American Loser, An Invisible Sign and The Chaos Experiment 

American Loser, An Invisible Sign and The Chaos Experiment 

A periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.

American Loser (2007)
Imagine for a moment that you are Seann William Scott. You are a popular actor renowned for your portrayal of braying, overly enthusiastic jackasses in everything from American Pie to American Pie 2 to American Wedding. Those films, and several others of their ilk, have made you rich and famous beyond your wildest dreams, but still you hanker for more. You wish to be taken seriously. You want to prove to the world that there is more to you than Stifler or that guy you played in The Dukes Of Hazzard. (I believe it was either “Duke” or “Hazzard.”) You land a big role in Richard Kelly’s long-awaited follow-up to Donnie Darko. If that weren’t impressive enough, it’s a dual role—as a brainwashed war veteran and his identical twin. That ought to shake up your image. Alas, Southland Tales proves less a great leap forward creatively than an epic boondoggle. Nobody’s even talking about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s epic performance as Boxer Santaros/Jericho Cane, let alone your equally incendiary turn as Private Roland Taverner/Officer Ronald Taverner.

Southland Tales doesn’t change your life, but you stumble upon a role that just might. It’s the challenging lead role in the feature-film adaptation of a memoir by a struggling, still semi-obscure stand-up comic and memoirist named Jeff Nichols who’s a human aggregation of actor-friendly quirks. He’s ADD, dyslexic (his memoir is called Trainwreck: My Life As An Idoit [sic.], which originally served as the title of the film), a recovering alcoholic, and has a mild case of Tourette’s that makes him say and do embarrassing things constantly. Jeff Nichols is, in other words, a mess and an actor’s dream. 

You make Trainwreck: My Life As An Idoit in 2007 and take it to a series of smaller film festivals geeked at the prospect that a big Hollywood movie star like Seann William Scott might show and talk about his bold performance in Trainwreck. Trainwreck proves far too quirky, strange, and low-budget for a widespread release, and a small-but-classy arthouse run never materializes. You go through some personal shit, enter rehab and get cleaned up in time for that long-awaited third sequel to American Pie (not counting the multiple lines of direct-to-video spin-offs) you’d never even consider if things had worked out the way you’d hoped. Oh, and that quirky independent film that was going to change everything? It’s been dumped straight to home video with a name that doubles as the ultimate insult: American Loser. The film that was going to get you past American Pie now looks like a cheap attempt to capitalize on the success of the film franchise that has been both your claim to fame and an albatross around your neck. 

What’s more, American Loser’s cover seems designed to scare discriminating audiences away. It’s a crudely Photoshopped image of a bathrobe-wearing Scott crushing a beer can with one hand and holding a teddy bear with a heart reading “Love Me” while Gretchen Mol holds up the “L” hand sign that is the universal sign for “Loser.” In American Loser, Mol delivers a heartbreaking performance as a woman whose consenting to become the kept woman and eventual wife of a wealthy man (Ian Buchanan) is merely the latest in an endless series of compromises. Mol once had dreams and aspirations, but a hard life has robbed her of her self-delusions. Like Scott’s protagonist, Mol’s character protects and treasures her hard-won sobriety as one shining achievement in a sea of failures and bad decisions. In the film’s most poignant scene, Mol, who picks up Scott at AA for some no-strings-attached sex but ends up hanging around, tells Scott that she’s “bent” rather than broken. Of course, that’s something only someone broken would say, which makes it all the more affecting. The image of Mol making the “loser” sign at Scott, in other words, is not exactly a sensitive or accurate representation of a tender and carefully crafted relationship that’s far and away the film’s greatest strength.

Life seldom subscribes to the neat formulas of narrative filmmaking. Instead of stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends, life is often just one goddamned thing after another. That holds true of American Loser as well. Instead of a strong plot, we get one goddamned thing after another: Scott crashes a yacht; Scott burns down the family home; Scott tries to be a good sponsor to AA buddy Jeff Garlin and fails miserably. Through it all, Scott never stops trying to do the right thing and never stops failing spectacularly. The film’s rickety structure comes from Scott “sharing” anecdotes with an Alcoholics Anonymous group. Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t just add structure to Nichols’ life; it also provides the movie’s scoliosis-ridden spine.

