We watch movies to be entertained, duh. Meaning, though, we want the movie to do nearly all of the work. People who have a taste for independent film have developed the ability to become a partner to the film, willing to give it some energy to help it along the way. How much energy and for how long . . . those are huge variables. Those variables are what I use to determine how to rate and review a film like writer/director Gabriel Bologna’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. I really want to rescue this movie; I’m not sure I can. It is a very dark comedy that succeeds as much as it falls flat, and the abrupt story changes may finally be too confusing to be worth the energy.
After a bit of front material I’ll cover in a moment, the story starts when a newspaper reporter, Cindie, enters a bar run by a tough as nails lesbian, Julie. Cindie is investigating an as yet unnamed incident that, presumably, Julie has particular information regarding.
Callie is a careless and childish woman (mother of two young children) who is having an affair with both Julie and a man, Barlow Jones. She has each convinced that her husband, Joe, is abusive. Her only “job” is as a mostly talentless singer in Julie’s bar—she does bad imitations of Marilyn Monroe et. al. The implication is that she spends well beyond the family’s means since Joe has to pick up extra shifts for the extra cash. Meaning, in relative short, she is wholly unlikeable.
Running parallel to what is nominally the main plot shows Callie’s mother and sister and how that relationship barely functions. Mama J. spends most of her time cutting out coupons and seems to believe that she is saving money when she uses them (but since she buys what she doesn’t need, the savings is only theory).
These two lines intersect when Callie is attacked and her children murdered. The police believe they know who the killer is (Barlow) and pass this information to Joe. Joe kills Barlow and is arrested and jailed. Since her life has been shaken to its component pieces that are then swept randomly away (children dead, lover murdered, husband jailed), Callie goes to live with her mother and sister. It is easy enough to understand why Callie, spoiled almost beyond measure would be the unlikeable creature she is.
There is a bit of a mystery though. The story wanders back and forth across the idea that Callie may have killed her children or arranged for someone else to do it (if I go into any detail here, it gives away far too much).
The whole movie is wrapped in crass commercialism. Nearly everyone eats at a fast food joint called Billy Bob’s Burger; it has a prominent location in the film. When there is a television in the scene it shows an over-the-top home shopping channel, hosted by Buddy Barnett, that pushes everything from a silly product like a bowl-a-matic to an M-16 (the best item “for home protection”).
I don’t think the analysis (partial sales pitch) will contain plot spoilers. However, the film is so dark that I have to cover it well enough for a reader to know whether she or he will enjoy it or will curse me.
I’ll give two examples of the dark and sarcastic humor—if it intrigues, then read on, if not, then no need to go any further. Is it possible to make the violent death of two children funny? In as much as dark humor will allow, yes. Callie goes to the cemetery to visit her children’s graves; she’s carrying the full array of Billy Bob’s action figures, placing each on the head stones. Also, since the kids are “children of the desert” she opts to place sage on the grave instead of flowers. The camera pulls back and we see a groundskeeper blowing leaves while wearing a sandwich board that says “The dead need flowers too, call …” to remind us that sage really isn’t the traditional thing to use. The second example is Joe’s suicide note. It goes through the standard “too painful to go on” sentiment but closes with mentioning that he is including a few coupons for Mama J with the final missive.
Dark comedy is my favorite kind, partly because it’s very risky. Risky in this context can mean a broad range of cleverness. But fail at it and what you’ve made is something mean and tactless. In order for the dark comedy in Leisure Class to work, you have to be patient for the scene to resolve. The cemetery scene moves at a pace that allows the joke to work without effort. The suicide note does not. Joe narrates the standard body of the letter, but his delivery is flat; when he transitions to the “by the way I included coupons” his tone picks up as if the letter were nothing special. A joke like this can work, but only if the pace is faster. This is what I mean by the audience being willing to invest energy; since it tries hard and sometimes succeeds, we can accept this bad timing as funny given the context despite the delivery.
This humor succeeds as much as it fails, so if you’re willing to tough it out, then by all means please do.
