A Bum's Life

Cinequest feature 'Hell Is Other People' salutes a very different kind of American cultural hero
FAIL UNSAFE: Richard Johnson plays Morty, a slouching, wily loser in 'Hell Is Other People.'

THE FIRST SIGN of wakefulness, as Morty (Richard Johnson) stirs in his bed, is a fart. Tottering into his kitchen, the pudgy, bearded Morty makes himself a breakfast of champions, composed of Blast energy drink and a bong load. He cleans the marijuana on a self-help book that his sliding-scale psychologist sold him. As he slouches around, Morty wears a blue T-shirt, a souvenir of Red Bank, N.J.—an inside-baseball joke for people who found similarities between the work of Red Bank's Kevin Smith and the work of Jarrod Whaley, director of Hell Is Other People, one of the more intriguing offerings at this year's Cinequest.

Morty starts his day, sort of, circling some jobs ads in the Pennysaver with a felt pen and then getting his hair cut off, presumably to make himself look more professional. On his gently conniving errands, Morty bounces off several women, a la Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny. First, he interviews for a handyman job with Elizabeth, a cracked performance artist. Her latest gift to the world of art is a bulimia piece with lots of public vomiting.

On the way home, Morty rings up his ex-girlfriend's pal Andie (Rebecca Allen) for an emergency meeting. Morty wants to mulct money out of Andie for some vague services rendered. At an imperceptible point in the conversation—maybe it's when Morty realizes he's not going to get any bucks—it turns into a blatant request for a date. Andie happily ferries the news of this attempted pickup right back to her pal, Morty's off-again, off-again-again ex-girlfriend Emmy (Mary Beth Stevens).

Before Emmy can digest the info, Morty has moved on to a newer, sadder scam: trying to pass himself off as a psychological counselor (for pay) to his half-bright musician buddy Ryan (Jonathan Nichols).

How much autobiography is there in this Chattanooga-set tale of traveling woe? Surely, if Whaley were as big a loser as Morty, he never would have gotten Hell Is Other People made. The title reference to Sartre is strange, since Morty makes his own hell: "He's kind of doing his own thing. Whatever that is," Emmy suggests.

It's interesting to watch the film's gears shift as Emmy takes over the story. She seems an unlikely protagonist. She's reticent, she's not a smiler and she has a tough, maybe Texan, voice. I dug her. First, because she's over Morty; second, because she won't gossip about what she saw in Morty in the first place; third, because she wears chartreuse socks. And finally, to make a point that's completely useless to the reader, I was involved with someone who looked very much like Emmy. Moreover, the woman in question used to ask me the same question Emmy asks Morty, when I was in just such an unforgivably pusillanimous stage of life: "What the hell is your problem?"

Emmy practices and repractices a minor-chord waltz on an electric keyboard, misses notes and starts again; in a later scene, we see that she is getting better at the piano. It's a small triumph in a movie that's all about the Big Fail. And we can contrast Emmy's successful practicing with the fraud Elizabeth. Apparently believing herself to be a master of all arts, Elizabeth tries to teach herself "Tennessee Stud" on a banjo—she calls the banjo a guitar.

There are problems with some of the performances (though never Stevens' performance, mind you). Some of the semi-improvised conversations look like they could have used more run-throughs, more conviction. Sometimes, the dialogues are more about the words than the visuals, as in a Mike Nichols movie.

Generally, the visuals lure us in. Chattanooga, Tenn., is mostly virgin territory, and the rain clouds match the film's mood, along with the depression of half-empty streets (it looks as if much of the population of Chattanooga just up and left town). Hell Is Other People functions as a seeming farewell to a place where the vistas aren't as large as they might be. That's the case even at the top of Chattanooga's famous Lookout Mountain, where Morty goes during a sulky, cloud-capped day of 10-foot visibility. And the camera lingers on the sunlight teasing Angie's large, round filigreed earrings.

Whaley is clearly a funny writer. The most strictly humorous episodes have Morty hanging out with a dolt, likely because the dolt owns a TV and a VCR, and Morty doesn't. Morty is smart enough to rent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He's also dumb enough to show it to this redneck buddy, who comments, "This is what you take a girl to see when you don't want to date her anymore."

There's an acuteness to this home-brewed movie that contrasts nicely with the sheepishness of Morty. Although he is not mean, this shambling boy-man possesses a wily streak. He shows off a humiliating yet really clever method of dodging a bill that was a new one on me, and I didn't think I could learn any new ones. One thing I like about the year 2010 is that it's potentially a heyday for the kind of movies that celebrate what Leslie Fielder called "The Bum as American Cultural Hero." The mainspring-free life—demonstrated so memorably by Morty—is perfect for an economy that has let so many millions know that their services will no longer be needed.

HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE (Unrated; 75 min.), directed and written by Jarrod Whaley, shows Feb. 27 and March 3 at Cinequest in San Jose.

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