Tuesday 24 July 2012

Queens of Country (2011)

Directors: Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke
Stars: Lizzy Caplan, Ron Livingston, Joe Lo Truglio, Matt Walsh and Maynard James Keenan
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
I really enjoyed Queens of Country, even though I'm hardly the core audience. I initially chose to see it at the Phoenix Film Festival because I had a scheduling gap between other pictures and I wasn't remotely interested in anything else screening at the same time. Then I noticed how well its tickets were selling and my interest was piqued even more. Sure, it's a local film, albeit with lead talent from further afield; sure, it was the world premiere; but selling out the first screening meant a second was added, then a third and I think that sold out too. On the ticket front, I'd be surprised if it wasn't the most successful film of the festival. It was received well by the audience too, with people not just laughing at appropriate moments but singing along to the soundtrack under their breath, including my better half. People I know have called it their favourite film of the festival, and while it's not rated highly at IMDb, it's still working the festival circuit.

To be fair, many audience members had obviously worked on the crew or saw it being shot in Cave Creek and wanted to see the finished product, but most may well have been attracted by the major names leading the cast, precisely none of whom I recognised. My biggest cinematic gap nowadays is modern Hollywood comedy, mostly because it tends to make me cringe, so I didn't know who any of these stars were: not Lizzy Caplan, not Ron Livingston or Matt Walsh, not Joe Lo Truglio, in or out of drag. I haven't seen Hot Tub Time Machine and I was too struck by motion sickness to notice who was in Cloverfield. I haven't seen The Hangover or Ted. I haven't seen Pineapple Express or Superbad. I have, at least, seen Office Space, but only once a decade ago, so I don't remember what people looked like. The only recognisable face for me was O-Lan Jones in a supporting role, because I've watched Edward Scissorhands a lot over the years.

What all this means is that I didn't come in with preconceptions and I do wonder that if I'd had them, I might well have been disappointed. Queens of Country is an offbeat comedy, but in an old school way where the characters drive the story and not the other way around. It doesn't feel remotely like any of the few modern mainstream comedies that I have seen, instead taking the outrageous approach of John Waters and distilling the campness into something more akin to an older Coen Brothers picture. It's telling that many of the crew also worked on Raising Arizona. The inclusion of a character like Penny McEntire, a pre-op transsexual who Joe Lo Truglio plays as a woman rather than a man in drag, is very modern, but the feel is older, reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the thirties. If this had been shot in black and white without foul language and with Patsy Montana instead of Dolly Parton, it would have felt like an edgy precode.
Our focus is on Jolene Gillis, a young lady who emulates what she calls the queens of country, all the leading ladies of the genre from a half century ago. 'These are the women who define me,' she tells herself in the mirror. Lizzy Caplan's southern drawl is a little overdone but it emphasises her attitude, which is such a palpable thing that it drives this story. In the Arizona town of Dry Creek, she's a big fish in a small pond: beauty queen and line dance champion, living with hunky Rance McCoy and the money he makes from his ATV dealership. The catch is that she's living in the past and she knows it. When she finds an iPod in a grungy gas station bathroom, she doesn't even know what it is. She's as uncomfortable speaking to the goth chick manager as she is using the gents because the ladies is out of order. Even in her own little world, she's being left behind: the line dance championships are shifting to new country, what she calls 'flying saucer music'.

The overt storyline has to do with Jolene searching for the owner of the iPod she finds, as it's full of queens of country and so conjures up visions of the man of her dreams, surely the only sort of man who would listen to all these tearjerking songs about strong women. Yet, the iPod is really the MacGuffin of the piece. We really don't care about it in the slightest, only how fundamentally important it is to Jolene and how it shapes her story arc. The other important factor in her story is the character of Bobby Angel, in a freaky performance by Tool's Maynard James Keenan. Rance, realising that he's losing his girl to her 'Mr Mystery Lost iPod Man', pays Angel, his new lot boy, to pretend to be its owner and thus freak her into giving up the search. It turns out that Angel is her mirror image, dark side and logical extension all wrapped up into one, so he becomes even more of a wake up call than the iPod. Some of the best scenes of the film are between these two.

There are many great scenes before them too, though more comedic than meaningful, as both Caplan and Livingston have a blast with the material they're given, while keeping their delivery as straight as can be. Lo Truglio does the same as Penny, however much the hormone therapy obviously isn't working in the slightest. To me, Rance dominated the early scenes by treating the film like his relationship to Jolene, who has to claw her way back into the spotlight. Once there, she stays there, as Rance's attempts to steal it back turn more and more ridiculous as time goes by. Livingston is a riot as Rance, a complete ass but a funny one. His ranch house is packed to the rafters with stuffed animals and he believes that John Wayne was the definitive Genghis Khan. He's also hilariously inappropriate romantically, comparing Jolene to a cow in bed and singing Toby Keith's How Do You Like Me Now?! when he's about to reach that moment.
Jolene and he are chalk and cheese, so much so that she can't even remember why they hooked up to begin with. While he's all new country with a trimmed beard so small it hardly makes it out from under his bottom lip, she's so caught up in the queens of country that she even wears their big wigs and make up and she carries it well. He may love her, if he even understands what that means, but she certainly doesn't love him. She 'endures', her word, so much so that she escapes from sex by dreaming herself into old country songs and screaming her own name. Once Rance has set the tone to emphasise just how disassociated Jolene is from everything around her, we begin to follow her on her journey to find a future. In her own way, she's as out of sync with the world around her as Penny, who at least has a medical way forward. Jolene has to find her own direction, with only the iPod to guide her. It's an enlightening trip.

As much as I enjoyed Livingston's antics early on as Rance, it really is Caplan's film. She finds her way so deeply into the character of Jolene Gillis that it's impossible not to be caught up in her journey. Penny is in the film to parallel and enhance it, Lo Truglio as excellent in the role as Matt Walsh is as her boyfriend Cleveland. He deserved more screen time, but couldn't get it as Penny naturally gets all the girl talk scenes with her BFF, Jolene. You just know that's how she'd describe it. Cleveland is only given the stage during a guy talk scene with Rance at the Buffalo Chip, which is drily hilarious. Moo! All these actors benefit from the material, which is situational humour enhanced by clever dialogue. Co-writers Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke had free reign, given that they were also the co-directors, but they have fun with word choices, turns of phrase and sheer concepts. I loved everything about the roleplaying in the third person scene.

Where this film goes from here, I really have no idea. It may well fail commercially, not for any issues of quality, but simply because it's just too far out there for a mainstream audience. This is far from your usual rom-com, after all. Wherever it becomes available, it'll surely get lumped in with films that aren't anything like it because there aren't enough like it to make a category. If people find it because of automated metrics like 'if you like X you'll like Queens of Country', they may well be disappointed. Yet those who see it and appreciate it are likely to recommend it and they may well be the people that other people listen to. And the more I write this, the more 'cult film' springs to mind. It's not camp but the camp audience will love it and those are the folk who keep films in theatres for years. Bobby Angel is a cult character played by a cult musician. At the end of the day, the time machine may stop being Angel's trailer and become the film itself.

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