Jun 23, 2009
The Notorious Newman Brothers (2009)
Over two years ago I was given a review copy of the movie Bums, starring, co-written and co-directed by siblings Jason and Brett Butler. This was the second of their "brews" (Canadian alternatives to Spike Lee's "joints"?)- an amusing and honest "twentysomething" relationship ensemble comedy.
In short order, I saw the writing-directing team's third offering, Confusions of an Unmarried Couple, screened at Innis Town Hall. This comic nightmare of revenge, longing and bitterness after the end of a relationship is a mini-marvel- excellently acted by a cast of two, and is as wickedly funny as it is perceptive.
This Friday June 26, their fourth brew The Notorious Newman Brothers, is also having its Toronto debut at Innis. This new project is directed by Ryan Noel, who co-wrote and stars with the brothers Butler, and is a departure from their pungently funny studies of love pains. Noel plays Max Chaplin, a wimpy aspiring filmmaker whose ad (canvassing for subjects for a documentary) is answered by these wannabe "goodfellas" the Newman brothers: Thunderclap and Paulie (Paulie Newman- get it?) -played by Brett and Jason, respectively- who recruit him to make a movie about their bad-boy exploits. This comedy combines the well-soiled traditions of gangster film parody and "mockumentary", yet the blending of both genres results in a clever study that gently overturns the conventions of these forms, but it also is a sly commentary on how its characters are influenced by pop culture.
Perhaps this will be an ongoing trend in the work of the Butler Brothers, as the hapless characters in Bums also incorporate discussions of movie characters in their dialog. This pattern of junk culture references is less a nod to the trend jump-started by Quentin Tarantino, yet more symbolic of how their characters cling to these references to get them through their daily realities. In this movie, the vignettes of Chaplin documenting these two-bit hoods at work, are intercut with on-screen quotations from such modern gangster classics as Scarface or Carlito's Way, suggesting a movie world that the Newmans attempt to emulate but are still light-years removed from. In one hilarious moment, they re-enact for the camera the famous "Do I amuse you?" scene from Goodfellas. Their pathetic delivery is reminiscent of a terrible amateur night performer being oblivious to his his own badness. (Perhaps this moment is more evocative of DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin character in King of Comedy, whose routines are intentionally, painfully, bad- therefore true.)
All of the spoofing of gangster machismo is intact (as the Newmans constantly chide the wispy voiced filmmaker for his lack of masculinity), and there are neat jibes at reality TV conventions (as in one scene where Chaplin meets a former associate of the Newmans, the only thing in the image that doesn't get blurred out by the traveling matte is the interviewee's face). But as any "movie within a movie" should, reel life and real life appropriately blur. As we continue to watch these three central characters, we realize that things aren't always what they seem. Much that we perceive to be real becomes as artificial as the glue-on moustache that Max wears to appear macho. Additionally, we see that Max and the Newmans alike are still little boys trying to grow up. Max is a thirtysomething mommy's boy (yes, he lives in the basement), and the Newmans are clearly insecure dolts trying to appear adult, allowing the childhood games of cops and robbers to take over their lives.
The structure of The Notorious Newman Brothers is rather simple. Scenes unfold with a minimum of cuts, to emulate the cinema verité style, capturing the moments as they happen. Perhaps this film is more clever and not as fall-down funny as their previous work, but this is not to suggest that this movie is anything less than enjoyable. Amidst the subtle spoofing of various filmmaking conventions, there are some great laughs, including an elaborate scene in a video store. (Mean Streets as a family rental? Hmmm.....)
After having viewed the movie, and allowing the experience to immerse itself in you, one begins to think back on various scenes and understand more of what is really going on beneath the surface. Like the desperate characters it documents (on both side of the lens),
Brett and Jason Butler have always managed to make a lot from a little, and this film is no exception. They, as well as Ryan Noel clearly have a lot to say for themselves, and after viewing this effort, once again I offer that it will no doubt be interesting to see what they come up with next.
The Notorious Newman Brothers screens Friday June 26 at Innis Town Hall at 9:30 PM as part of the ReelHeART International Film Festival. Visit the ReelHeART website for more information. Additionally, you can find out more about the makers of this movie here and here.