Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
Just as television is a writer’s medium, the music video is a quintessential director’s medium. Liberated from any obligation to plot or characterization or dialogue, music video directors are free to let their fertile imaginations run wild. Unlike film directors, music video directors don’t have to worry about serving a writer’s vision or staying faithful to painstakingly crafted dialogue. No, their job is to make whatever song and artist they’re dramatizing seem as sexy, exciting, and irresistible as possible. They’re in the business of marketing pop music, which helps explain why there is so much overlap between the music video and commercial fields.
In the three-plus decades since MTV’s arrival, music videos have given cinema some of its greatest and most important artistic visionaries (David Fincher, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze) and some of its most reviled hacks (Michael Bay and many other stallions in Jerry Bruckheimer’s stable). Directing music videos is a great way to build a name and a reputation while simultaneously making a fuck-ton of money, but not every music video titan is cut out to make the leap to the big screen. There wasn’t a bigger, flashier, or more influential name in music videos in the ’90s than Hype Williams—whose first name was literally hype—but after a fascinating misfire with the 1998 cult classic Belly and a whole bunch of projects lost in development hell (at various points Williams was set to direct Speed Racer and Fat Albert), Williams’ cinematic future looks cloudy at best.
Jonas Åkerlund wasn’t as big as Williams back in the ’90s—nobody was—but even if the name doesn’t sound familiar, chances are good you’ve seen a great deal of his oeuvre. Åkerlund is one of the titans of the music video field, an aggressive hyper-stylist whose edgy sensibility has informed envelope-pushing music videos for everyone from The Prodigy to Rihanna and Lady Gaga. After starting out as a drummer for Swedish black-metal band Bathory, Åkerlund segued into a sweet-ass gig directing music videos for Roxette before establishing himself as a master of the form with videos from many of the biggest names in music: U2, Britney Spears, Madonna, The Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney.
Åkerlund was eventually able to leverage his success making sleek pop-music promos into the chance to make his dream project, a punishingly intense labor of love about (and seemingly for and by) meth addicts called Spun. 2002’s Spun screams its cult-movie bona fides from the mountains, featuring a cast that corrupted two of cinema’s most adorable man-children, Jason Schwartzman and Patrick Fugit, in addition to featuring the jittery, cult-friendly likes of John Leguizamo, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Debbie Harry, Rob Halford, Ron Jeremy, and eccentric filmmaker Tony Kaye. It also has an overdriven visual style that nakedly attempts to re-create the experience of being wired on amphetamines on a visual and emotional level, the same way Goodfellas viscerally captured the manic paranoia of late-stage cocaine addiction.
Spun was audacious. It was uncompromising. It was also, unfortunately, more or less insufferable. It was impressive and obnoxious in equal measure. In fact, it was obnoxious in large part because it was so impressive in its grating obnoxiousness. With Spun, Åkerlund made exactly the daring, ballsy, transgressive, and visually dynamic black comedy he set out to make. The overall effect, alas, was akin to living five feet away from someone who listens to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on a constant loop all day: an invitation to a pounding headache.
I didn’t think too much about Spun until I wrote a recent My World Of Flops piece on Kevin Federline and Britney Spears’ reality show Britney & Kevin: Chaotic. In a deleted scene that escaped the gothic insane asylum of their ill-fated foray into non-fiction television/the farthest reaches of self-delusion, a clearly fucked-up Spears belches, complains that her jaw hurts, and whines to the eternally creepy and parasitic Federline about just how badly she wants to see the upcoming movie Spun.
Spun wiggled its way into the hearts of cultists like Spears and Federline, but Åkerlund didn’t direct another feature until 2009’s Horsemen, a thriller about the apocalypse produced by Michael Bay that sounds intriguingly insane, but didn’t make much of a splash. Now Åkerlund has returned with another jaw-dropping cast in another weird, cult-friendly look at life on the fringes.
Small Apartments is an adaptation of a novella written in just three days by an artist, author, screenwriter, and Rob Schneider confidante named Chris Millis. (Millis also ghost-wrote Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s book Here’s The Situation, which I wrote about for Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club.) The film feels like a saner, more responsible older sibling to Spun, in that it approaches the random cruelty of life with a sigh of world-weary resignation rather than Spun’s snotty adolescent nihilism. It helps that the film has a magnetic and likeable center in Matt Lucas, a British comedy veteran best known for Little Britain.
Yet while Small Apartments feels throughout like a more mild-mannered companion piece to Spun, it also recalls the Duplass brothers’ Jeff Who Lives At Home in strange ways. Like Jeff Who Lives At Home, Small Apartments centers on a true innocent, a naïf who has somehow managed to make it into his mid-30s without developing anything resembling survival skills. Like Jason Segel in Jeff, Lucas needs the universe to be exceedingly kind or it will completely destroy his fragile soul. Also like Jeff, Small Apartments focuses on a kooky spiritual and philosophical quest that only seems to make sense to its central seeker, and even then only in intermittent spurts. It’s a quirky comedy about the randomness of the universe that initially appears to be nothing but randomness. With his freakish pallor, tighty-whiteys, and colorful assortment of wigs, Lucas at first appears to be little more than a sad-sack receptacle of quirks and eccentricities. But thankfully there’s more to him and the film than originally appears.