American Loser ultimately coalesces into a coming-of-age story about a troubled and confused young man finding his voice as a writer and a stand-up comedian. Its redemptive arc has Scott evolving from Alcoholics Anonymous cut-up to professional funnyman, but that arc rings false since Nichols’ stories are more funny-sad or funny-strange than funny-ha-ha, and because Nichols seems to have stumbled into stand-up and writing just as obliviously as he did everything else in his life. 

American Loser isn’t anywhere near as bad or cynical as its title and cover make it appear. For all its regrettable forays into wackiness—including scenes where Scott talks to a costumed version of himself that represents his never-ending internal turmoil—it has a peculiar integrity, and Scott lends a real sweetness and vulnerability to his character’s epic quest to figure out real life. But like the man whose ramshackle existence inspired it, it’s a mess. A likable, intermittently funny mess, but a mess all the same. 

Just how bad is it: Eh, its heart is in the right place

An Invisible Sign (2010)
For months I’ve found myself obsessing about the Blu-ray of a drama called An Invisible Sign. A barely released adaptation of an Aimee Bender novel, the film is the kind of oddity I’ve written about extensively for both Dispatches From Direct To DVD Purgatory and its country cousin My Year Of Flops: a project so doggedly, unmistakably, unbelievably preposterous it dares audiences to believe it’s real and not some sort of fever dream only I experienced. By all rights, An Invisible Sign shouldn’t exist. As a low-budget, touchy-feely Jessica Alba math drama, no part of An Invisible Sign makes sense, separately or together. 

While I expected An Invisible Sign to be surreally awful and grotesquely maudlin, I did not expect it to echo the recent abomination Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close so closely. Like Extremely Loud, An Invisible Sign filters genuine adult tragedy through the saccharine filter of childhood whimsy, transforming trauma into an elaborate treasure hunt/endless mental game. Jessica Alba plays Miss Gray, a self-negating wallflower whose surname doubles as a description of her miserable personality. She’s a gloomy, drizzling cold afternoon of a sad-sack, a mousy spinster-in-training who has retreated into a safe, protective world of numbers (magical, magical numbers!) after her beloved mathematician father (John Shea) goes crazy following a fall. 

The idea behind both films is that if the protagonist simply knocks on the right doors or finds the right number or figures out the winning equation, then history will be rewritten, daddy will be restored to his former glory, and everything will be perfect forever like it was before. In An Invisible Sign, Alba copes with her father’s mental illness by making an agreement with the universe: She promises to deny herself every conceivable form of pleasure in return for her father’s mental health. It’s an arrangement that works out poorly for all involved, particularly the audience. 

Like Extremely Loud, Unbelievably Twee, Sign reduces the complex sum of humanity to an endless series of cloyingly adorable tics, quirks, and mannerisms. The teacher-turned-hardware-store-owner Alba is obsessed with (J.K. Simmons) wears a numerical necklace that doubles as a mood ring that conveys how happy or sad he is at any given moment, while Alba nervously taps out numbers that come to life through the magic of cheap animation. Oh, and she eats soap as a form of self-punishment. I cannot stress how huge a plot point that proves to be.

Playing an outcast 20-year-old who stumbles her way into a job as an elementary school math teacher despite dropping out of college and possessing little in the way of life or social skills, Alba begins to emerge from her shell once she befriends a little girl whose mother is dying of eye cancer. She also enters into what could be considered a flirtation with an insanely patient fellow teacher—one who suspects that underneath her unflattering bangs and dowdy wardrobe she might just look like Jessica Alba—if Alba’s character were capable of seeing people as anything other than strange, non-numerical obstacles to be avoided. Alba seems to labor under the delusion that avoiding eye contact, frowning extensively, and perpetually shifting her gaze downward constitutes a heavyweight dramatic performance. She is wrong.

Like its protagonist, Sign is much more comfortable with numbers than people. It opens with a flurry of unfortunate numerical wordplay—the screenwriters seem to pride themselves on inserting a mathematical reference into every line of dialogue—and closes with an avalanche of unearned sentimentality. The dreary and irresponsible Alba, who loses her job after bringing an axe to school in a misguided act of courage, eventually wins her job back, gets the guy, and even wins custody of an oppressively adorable student after the girl’s mother dies of the eye cancer that has been hounding her all film. 

