Over the course of a decade, we have seen the cultivation of a cinematic universe of tremendous ambition. It features a dizzying array of intertwining plotlines and characters, who over the years have become so familiar to audiences that they almost feel like friends. It’s inspired an impassioned fanbase that speaks its own language of inside jokes and touchstones. I am referring, of course, to the On Cinema at the Cinema universe.
Consisting of a podcast, multiple television shows, a touring stage show, in-character Twitter accounts, and more, the series is the brainchild of surreal comedy fixtures Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, who play fictionalized versions of themselves as deeply inept movie reviewers. Now their antics come to the big screen with Mister America, a feature-length mockumentary following Tim’s crusade to get elected District Attorney of San Bernardino County. Just how things got to this point is a convoluted story involving an abortive attempt at EDM stardom, a lethally disastrous music festival, and a lengthy trial, but you don’t need to be a dedicated fan to understand or appreciate this movie. In fact, going in cold might actually make it funnier as the bizarre background info gets doled out.
Heidecker and Turkington have helped shape a lively niche of modern comedy through their various projects, including shows like Heidecker’s Tim & Eric and Turkington’s abrasive anti-comedic persona Neil Hamburger. Their brand is a kind of endless deadpan absurdism laced with cringe, and Mister America is in many ways a culmination of not just On Cinema‘s story arcs but also this style. To anyone who doesn’t find this to their taste, this can be weird, if not outright alienating. For those who can appreciate it, this is an unquestionable masterpiece.
Heidecker and Turkington’s dumb-guy kind of humor is grounded in bracingly realistic character work. Tim is an egomaniacal MAGA halfwit whose various foolhardy ventures are straight out of the right-wing grifter playbook. Having barely escaped conviction for causing multiple deaths via unsafe vaping devices, he seeks to defeat the D.A. who prosecuted him solely for vengeance, even though the entire community hates his guts. (Compare his quixotic quest to Jacob Wohl’s cartoonishly buffoonish attempt to frame Elizabeth Warren for BDSM sex crimes.) Gregg, meanwhile, is a harrowingly accurate depiction of a specific kind of pompous moron that you’ll encounter countless times within cinephilia, obsessed with outdated media like videotapes and all-but-forgotten garbage titles. (His favorite point of reference for his co-host’s campaign is the 1976 Disney comedy The Shaggy D.A., “except instead of turning into a dog, he turns into… a murderer.”) These idiots stumblefuck their way through what should be basic social interactions, surviving solely on the everyday grace of people’s collective politeness and/or teeth-gritting tolerance.
While a lot of hands are wrung over what movies like Joker do or don’t say about the particulars of the Trump age, diamond-sharp satire like this aptly encapsulates the stupid, stupid times we live in. Mister America is a sharp portrait of feckless conservative entitlement (born from being male, white, straight, middle-class, and much more). It’s not enough to undeservedly beat the rap for manslaughter, Tim must destroy those who wronged him and attain power over others. Such delusions need not be of grandeur, though; Gregg has the same fervor to wrest control of On Cinema once and for all.
The film thus makes an appropriate spearhead for the Museum of the Moving Image’s new screening series No Joke: Absurd Comedy as Political Reality. The program incorporates more than a dozen films and TV shows that at the time were meant to be ridiculous, but have since seen society grow down into their visions. Other titles include Starship Troopers, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, and Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Mister America presents a unique case because it is part of an ongoing venture that has seen American life devolve to its level in real time. The fictional Tim Heidecker, movie reviewer turned hapless entrepreneur turned would-be district attorney, perfectly models the trajectory of a criminal real estate developer turned reality show host turned president. There is no liberal despair here. In this vision of America, such depravity only makes sense.
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