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.
For nearly two decades, writer, director, producer, actor, blogger, reality-show star, and all-around irritant Eric Schaeffer has been making and writing movies, sitcoms, reality shows, television dramas, blogs, and books in blatant defiance of the universe’s will and the oft-reiterated wishes of the public.
We have only ourselves to blame for Schaeffer’s cockroach-like tenacity. The modest praise that greeted Schaeffer and Donal Lardner Ward’s semi-autobiographical 1993 independent comedy My Life’s In Turnaround was all the validation Schaeffer needed to plunge audiences deeper and deeper into his tormented psyche and twisted sexual peccadilloes despite the understandable unwillingness to visit those swampy depths of dysfunction.
In 1996, Schaeffer—whose looks I would describe as “forgettable”—had the chutzpah to cast himself as a man who must choose between Elle MacPherson and Sarah Jessica Parker in If Lucy Fell. The chorus of derisive laughter that greeted the film somehow did not keep Schaeffer from then casting himself opposite supermodel Amanda De Cadenet in 1997’s Fall, an erotic thriller in which Schaeffer plays a character so gifted in the erotic arts that he can make De Cadenet experience shattering orgasms through fully clothed dry humping.
Undeterred by the mockery that greeted If Lucy Fell and Fall and every other facet of his personal and professional existence, Schaeffer took his unfortunately ubiquitous combination of grubby misogyny, narcissism, and narcissism-disguised-as-self-deprecation online in his blog I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single (to which the only sane retort is an understated, “Oh, but we can”), which was then turned into a book and a reality show.
Schaeffer has inspired a level of vitriol wildly disproportionate to his standing in the culture, which is negligible at best. In December 2009, he joined the risible likes of Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Max, Joe Francis, and Dov Charney as a candidate for Gawker’s “Douche Of The Decade.” A 2010 Vulture piece on Schaeffer and his soon-to-be-canceled show, Gravity, promises, “Eric Schaeffer on Gravity, His Penis Size, and Why People Hate Him So Much.”
Toward the end of the interview, Schaeffer responds to his detractors when he sneers to the interviewer:
“I think people have that kind of reaction to my work because they’re terrified of their own humanity. People want to put themselves in boxes—I’m a straight man; I’m a straight woman; I’m a real lady; I’m not a slut—people don’t want to acknowledge that they have conflicting beliefs, that you could be a refined, sweet, moral woman, but still have thoughts about wanting to get thrown down and fucked by your boyfriend. Or a man can’t be a strong, virile guy and still have a fantasy about getting fucked by a hot chick with a strap-on. These thoughts freak people out, and all my work deals with that stuff and puts it out there.”
For decades, in multiple mediums, Schaeffer has been trying to share his profound truths about how strong, virile guys can totally get fucked by hot chicks with a strap-on without everyone needing to put a label on such an endeavor, only to have the universe very strongly retort, “No, you can really keep your sexuality and your thoughts about sexuality and everything involving sexuality to yourself, buddy. And those blogs and movies and TV shows? Yeah, we don’t really need those either.”
Schaeffer is in a curious place. Seemingly the only people who pay attention to him and his career are detractors confounded and disturbed by his continued presence, however marginal, and the sick freaks who finance Schaeffer’s work and continue to promote the fiction that Schaeffer is a professional and not someone who should be diligently writing his 90th unproduced screenplay at Starbucks in his spare time while working a dispiriting day job.
I lost track of Schaeffer not too long ago, which is a nice way of saying that I succeeded in purging him from my memory before the DVD for They’re Out Of The Business, the long-in-the-works sequel to My Life’s In Turnaround, appeared on my desk unannounced and unwanted, yet strangely alluring.
Making a sequel to My Life’s In Turnaround is at once the most and least self-indulgent thing Schaeffer could possibly have done. It’s the least self-indulgent because it’s a follow-up to the one project he did that people actually seemed to like, within reason, and it’s the most self-indulgent because it implies that Turnaround meant so much to people and occupies such a privileged place in audience’s memories that they’re eager to return to its characters and their world nearly two decades after the first adventure.
