time Hollywood actor, who may just become a household name if he can keep the momentum he's building right now. Through his production company, Street Justice Films, he's using modern technology to generate publicity and build a fanbase, then following up in old school ways, making cheap movies and keeping them coming.

It's a gamble but it's one that will surely pay off for him. While Hollywood is spending more and more money to make tired movies with tired stars who believe they're still funny, then raising ticket prices and suing their own customers to maximise their profit potential, Patterson is going the other way. He's spending less money on his films, writing and shooting quick B movies on standing sets with Roger Corman's efficiency and a dash of Ed Wood's confidence that the audience won't care about the goofs. There are few stars, but some talented people we already recognise and some we will in the future. His tongue is firmly in his cheek as he throws enough wacky ideas at the screen to ensure that at least some of them will stick. Best of all, he has his actors play their ludicrous parts delightfully straight. He understands comedy in ways that the big studios don't. If he understands business too, It may just make him the next Mel Brooks.

Now, FDR: American Badass! is certainly not for everyone. It's lewd and crude, more politically incorrect than anything I can remember, and it revels in slaying sacred cows. It's knowingly and outrageously over the top, as much so as any Troma movie I've seen. It's utterly irreverent, not just playing with history but with actual historical figures with wild abandon. There's everything the moral majority finds offensive: not just foul language, sexual innuendo and great gouts of violence, but gags about cripples and gas chambers too. There's even more period sexism than in the campaigning during this year's Republican primaries. In short, it's pretty much guaranteed to offend everyone, but how it offends is the key. A lot of people may walk out of this film, but I'd bet money they'd all walk out within the first five minutes. Anyone who lasts that long won't be able to leave for laughing so hard and Patterson never slows down enough for you to stop.

In the year that's going to bring us a big budget adaptation of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, Patterson has already brought us an even more sacrilegious mashup that Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov surely can't top, even though they have $69m to play with. You all know FDR: the 32nd President of the United States, the bringer of the New Deal, the most famous polio survivor of all time. But do you know what gave him polio? How about a Nazi werewolf? That's Patterson's take on things and he opens up with the scene where it happens. In and amongst the historical anecdotes and foul language, all made up of course, Gov Roosevelt's hunting party is attacked. One of his friends is eaten alive, with gore galore. FDR takes down the werewolf but doesn't have silver bullets so has to follow up with his fists. 'Shit goblins,' he says. Waking up in hospital, he feels like 'a bag of dicks at a lesbian convention.' No, this isn't a documentary. Honest.
One of the biggest successes of the film is that it never lets up. It grabs us by the throat, well, the legs, from moment one and keeps the crude laughs coming. Another is that the characters never fail to take their lines seriously, however ludicrous they get. The cast here is impeccable, Barry Bostwick and Bruce McGill nailing the parts of FDR and his right hand man with aplomb. Lin Shaye is amazingly straight faced as the long suffering Eleanor Roosevelt, though Ray Wise can't stop from breaking up as Douglas MacArthur. It can never hurt a comedy for us to grasp that the cast were in stitches when they made it though, however many takes it took them. Patterson keeps a major role for himself, as he tends to do in his scripts, and each of his roles confirms to me that he's a truly funny man, not just someone who can write good jokes. They should fire everyone else on Saturday Night Live and have him play all the parts himself.

The downsides to the film are relatively minor. Some of the jokes are more than a little forced but the gags come so hard and fast that missing a few is no big deal. The sexual innuendo tries for the Family Guy approach of beating the joke to death until it rises again as a zombie joke that's funny all over again and it doesn't always succeed. A few scenes are just plain wrong, but then just plain wrong is what Patterson does and he does it very well indeed. After the screening he told us that some of these, including FDR's celebration after being elected president, were improvised or extended by the cast, even beyond what he'd written for them. Yet I'm finding that in hindsight, even the scenes I didn't appreciate at the time, such as the ketchup and mustard orgy with the secretary, still stick in the mind. It's a cardinal sin of a comedy to be forgettable. Here, you can't even forget the bits you want to, which then turn around and make you smile.

Most obviously, we can never ignore the low budget because we keep wondering why there are so few people on screen. Yet the picture transcends that one too, as so few other films with that problem manage to do, outside of Monty Python movies. While we watch leaders of four nations plan their war efforts, those nations are conspicuously absent. Hitler just has a buxom fraulein to play beer pong with and a messenger to shoot; Mussolini and Hirohito only the messengers. So we're treated to gloriously insulting three way conference calls in split screen instead. That can't help elsewhere though. Here the Mafia is three New York Italian werewolves in a warehouse and the US army only contains eight privates and two generals, with Albert Einstein in reserve, but I laughed my way through those scenes anyway. It's been a couple of weeks and I can play them in my head. I can even remember a lot of the lines. They're that iconically over the top.
Patterson wrote this script in ten to twelve days and director Garrett Brawith shot it in under a month. The process seems to be to conjure up as much surreal comedic insanity as is humanly possible within set parameters and then let the cast run wild with it. None of the three Patterson movies I've seen thus far are entirely consistent, but they're funny as all get out and he's only getting more outrageous as time goes by. His 2010 mockumentary, Screwball: The Ted Whitfield Story, seemed almost tame but only because I'd worked backwards from FDR: American Badass! through Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury. If I'd found it first, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have found all the jokes about necrophilia, child abuse and bestial rape particularly tame, but everything is tame after this film. Somehow Patterson finds stepping over the line so natural that it even happens accidentally: the werewolf Hitler audition was inadvertently held on Rosh Hashanah.

It's hard to picture how this film fits into the world of American comedy. Sure, it's easy to see a link, no pun intended, to the lowest common denominator toilet humour of the last few decades, but that's just one facet of this film. The fact that the cast plays everything straight means that it has much more in common with National Lampoon's Animal House than Dumb and Dumber, for instance. There's a lot of wild imagination here too, far more than I've seen since the glory days of Mel Brooks and Monty Python in the seventies. Surely Patterson was massively influenced by both of those names, this picture containing much of the relentless boundary pushing of Blazing Saddles and the surreal silliness of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are overt nods to the sixties Batman TV series, not only but most obviously through transition effects between scenes. The lack of extras brings up Saturday Night Live comparisons, as does the Bon Jovi skit.

Yet the combination seems somehow new, something reenforced by seeing some of his other films, as the sheer energy and incessant ideas are as palpable there as here. There's a great deal of care given to keep the characters consistent and some of the funniest parts of the film are generated when unlikely characters meet. As much as history is rogered senseless, there's also attention paid to the period, especially in the sexism of the day. There's lots of effort given to shutting women up here, along with winking at nurses, overt homophobia and capable buns sashaying away from the camera. 'Grown men conversing,' FDR reminds his wife at one point. 'Seen not heard, Eleanor.' Patterson apparently set up Street Justice Films because he was fed up playing bullies in bad Hollywood comedies. It may be the best decision he's ever made. I wonder if in a decade we'll all remember our first Patterson. FDR: American Badass! was mine.

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