Tah von Allmen, Isaak James, Ashlie Atkinson, Michael J. Burg, Michael E. Knight, Karen Culp
(Last Ditch Pictures; US theatrical: TBA; UK theatrical: TBA; 2009)
We all have our causes. Animal rights. Kinky sex. Health. Gay and/or National pride. Religious zealotry. Artistic expression. Self-actualization. And within said philosophies are a million individual interpretations, paths that can be followed (or ignored) no matter how odd or unusual they may seem. Passing judgment on how one fulfills their sense of social commitment - or in the privacy of their own boudoir, a more highly physical concept of identity - seems pointless, but as one rather rotund member of Springfield, USA once said, it can also be a lot of fun. Just ask filmmakers Isaak and Eva James. With their latest film, Hungry Years, the plights of the homeless, the autistic, the injured and the overweight are tossed into a whirlwind of big city egocentricity that’s so fresh, so effortless, that you wonder why more artists don’t tap into such a zoned out zeitgeist.
In this anarchic Altman-esque world, Ellen is a Restricted Calorie nutritionist. She believes that by severely limiting your food intake, you can live much longer - and healthier - than the average person. Her clients include Dale, an oil company CEO with a secret passion for sniffing soiled undergarments. He has a wife, Joyce, who has written a controversial self-help book that proclaims autism as the next “evolutionary” step in human development. She is aided by an assistant, Martha, who uses the aforementioned illness as the basis for her critically panned one woman performance piece - and her ongoing kvetching about life in general. Her brother Neil is also a self-absorbed loser, living at home and trying to drum up interest in his idea of building a self-contained robotic landmine sweeper. But with no money and little support from his aging parents, he has few viable prospects. Separately (and eventually, together) they try to overcome their personal issues while still supporting their varied social aims.
Isaak James is clearly the future of sophisticated, smart cosmopolitan comedy. He’s Woody Allen without all the Me Decade angst, an incredibly talented hyphen (writer-director-composer-actor) who infuses the already idiosyncratic indie motion picture with his own uniquely observed sense of quirk. With partner Eva along for the ride, he finds the hilarious and often ridiculous truths in such outlandish ideas as mental illness, culinary self-sacrifice, and weak-willed altruism. With the flawless mock-doc Special Needs already under his belt, and a wide open window of creative opportunities present, the man who made the handicapped into heroes is now out to take down the haughty and the high minded. But just as he did with his previous satiric statement, he uses the know-it-all and the narrow-minded against themselves to brazen, brilliant effect.
At first, Hungry Years might seem like a cruel slam of all those people who believe too passionately in their own sense of charity and empathy. We see how Ellen faithful follows her regimes (and how devastated she is when others don’t). We witness her misplaced outraged reaction to a fly-by-night attorney’s desire to help the homeless by teaching them insurance fraud techniques (like he says, what are their options?). From the horrified face she makes at a friend’s dinner to the circumventing of a Meals on Wheels plan for the elderly (she delivers her own carefully prepared foods instead), she’s a walking, preaching example of everything that’s wrong with such personal prostylitizing. But because she is just one of many in the James’ joyful jesting, we learn to sympathize and even identify with her blinkered beliefs.
The rest of Hungry Years’ cast of crazies offer their own sets of unusual issues. Ashlie Atkinson’s Martha is perhaps the best clinically depressed diva ever to spout the F-word, while James himself plays Neil like the naïve nincompoop the man-child clearly is. Perhaps the best performance comes from Karen Culp, the deluded “doctor” who unleashes, Dr. Phil style, a kind of New Age nonsense about autism being a favored childhood ‘gift’ that’s horrific in its touchy feely foolishness. The near Messianic glint in her self-satisfied eyes more than makes up for Michael J. Burg’s pervert on the prowl pantomime. With equally strong work from the supporting players (and a couple of clever Special Needs cameos) and a script that is strong in both character and comedy, Hungry Years definitely defies the odds.
Most mainstream audiences think independent film is all navel-gazing and familial dysfunction. When it’s not indulging in a kind of post-traumatic stress stridency, it’s working through personal problems a therapist would have a hard time deciphering. But in the James’ cinematic purview, people and their peculiarities make the best subject matter, not the pain one experienced during potty training. Like Special Needs, Hungry Years is all about the set-up and the possible pay-off. It’s about the hubris and the comeuppance. We can’t wait to see Ellen put in her place, to see Martha and Dale and Joyce get raked over the coals by a public clearly capable of seeing through their ruse. But like the great artists they are, Isaak and Eva don’t go for the easy punishment. Instead, fate steps in and deconstructs the situation. No one really suffers, but we witness the hilarious realignment in all its secret-smashing, ego dashing glory.
The most important thing to remember about Hungry Years, however, is just how funny it really is. Unlike many proposed comedies, this is a laughfest that actually evokes the intended response. The Jameses do not go for the easy joke. They don’t produce gags just to knock down the predicable punchlines. Instead, this is observational wit worked into a stellar social commentary, an intelligent denouncement of the ‘new’ Me Decade baked into a cruel, creamy cupcake. You will see a lot of post-modern misanthropy here, anger that stems more from a position of personal defeat than communal criticism. No one here is a failure - they are just a mindlessly misunderstood winner. And just when things can’t get any more bizarre, Neil’s mom will show up and obsess on her adult son’s choice of pants. It’s all part of a controlled cleverness that reminds one of the days when a certain cinematic mensch would deliver his annual dose of Manhattan malaise.
With only his second film, James has literally redefined the concept of outsider creativity. Where most fledgling auteurs try to do the best they can under financially and artistically restrictive circumstances, he and his collaborators throw out such notions of struggle and simply make the finest, more cutting and imaginative film possible - budgets be damned. It’s clear that, sometime in the near future, this is someone whose name will be mentioned along with other important to big screen comedy. For now, Judd Apatow and Sasha Baron Cohen better take heed. Isaak and Eva James are coming with Hungry Years in tow. In a year that’s already seen several bright example of cinematic wit, this may be the brightest - and best.