They’re Out Of The Business opens with Schaeffer being told that his latest television show is being canceled and that he no longer has any money because he spent it all on “weird vanity sex movies” that he makes as an excuse for him to make out with models. There is a vein of self-deprecation running through They’re Out Of The Business that doesn’t quite mask the narcissism that remains at the core of Schaeffer’s grating persona. In another amusing dig at Schaeffer’s image, his character has his name legally changed to “Self Indulgent” out of deference to the universe’s strong contention that that might as well be his legal name.
The sequel to My Life’s In Turnaround is all about attempts to make a sequel to My Life’s In Turnaround. The film’s meandering plot finds a desperate and grasping Schaeffer trying to convince Ward, who has just been dumped, to make the cinematic follow-up with him. Yet Schaeffer’s plans for that sequel are as half-assed as everything else in the movie; all he has is desire. There’s no script, no structure, no overarching themes, just an eagerness to throw the two of them in front of a camera and hope that magic happens, that whatever strange alchemy they produced back in 1993 would still be present nearly two decades later.
That seems to be the blueprint the filmmakers followed, which leads to little in the way of plotting or characterization and a whole lot of guy-talk that splits the difference between the testosterone-fueled yakking of a subpar Kevin Smith movie (which is to say, a Kevin Smith movie) and the random, hacky observations of stand-up comics at open-mic night.
There’s a germ of a good idea in the leads’ bafflement over the complexities of dating in an online world: In the film’s most inspired scene, Schaeffer attempts to explain the Byzantine codes and rituals of dating websites to Ward in a way that makes the process seem like nothing a sane adult should ever conceivably subject themselves to.
They’re Out Of The Business makes some amusing observations about the curious ecosystem of online dating, but its thin layer of competence and professionalism dissipate whenever a female character opens her mouth. Though they’re adept at writing for characters who act and talk exactly like themselves, Schaeffer and Ward have no idea how to write for women.
Schaeffer’s character is supposed to eschew the game-playing and immaturity of Internet dating and embrace something more authentic and organic, but his idea of wooing a real woman entails a courtship that is nothing but big romantic-comedy moments. After agreeing to go to his crush’s yoga class on a whim, Schaeffer brings her a bouquet of roses, causing the entire class to swoon. Later, he delivers a big, flustered speech about how much he likes her, once again in front of her swooning and overwhelmed yoga class—because there’s no point making gestures that are neither dramatic nor public. In keeping with the cornball romantic-comedy vibe, it turns out the yoga teacher didn’t respond to Schaeffer’s passionate outburst because, as part of her kooky spiritual practices, she was on a 24-hour silence cleanse or something.
Ward, meanwhile, has a forgettable romantic love interest in a woman he once loved madly who exited his life ages ago, only to reenter it unexpectedly with a child in tow (Ward’s greatest, and only real strength as an actor, it should be noted, is that he is not Schaeffer). In its third act They’re Out Of The Business meanders so aimlessly that it has to resort to a montage of Schaeffer staring thoughtfully into the distance in various locales to illustrate that reflection and emotional growth have secretly been occurring while he was seemingly jibber-jabbering away about nothing much in particular.
They’re Out Of The Business is defined by an incredible lack of urgency and ambition. It’s a film seemingly created out of inertia, out of a strange but somehow justifiable suspicion that it was somehow easier to make a sequel to My Life’s In Turnaround than it was not to. There are no real stakes here beyond Schaeffer and Ward’s friendship and careers, which neither party seems particularly concerned about.
It’s a wisp of a movie whose flimsiness and utter disposability—I suspect the filmmakers themselves forgot about it long before they finished filming—serves due notice that Schaeffer is no longer worthy of hate, if he ever really was. I used to hate Schaeffer, but now I feel the antithesis of hate toward him: not love but rather complete indifference.
Just how bad is it? It’s pretty bad, but not quite as egregiously awful as you might imagine.