The acting is passable. Leisure Class really is a good example of the better parts of independent film. The actors are competent, but are not strong enough to be able to act/react fast enough with the minimum amount of rehearsal typically allowed for films with very limited budgets. None stood out as great or terrible:
Julie (Athena Stensland)
Callie (Tuesday Night)—a stripper name if I’ve ever seen one (hehe)
Joe (John Cellini)
Mama J. (Julie Stensland)
McMillon—police detective (Michael Massee)
Buddy Barnett (Christopher McDonald)
The settings and camerawork are stiff but not amateurish. However the static nature of most scenes is rather noticeable.
Now, if you can handle the dodgy dark humor and the roughish quality of this type of indie then you might be able to forgive the problems I’m getting into now. If not, then standard rules apply.
Since the main theme is commercialism, now is the time when I bring in the actual beginning. It is a tableau of special needs adults having lunch. A newspaper coupon blows against one who then chases it while it blows away. He happens upon Callie’s murdered daughter and this kicks off the main story. The special needs adults do not appear anywhere else in the film, given the ham-fisted way the commercialism is handled, the implication is insulting. We are all “special needs” since we can be so taken in by advertising and the true special needs are even more susceptible.
Buddy Barnett’s endless infomercials are wryly funny. His clothes are from a thrift store specializing in “swinger” clothes of the late 1970s and his hair a black shellac helmet. And some of us have seen him playing a cleaned up version of the same character in Requiem for a Dream released a year earlier. This trope plays into the ham-fistedness by being too obvious. Several scenes containing his shilling interrupt the flow of the film that is tenuous most of the time. Funny, yes; distracting, yes.
The reason for the title comes just before Cindie leaves Julie’s bar at the end of the film. She just says that an 18th century sociologist predicted the future existence of a culture driven by commercialism. The problem here is this contextless aside nearly destroys the film as a whole. It must have been so patently blatant when the film was first reviewed, because we had to have a montage showing just how this struggling class of people is actually part of this so-called leisure class. I don’t buy it, so I obviously cannot sell at least this portion of the film. Remove this tacked on explanation and montage and the film would be stronger.
Too many characters are unnecessary or are carried too far. It sort of seemed to me that the director had too many friends he wanted to give parts to. They aren’t tacked on; they are distracting or just unnecessary. Callie’s sister Marla and her boyfriend Billy offer nothing. Half of Buddy Barnett’s guests are the same. There are a few bit players that further no scene or story point but spend too much time or have too many lines to be considered true extras. The most distracting though is the detective McMillon. He begins a romantic relationship with Callie months after the official investigation is closed. The only reason to have him in the film after the investigation officially closes is as another suicide (the film has quite a few). There need not bee that extra suicide to make the point . . . but what point?
I have no idea why there have to be so many deaths. The most confusing point, and hardest thing to talk around is whether or not Callie killed her children and why the people around her kill themselves. There are three possible explanations and all are equally shaky. Refining the explanations so there are two that are ambiguous rather than the three that are so vague would make selling this film much easier. I recommend the movie with significant reservations: you have to be a fan of dark humor primarily, need to be willing to invest a fair amount of energy with regards to attention (this isn’t a casual movie), need to be willing to accept what appears to be unnecessary red herrings, and be willing to leave the story without a solid conclusion.
possible spoiler Callie is directly modeled on Susan Smith and Darlie Routier. Smith killed her two sons in 1994—she admitted to drowning them (leaving them in a car she allowed to roll into a lake in South Carolina). Her reported motive was that she was having an affair with someone who implied he might be more interested in her if she didn’t have kids. Darlie Routier was convicted in Texas for killing her two sons in 1996. In both cases, the events played out on national television. (I was living in each state at the time of the murders, so I know a bit more ready information than I might have otherwise.)
The film has Barlow telling Callie he would be willing to take her away if it weren’t for her children (Smith). The film also shows Callie at graveside saying “Momma loves you so much” verbatim what Smith said on national television. Callie’s bringing the toys to the graves is related to a very strange graveside birthday party the Routiers threw for one of the boys while Darlie was still under investigation—presents, silly-string sprayed around, and laughing. Conjecture says that had the video not shown the family members cavorting like that, the jury might not have convicted her (apparently the full tape has a broader context since the playing happened after a somber few moments—the jury saw the whole thing, so how true any of this is has been up in the year for over a decade).
What did you think of this review?