Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: According to the Internet Movie Database, the 2007 film Flakes grossed under a thousand dollars in its opening weekend and played on a single screen, in spite of a starring turn from Zooey Deschanel, America's Smart-Mouthed Slacker Sweetheart (she's like a real-life Juno!), direction from Heathers' Michael Lehmann, and Christopher Lloyd more or less reprising his beloved Taxi space cadet as the senile proprietor of a hipster cereal restaurant/countercultural dive. No wonder The Hollywood Reporter called it "minor to the point of barely existing" and accurately predicted a "quick ride to home video." The reviews were overwhelmingly negative. It scored a paltry yet still overly generous 35 on Metacritic. The Village Voice called it "impossibly flimsy" and noted that it seems to take place not in the present, but in some sort of grungetastic, flannel-crazed 1994 time warp. Our own Noel Murray adroitly compared Flakes to the infamous Jeremy Davies commercial positing the Subaru Impreza as the automotive embodiment of punk rock, and argued persuasively that it's just a shade away from being a satire of blinkered hipsterdom. In other words: essential viewing.
Curiosity factor: Reading Noel's review of Flakes, I thought, not for the first time: "Wow, that sounds terrible! I can't wait to see it!" We here at The A.V. Club are equal-opportunity haters. We're just as likely to give a scathing review to that grainy leftist digital-video documentary about how George W. Bush is worse than Hitler, or that dour independent drama about blind narcoleptic migrant farm workers in love, as we are to dis a big schlocky action or horror movie. When I think about the worst films of the past few years, ostensibly noble, artsy fare like Lions For Lambs and Chapter 27 spring to mind more readily than, say, College. (Although Jesus Christ, is College an awful fucking movie.)
I also have a longtime fascination with the way subcultures and countercultures are co-opted and exploited, in what Thomas Frank calls the commodification of dissent, and a fondness for at least some of the actors involved, most notably Lloyd and Deschanel. Alas, while Deschanel earned a seemingly inexhaustible amount of goodwill with her prickly/adorable performances in Almost Famous, All The Real Girls, Elf, and even Failure To Launch, she's subsequently exhausted it with one terrible, barely released movie after another. As a Gen-X slackazoid in good standing, I find that the idea of an all-cereal restaurant stocked with the sugary foodstuffs of my youth appeals shamelessly to my sense of cheap nostalgia. My first stepmother never let me eat sugary cereals as a kid, so I've perhaps fetishized the Lucky Charms and Fruit Brutes of the world even more than the film's cereal-obsessed characters.
The viewing experience: It's never a good sign when the mere sight of a character's hair makes you hate him with the passion and intensity of a thousand burning suns. It's even more alarming when that character is the protagonist you're expected to spend 90 minutes rooting for and identifying with. Alas, the mere sight of Flakes' leading douchebag Aaron Stanford, with his immaculately tousled hair, simian eyebrows, creepy pubic-hair child-molester mustache, and "Look, ma, I'm growing a beard!" stubble filled me with bottomless contempt. And that's even before Stanford opened his stupid mouth to say stupid things in a stupid way to stupid people in unbelievably stupid scenarios.
Flakes peaks in its first four minutes, during a sequence where the camera lovingly lingers over cereal boxes of yore and the tacky little cereal spokes-creatures that wormed their way into our collective hearts while we were still cartoon and sugar-addled kids.
It's all downhill from there, as we're introduced to the paper-thin collection of stereotypes and one-dimensional caricatures that populate the titular cereal eatery, all of whom seem to have stumbled in from a cancelled sitcom. First there's a crazy rock 'n' roll drummer played by what's apparently the world's only/foremost Jason Mewes impersonator. We know he's a rock 'n' roller 'cause he's totally drumming with beef jerky he calls "meat sticks." How crazy is that? Then there's the sassy black woman who flips Stanford off as a greeting, Stanford's boss Christopher Lloyd—an acid casualty with a totally hilarious case of dementia—and an impish old man with a jones for what Stanford calls "righteous lids."
Into this dumb-ass hipster Eden wanders a corporate snake in the form of an oily cad (Keir O'Donnell) intent on co-opting Stanford and Lloyd's totally authentic, boldly non-commercial concept of selling mass-produced, kitschily packaged consumer goods at inflated costs to nostalgia-addled Gen-Xers. Needless to say, Stanford isn't having it. Here, Stanford—whom you might remember as the pretentious 15-year-old asshole from the beyond-dreadful Sundance buzz-magnet-turned-instantly-forgotten-flop Tadpole or as Pyro in the X-Men movies—expresses his disapproval in the most obnoxious, pretentious manner imaginable, with a rant apparently purloined from one of Christian Slater's Pump Up The Volume monologues:
Ah, but Stanford is so much more than just an asshole who works at a cereal shop. He's also an artist, maaaaaan! He's totally going to change the world with his douchey brand of douche rock, but first he needs to wriggle free from the crushing demands of pouring slackers cereal for a week so he can finally finish his masterpiece. Here, we learn a little more about his creative angst.
Incidentally, Lame-Ass Shit would be a much better title for Flakes. Stanford's artsy girlfriend Zooey Deschanel wants to work for him at Flakes, but he isn't having it, so she goes to work for O'Donnell, who sets up a much slicker, more corporate version of Flakes just across the street. Hey, did I mention that Deschanel's character is named Miss Pussy Katz? Sadly, that's probably the least strained, overwritten, trying-way-too-hard aspect of her character.
From there, Deschanel nags and brays and Stanford pouts, whines, and pontificates on the evils of MP3s. He's really passionate about ensuring that massive record companies—and to a much lesser extent, the artists they employed/exploited—get their due.
I'm no business super-genius-person, but does it really make sense for a new super-specific kitsch store to open within a block of a competitor with the exact same business model? How much of a market for cereal bars can there really be? Furthermore, wouldn't cereals from the '70s be hopelessly stale and inedible by now? How does the whole retro/discontinued cereal thing work? Flakes afforded me ample opportunity to ponder these questions, since I sure as shit wasn't distracted by its plot or characters.
After O'Donnell sets up shop a block away, Flakes turns into a very poor man's Used Cars, as Stanford resorts to extreme measures to sabotage the competition, like posting fliers promising the disenfranchised 10 free bowls of cereal at O'Donnell's establishment. As others have noted, it's a little sketchy that Flakes only addresses New Orleans' hard times for the sake of a stupid throwaway gag where hobo-Americans show up en masse for their free grub.
Alas, Deschanel's bright ideas help O'Donnell stay afloat. Things get so bad that Stanford himself ends up working for his chief competitor. In the film's only trenchant, insightful moment, O'Donnell admonishes new employee Stanford to continue being a sour, sarcastic smartass, since customers love his pseudo-indie hipster 'tude. It's a clever acknowledgment that slacker attitude and sneering rebellion can be valuable commodities.
As in Reality Bites, the stuffy corporate sellout, in this case O'Donnell, emerges as far more sympathetic, interesting, and likeable than the shrill exemplar of scruffy, anti-corporate integrity. Stanford eventually learns the necessity of compromise, but the life lessons ring as hollow and empty as the film's characters. Flakes makes raging against the machine look like such a noxious exercise in self-righteous jackassery that it single-handedly threatened to turn me into a Republican. But before I bid you adieu, one last act of mind-boggling jackassery from Stanford:
I do love me a girl with big eyes, though. It's too bad they're wasted in this piece-of-shit movie.
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? Two percent. Though it skirts complete worthlessness, The O'Donnell character was interestingly ambiguous and I got a cheap nostalgia buzz from all the cereals on display. In other words: Eat the cereal. Skip the movie.