Mr. Art Critic (2007)
by Jon Bastian
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From the instant we meet him, M.J. Clayton (Bronson Pinchot, The Tale of Despereaux), is a colossal douchebag, driving the streets of Chicago while talking on his cell phone, treating some low-paid service employee like something he’s just scraped off of his shoe, upset about the sudden foot-shaped dent that has appeared in the driver’s side door of his vintage MG. It doesn’t take us long to fill in the blanks and figure out that this dent is probably a response to one of Clayton’s latest art reviews in the local paper – and the man only seems to be happy when he is coming up with clever ways to savage the artists.
The set-up is quick and effective. One artist who has come down from Michigan has no idea who Clayton is and when Clayton condescendingly explains to the artist why he has created a certain piece – and is totally wrong – the artist, Frank (John Lepard, Whip It) puts him in his place, having no idea who he is. Clayton’s review is vitriolic, but so are all of his reviews, to the point that his boss tries to warn him about it. Clayton’s glib response is that if they’re getting complaint letters, it means people are reading the paper, and he doesn’t care anyway. He’s off on vacation, to Mackinac Island, where he takes residence in a recently inherited cottage that, like the island, is trapped in the 19th Century and the 1970s – neither one necessarily a bad thing, as there are no cars in the place, everyone knows everyone else, and a customer in a grocery store who is three dollars short is told by the clerk to not worry about it, just bring the money next time he’s in.
It could be a paradise, until Clayton runs into an already very drunk Frank, who recognizes him. He traps Clayton into buying him another drink to make up for the bad review – a show that was supposed to have run two weeks closed after two days. And the one drink turns into many round of pitchers, Clayton finally loosening up and pulling the stick out of his ass. When asked to explain why he’s qualified to be an art critic, he admits that he doesn’t know much about art, but he knows what he likes – and then accepts Frank’s bet to create a piece for the upcoming island art festival in a week. After all, Clayton says, how hard could it be? He could shove a brush up his ass and shimmy out a Picasso, no problem. It’s an in vino veritas moment.
The morning after, suffering a massive hangover, Clayton denies the bet ever happened, but Frank says he’s been entered, and the entire art community on the island is abuzz over having the famous Chicago critic involved. Despite receiving a big box of starter art supplies, Clayton adamantly refuses to be involved, until his other negative trait is enticed. As we’ve already seen in his interaction with a young blonde temp at the paper, he’s a major horn-dog, and a tit man. When attractive young artist Lisa (Toni Trucks, Ab Fab (US 2009)) appears on his porch asking for advice on her art, Clayton is lured in, hook, line and hooters. Apparently, his hypercritical side can be put on hold when doing otherwise might get him what he wants. (Interestingly enough, the work of Frank’s that he tore apart in his review largely consisted of two gigantic papier mâché breasts.)
In other words, he’s still a douchebag.
Bronson Pinchot obviously had a lot of fun – and no fear – in playing a total asshole, the kind of person that, in real life, even Gandhi would want to punch in the face after one minute. Partly the writing, largely the nuances of his performance, here is a man who is probably the ultimate control freak, put into a situation over which he has no control. In actually having to make art, instead of criticize it, he is fired out his comfort zone from a cannon, and the higher the pressure mounts, the more fun it is to watch him squirm. And the script doesn’t go in the Hollywood direction of Clayton learning as he goes. Rather, the tighter the screws of the deadline turn, the more unethical he becomes. The filmmakers are challenging us to not like this character, not forgive him, and the timing of event is just perfect. Just as Clayton has committed his most unethical act, he also suffers the biggest consequence of his actions and, at this point, we still think he deserves it. The film is like The Bad Lieutenant (the original, not the bound to be crappy remake) of the art world, especially when the possibility that everyone has been lying is revealed to Clayton, and he cannot do a damn thing about it, because he is the biggest liar of them all.
The beautiful thing about Mr. Art Critic is that it does not all come to a Hollywood ending. Clayton doesn’t really learn his lesson, nobody gets their comeuppance, and life goes on, all messy and unresolved just like the real thing. But, along the way, the filmmakers have given us a compelling story about real people, and perhaps teach us a lesson Hollywood should learn, especially after another season of failed blockbusters and in the wake of a promised wave of remakes, “re-imaginings”, and sorry-ass adaptations of children’s board games. Yes, that’s right – Monopoly is in the works as a movie source, a different Freddy is about to stalk down Elm Street yet again, and they still keep making Saw sequels, who knows why. And Mr. Art Critic is a perfect anecdote to the crap. A small film, on a small budget, that does what art is supposed to do: hold the mirror up to ourselves, and reveal truths about the human condition. Bonus points: I’d never heard of Mackinac Island before this film. After seeing it, I’m tempted to move there. It looks like Seattle supre-Chicago, a lovely artist paradise separated from and immune to the economic disaster that is the rest of Michigan dragged down the toilet by the second or third death of Detroit. Yes, the film is partly a love letter to the place, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
MJ Clayton would have torn this movie sixteen new assholes. I can give it nothing but high praise. Stick it in your Netflix queue, rent it or buy it. And keep your eyes on MTI Home Video, because they really have a good eye for bringing quality non-Hollywood entertainment to you. Full disclosure time – yeah, of course I get their films for free for review purposes. That’s what we do here. It doesn’t mean I like them all, and I haven’t – and they don’t tell me to go to hell when I give thumbs down (which I have), unlike certain other entities. But, unlike MJ Clayton, I’m capable of giving a good review. If you like an emotionally complex story without bows tied on the resolution, one which raises as many questions as it answers, one which does not pull the Scrooge trajectory on its protagonist, and which makes you laugh, cringe and feel, then check this movie out. And, if Hollywood were doing more of this kind of thing instead of its typical expensive least common denominator crap… well… Hollywood wouldn’t be crapping their pants over their summer box office returns, would they?
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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