The debut feature for filmmaker Matt D’Elia (who also plays the lead in the film) American Animal premiered at SXSW in 2011 garnering the beginning stages of cult intrigue. The film centers around two roommates, (conveniently named) Jimmy and James, two trust fund-supported twenty-something’s the primary existence of which revolves around deciding whose turn it is to use the shower, sleeping with their friends (conveniently both named Angela), and pot. That is, until Jimmy coughs up blood and James gets “a job,” ricocheting Jimmy into a bizarre spiral resembling a mental breakdown.
Jimmy (played by Writer/Director/Editor Matt D’Elia) is a scrawny, longhaired, bearded eccentric in the midst of a dysfunctional collapse. He spends the majority of the film in bright pink underwear, full frontal nude, or undergoing an assortment of costume changes in-between breaks of watching porn on his computer. Conversely, James (Brendan Fletcher) is an apparent intellectual whose routine is centered on societal expectations, and being polite. The film is confined to their large duplex apartment (which happens to be D’Elia’s own personal abode).
Their friends, who are referenced as Blonde Angela (Mircea Monroe) and Not Blonde Angela (Angela Sarafyan), drop by for a day of exploits: drugs, drinking, casual sex, and shallow conversation. Jimmy coughs up blood in the bathroom sink; he houses an absurd amount of medicine bottles next to his bed; yet despite this, he seems inexplicably rapturous. In the face of his imminent demise, he has decided to make his own rules, and is bringing his friends along with him for the tumultuous ride.
The premise, although intriguing, trips over itself somewhere between D’Elia’s determined showcase of himself and a script better served as a short. The writing lacks substance, and D’Elia seems content to use visual eye candy as a crutch. It takes half the movie to even reach the initial catalyst — where Jimmy discovers James will start work in the morning at a paid internship —although, the hilarity of grown men handling a paid internship as if it’s a promotion to CEO is priceless. These are deluded characters drifting in a co-dependant fog of ungarnered wealth. It is unclear how much of the script is just catharsis for D’Elia, as many of Jimmy’s character traits and situations are actual struggles that the filmmaker/actor dealt with in his own early twenties. But he did tell the New York Times: “I fall somewhere between the two main characters.”
As far as noteworthy dialogue or character arcs are concerned it’s sparse. More often, conversations consist of child-like banter and conclude with Jimmy stubbornly repeating a single word or phrase incessantly. There are unrelenting movie references illustrated through Jimmy’s rather vexing impersonations; continually asking if he is like Daniel Day-Lewis or declaring that he is Serpico. There is an overwhelming lack of tact — the audience is persistently hit over the head with references as if D’Elia is desperate for us all to know just how film savvy he is. While this slew of allusions can, on the one hand, be seen as proof of credibility, on the other it feels like pompous smut. The film rouses for an electrically charged psychological breakdown via his often-exasperating performance. It’s a portrayal that is brazen and off-putting, but done with such incredible conviction D’Elia defies you to hate him. D’Elia originally imagined the likes of Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or Andrew Garfield to play the lead role of Jimmy, but when they didn’t get back to him he decided, he told Filmmaker Magazine, “if someone untested was going to be given responsibility for ruining or not ruining my first film, I much preferred it to be me.”
The desire to etch this movie as another notch on the mumblecore belt is tempting, but it’s a much more deliberately visually splendid movie and to rank it amongst comparable low budget films (this was shot for around $100,000) would be an inaccurate disservice. All the usual suspects are there — small cast, fish tank location, mundane plot — but the perfectly-timed edits, decisive shots, beautifully crafted cinematography, and earnest acting debuts deserve more credit than an indie label may connote.
American Animal is a Beckett-inspired look into the devolution of American youth. And while certain acid trips open new windows to perception, this particular one, while it may have knocked on many doors, illuminated nothing. In the same way a black cube on a white canvas stirs up controversy, D’Elia serves up stale messages that may symbolize intellectual vibrance, but which mostly do not; the characters are merely darkly outlined two-dimensional objects representing some quasi-intellectual thought on the universe.
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