Lucas stars as a rudderless man who has been adrift in every conceivable sense since his beloved brother (James Marsden) was institutionalized following a very public meltdown where he angrily confronts a smarmy self-help guru (Dolph Lundgren) whose philosophy has failed him. Marsden was Lucas’ beloved sherpa in life, and Lucas is utterly lost in his absence. His life revolves around the daily package he receives from Marsden containing an envelope of toenail clippings and a cassette of advice. Lucas is all about ritual and repetition: receiving his brother’s package, drinking his favorite off-brand soda, and blowing an alpine horn every morning, to the irritation of neighbors who include a cantankerous James Caan and a pair of debauched hedonists played by Johnny Knoxville and Rebel Wilson (who previously co-starred with Lucas in Bridesmaids).
Then two events shatter the delicate equilibrium of Lucas’ life: The packages from Marsden stop coming and, more importantly, Lucas accidentally kills feral, evil landlord Peter Stormare under seedy circumstances that aren’t revealed until later in the film. Suddenly, Lucas’ rudderless existence has a catalyst. He tries to posit Stormare’s death as a suicide, but he’s no better at crime than he is at anything else.
Lucas’ journey through the seedy after-hours world of Los Angeles brings him into contact with a gallery of strange and sad characters, including an aspiring stripper played by Juno Temple, a horny and lascivious convenience-store clerk played by DJ Qualls, and a weary fire investigator played by Billy Crystal, making an intriguingly low-key return to film after an extended and very welcome absence.
It would be a colossal understatement to say that I am not a Billy Crystal fan. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that I consider him a cancerous boil on the face of comedy as well as an insufferable, narcissistic ham and shameless peddler of rank, maudlin sentimentality, so I must say I was very pleasantly surprised by Crystal’s uncharacteristically restrained performance as a hard-drinking fire investigator who is just about done with a world and a life that never stops disappointing him. Crystal and David Koechner have a wonderfully deadpan scene where they come across Stormare’s horribly burned and mangled body and Koechner essentially lays out a scenario in which the already-dead Stormare miraculously discovered and clumsily explored several new and impossible scenarios to kill himself a third, fourth, and fifth time, just to be safe. Crystal is unaccustomed to reining it in, but his wry under-reaction to the messy, surreal scene is hilarious, and that is not something I anticipated ever writing about Billy Crystal in this day and age.
Like Spun, Small Apartments is a dark comedy of inertia about misfits chasing kicks for such a distance that they stop being pleasurable and become an elaborate means of self-punishment. The crucial difference is that Small Apartments is animated by a palpable and redeeming affection for its characters, no matter how deluded, ridiculous, or scuzzy they might be.
Knoxville, for example, originally comes off as a kooky caricature of a pothead loser who looks and acts like he hasn’t changed his clothes or bathed since serving as a roadie for Whitesnake in 1987. But he has a surprisingly powerful moment of genuine connection with Temple where he coldly yet accurately disabuses her of her fantasies of living a glamorous life as a stripper in Las Vegas.
Small Apartments recognizes and respects the humanity underneath the sleaze and grime of its no-hopers. It’s a melancholy comedy-drama that strains at the beginning but eventually settles into a nice, melancholy groove before an ending that, like Jeff Who Lives At Home, ties everything together all too tidily. In a film-closing flurry of epiphanies and life lessons, the cause of Marsden’s mental illness is revealed, along with a way for Lucas to get out of his predicament while simultaneously escaping the madness and noise of the city for an Alpine paradise and punishing Lundgren for being a false guru.
I usually scoff and groan when a film makes such a naked play for profundity and cosmic significance, but Small Apartments wore down my defenses to the point where I was moved by this closing narration in spite of myself. In sharp contrast to the manic and overdriven Spun, Åkerlund is willing to take his time here, to let his story and his characters breathe a little instead of pummeling the audience with sensation.
A simple formula applies to most direct-to-DVD movies: The more impressive a film’s pedigree, the worst the film is liable to be. Otherwise, why would such a promising film skip theaters? That doesn’t apply to Small Apartments, which is no cult classic, but is a strangely winning little sleeper that transcends both the grating quirkiness of its opening and its lowly release status. The film’s direct-to-video release seems attributable less to its failure than to the modesty of its scope and ambition. With Spun, Åkerlund set out to make an instant cult classic and failed. With Small Apartments, he set out to make a weird, oddly likeable, and strangely engaging little comedy about the imperfections of humanity and our inveterate need for connection, and succeeded.
Just how bad is it? It’s actually quite winning.