Leaden kitsch for geeks, An Invisible Sign occupies a strange subgenre all its own: precious, melodramatic math porn with an inspirational bent. It’s a Hallmark movie for math majors with debilitating psychological problems, and conclusive proof, in case any was necessary, that Alba has no business carrying a film, particularly one this deliciously and relentlessly misconceived.  

Just how bad is it? You really should just see for yourself 

The Chaos Experiment (2009)
John Frankenheimer’s 1996 botch of The Island Of Dr. Moreau didn’t give costar Val Kilmer a role so much as it gave him an existential identity as the heir apparent to Marlon Brando’s worst instincts. After Apocalypse Now, Brando was pretty much nothing but bad instincts and worse judgment. By costarring as Kilmer’s deranged mentor in Moreau, Brando passed down his curse of perpetually squandered potential. 

Like Brando, Kilmer seems to have incredible contempt both for his own extraordinary talent and filmmakers delusional enough to imagine they might exploit it without being destroyed in the process. Kilmer’s late-period career consequently represents a frenzied race to the bottom. How bad is Kilmer’s judgment? At this point, getting tied at the hip to 50 Cent professionally and personally a few years back represents the smartest thing he’s done in ages. Like drowning victims hanging onto each other in a doomed attempt to survive, 50 and Kilmer have formed a formidable bad-movie alliance in films like Gun and Streets Of Blood. But Kilmer goes it alone in 2008’s The Chaos Experiment, a film that answers the question, “What would a Roger Corman cheapie from the late ’80s look like if written and directed by a talentless and hysterical Al Gore?”

The Chaos Experiment casts Kilmer as an overfed, shaggy, pasty, and twitch-laden mad scientist filled with half-bored contempt for humanity. In an attempt to prove that global warming will drive humans insane even before it destroys the globe physically, Kilmer locks six sexy singles in an isolated steam bath, then waits for them all to kill themselves and/or each other after promising them each a luxurious free night in a fancy hotel alongside other singles looking for a fling. 

But who are these six sexy singles, other than a Viagra-addicted former football player with a wildly unconvincing Texas accent played by Eric Roberts? And where are they? Tough cop Armand Assante wants to find out in time to get to a hot date, but first he must put up with Kilmer’s infernal blathering about mankind’s imminent demise due to global warming and an apocalyptic near-future where, in Kilmer’s words, “The Midwest will be under water. Ears of corn will be sold to the highest bidder.” 

Kilmer’s endgame? He wants to keep Assante guessing as to the whereabouts and identity of the six singles he promises are locked away somewhere near death’s door so he can score the ultimate publicity for his theory that mankind will die in 2012 of global warming: the front page of a newspaper in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the holidays. Seriously. That’s the powerful beacon that will carry his world-saving message out to an otherwise indifferent and doomed world. 

Kilmer tells the understandably confused Grand Rapids newspaper editor that he easily could have gone to The New York Times or New York Post, but wisely held out for a publication with a fraction of either paper’s power and influence. (In a shocking turn of events, The Chaos Experiment, like many other cheap direct-to-video movies, was filmed in Michigan thanks to exceedingly generous tax incentives). If Kilmer succeeds in snagging the front page in Grand Rapids, his provocative ideas could reach an audience of several.

Meanwhile, the six sexy strangers go predictably crazy under crazy-making conditions, albeit gradually and with lots of slow motion. Lots of slow motion. The Chaos Experiment stretches about 70 minutes’ worth of screenplay to 90 loose, tension-free minutes. Much of the third act is devoted to people going crazy in extreme slow motion. It’s a newfangled spin on an old Twilight Zone chestnut about the insidiousness of paranoia under duress: Think of The Chaos Experiment as Sweaty, Half-Naked, Hysterical Monsters Are Due On Maple Street—And They’re Us And Our Bottomless Paranoia And Our Capacity To Abuse And Harm Our Fellow Man As Well As The Precious Environment. The emphasis on global warming is supposed to lend the film a timely feel, but The Chaos Experiment’s transcendent cheesiness is timeless and strangely universal (in a Grand Rapids-centered sort of way). All that’s missing is a posthumous cameo from Brando, but there are limits even to Kilmer’s crazy powers. 

Just how bad is it? Every bit as bad as you’d imagine, if not much, much worse

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