Sunday 2 April 2023

Prankster (2023)

Director: George O’Barts
Writer: George O’Barts
Stars: Nextraker, Bourke Floyd, Dylan Garcia, Gabby Barbosa, Sean Berube, Gianna Francesca Giorgio and Ken Ronk

This is such a quintessential George O’Barts film that it seems surprising that it had to wait until his third feature. He’s a pixie at heart, a filmmaker who subverts human behaviour by adding levels of karma, irony and silliness but never wants to be cruel. If all the filmmakers I know in Phoenix were to make a feature about an imaginary friend, 80% would make a horror movie and 15% would conjure up a drama. Of the 5% of others, only O’Barts would plump for a prankster comedy.

It’s primarily set indoors, within the offices of Biggs Cable, where a host of characters take calls in generic cubicles. It’s low key as it gets going, introducing us to a bunch of characters and setting the stage for what’s yet to come.

Johnny’s helpful but long suffering. Sheila’s supportive. Grace is a bitch while Candice is a manipulative bitch. Jim’s an accepting janitor and Ray’s a lazy IT guy. I know many examples of all of these characters from my life within corporate America. They’re real, but they need more than that to grab our attention here and it’s a while before that really happens.

The only dynamic character in the office is Conner, known as Conner the Terrible. He’s a step up the corporate ladder, as the supervisor over the helpdesk, but he wants to make it up to the executive floor and he’s manipulating Johnny’s hard work to get there. They’ve put a proposal together between them to send up to management but, while Johnny has done most of the work, it only sports one name on the front and it isn’t his. Conner has a sort of trickle down take on how it’ll help Johnny too, who mostly buys into it and, just like that, we have our hero and villain.

With that particular dynamic set up early, O’Barts unleashes Bobo. He’s the prankster of the title, the imaginary friend who got Johnny into all sorts of trouble as a kid but who got left behind when he grew up. However, with Johnny starting to wonder if Conner is simply ripping him off, suddenly Bobo’s back.

And that’s a good thing, because this could easily have stagnated with a bunch of passive characters apparently accepting their fates in soulless low paying jobs. Sure, Johnny’s a good guy and he’s someone we’d all love to have in our offices but he’s not a strong leading man. Conner is a lot closer to that but he’s not the good guy. In short, the film needs Bobo.

Fortunately, the film gets a lot of Bobo. We can’t see him grin under that mask that makes him look like some local dude covering Insane Clown Posse on street corners, but he’s always grinning, as I’m sure O’Barts was when he was thinking up these pranks.

I like how we see Bobo in the background. While much of it is clear presaging, so we can see exactly what he has mind like a live action blueprint, that’s not all of it. We have to keep our wits about us for what’s not immediately obvious, just like the characters in this office.

Bourke Floyd is definitely a good sport. As Conner the Terrible, he’s the target of most of these shenanigans, even if Bobo happens to be an equal opportunity prankster. Fortunately, he has a lot of shirts, so he can clean up, swap into a clean one and be ready for whatever’s in store for him next.

The first prank is simple. While Conner’s at Johnny’s desk, Bobo puts a box of paper right behind him and a full garbage can behind that, so, when he turns, he’ll promptly trip over the one and into the other. It’s neatly disgusting and Jim the janitor would have paid to see it.

But then there’s the coffee and the soda and the toner cartridge and... before long, Floyd is channelling some William Shatner to express his rage at what Johnny—because nobody else has the opportunity—is doing to him.

And so we have the real plot. How is Johnny going to get rid of Bobo and how will he do it before a majority of the office hates him? His mantra quickly becomes “I didn’t do it!” and gradually people stop believing him.

At least that’s how I thought it was going to go. Much to my surprise, it actually shifts until I realised that I was watching a very different film. Initially, it’s very simple, just a series of pranks designed not just to make us laugh but to deepen both the characters and the hole that Johnny finds he has to dig his way out of. Gradually, though, it develops a heart and that elevates the last third of the film, albeit more in an It’s a Wonderful Life way than a Drop Dead Fred one, even with obvious similarities.

I liked Prankster, but it took me a while. It’s a better story than it is a movie but, once it gets going, it finds its legs. There are good lines of dialogue—“I look like Malibu Ken if he was a drunk with a cocaine problem”—that suggest that it could be a quirky radio play but far too much of it is visual for that to ever fly.

Most of the problems come down to the low budget. This is not a busy office in any way: by population, decoration or productivity. It has the feel of an office, because that’s obviously what it is, but it feels like it’s after hours and someone’s shooting a film in there. It doesn’t sound like the hotbed of activity that it would, if only there were enough extras to fill all the cubicles and enough white noise from them all talking at once.

To be honest, I don’t think the sound would be up to that challenge anyway. It’s acceptable but not stellar and it’s not helped by the score, which rarely fits. There’s one emotional scene that’s backed by an N-word riddled rap song. Sure, it speaks lyrically to emotional pain but it’s out of place in the back yard of a bleached white dude in middle management getting his eyes opened by a Hispanic friend.

What all this does is pressure the actors into even more vehemence, but they can’t deliver that because it would never work for passive characters. So, it takes Bobo’s pranks to keep us engaged until O’Barts evolves the script to the moment where we’re emotionally invested and just plain care about where it’s going.

And we do. By the time this ended, I was grinning in solidarity with more characters than I would have expected, which means that O’Barts, even if I didn’t think he had this time, absolutely had me in board.

What’s more, unlike many Arizona feature films, this one is viewable because it’s landed distribution on Roku, Tubi and Plex, among a few others. Congratulations for that. I hope it does well.

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