Morty Fineman (Jerry Stiller), is a B-movie director, with 427 features to his credit, and the subject of a documentary on his life’s work. Fineman’s career is on the decline, his bank loan payments are past due, and he is working out of a run-down hotel. His only chance for a comeback comes in the form of a serial killer on death row who wants Fineman to make a musical about his life.
Initially, turned off by the project, Fineman’s desperation gets the best of him and he agrees to shoot the movie. Aided by his daughter, Paloma (Janeane Garofalo), and his assistant Ivan (Max Perlich), Fineman attempts to get out of debt and continue making the films he wants to make. Along the way, we see him interact with his actors and ex-wife (played by real life wife, Anne Meara), as well as see snippets of various Fineman Films productions.
Much of what makes The Independent work are the clips from his classic B-movies interspersed throughout the ‘mockumentary’. Predating Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse by seven years, this small film makes excellent use of poor production values, bad acting, and outlandish plots to create authentic-looking schlock films. Highly ridiculous and frequently hilarious, these clips offer a glimpse into a world of outsiders, liberal politics, and overt sexuality in a way that seems completely over-the-top, but also illustrate the environment in which Fineman has thrived for decades.
Some of the titles, such as Cheerleader Camp Massacre (a movie made after his daughter failed to make the cheerleading squad), Bald Justice (an action story where bald men are the heroes), and One Whale of a Cop (Ben Stiller as a police officer – who only communicates through whale sounds – being set free by a small boy) perfectly encapsulate just how much of this “documentary” is actually a wink to the viewer.
In particular, The Whole Story of America, with Fineman as director, writer, producer, and lead, is an especially funny and apt example of just how misguided even his best intentions (fairly representing Native Americans in history, for example) can be. Talking heads by more mainstream movie-making voices such as Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, and Ted Demme, serve to emphasize Fineman’s role as a legitimate filmmaker. Bogdanovich even says that many of Fineman’s ideas were later stolen by other directors to produce Oscar-winning films. Even Roger Corman, on whom Fineman is obviously somewhat based, has a small cameo in the documentary. However, in one particularly revealing scene with his ex-wife, he admits that he made the movies he did because he liked all the blood and sex, and not really for any deeper reason.
Adding further proof of Fineman’s real status in the film industry, he is courted by a small town in Nevada, whose main attraction is legalized prostitution, to be a part of their first film festival. While Fineman is initially against the idea of taking part in the town’s first film festival, his ego gets the best of him when he realizes that he will be the focus of the entire event. Not only is he the focus, but he finds that his work really is loved and admired by many. John Lydon turns in an amusing performance as Baruce, the sole town official against Fineman, as what he does is not art.
The Independent ably takes all the low-budget production, poor taste, and camp and uses it to highlight the life of Morty Fineman in a way that not only spoofs the material, but also acknowledges his contributions to film, leaving the audience with a feeling that he deserves his final success. A large amount of credit should go to the casting, as Stiller brings a mix of the ridiculous, warmth, and charm to his role as Fineman, similar to his antics as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld, while Garofalo and Perlich are also very good in their roles, playing their long suffering characters with a great deal of affection for Fineman. In the end, while The Independent seems to be a direct parody of B-movies, the movie holds an obvious fondness for its subject and characters.
The DVD release includes commentary by director Stephen Kessler, writer Mike Wilkins, and Stiller. There are also quite a few deleted scenes, many of which include extended clips and trailers from Fineman’s movies, as well as other movies that did not make it into the film. The release is rounded out nicely by an unexpected behind-the-scenes featurette of Nancy Sinatra recording an original song, “The Love Theme from the Independent”, for the movie.