The Movie Industry Is Brutalizin’ Me Case File #187: Run, Ronnie, Run
More My Year Of Flops
Somewhere, a 19-year-old is getting ready to watch a television show for the first time. This person is relatively pop-culture savvy. He likes comedy even if he would never consider himself a comedy nerd. Maybe he even reads The A.V. Club. So he’s heard about this show that is supposed to be absolutely fucking amazing, like, one of the best television shows of all time. So this young person pops in the first DVD of the show’s first season and it all looks so cheap. The production values are practically public-access level. That wall looks like it’s about to fall down. So yeah, it’s funny and weird and geeky and dense in a way that would lend itself to obsession or whatever, but it’s not the transformative experience it was advertised as being. So the young person in this scenario takes the DVD out of the player and wonders why in the hell people got so worked up about this Mr. Show thing in the first place.
I will now devote this column to articulating why in the hell people got so worked up about this Mr. Show thing in the first place. For comedy geeks of my generation, it was the fountainhead, the place where it all began. From it sprang the comedy gods of the future, your Patton Oswalts and Sarah Silvermans and Jack Blacks and Paul F. Tompkinses. So when it was announced that Mr. Show creators and stars Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were going to make a movie, it incited the kind of fevered anticipation that greeted the arrival of the first Star Wars prequel. To my generation, Mr. Show mattered as much as any television comedy can. We viewed it the way an earlier generation viewed the first four seasons of Saturday Night Live: as an event. This was appointment television. This was worth getting together with friends to watch.
Accordingly, when I think about Mr. Show, I think as much, if not more, about the ritual of watching the show as the show itself. My mind flashes back to the apartment my editor Keith Phipps and I shared in Madison where we’d get together with colleagues from our sister publication The Onion, drink a bit, and watch it. Like The Onion, Mr. Show was something not everyone got. That was part of its appeal. And if you got Mr. Show or The Onion, then you were duty-bound as a pop-culture geek to disseminate news of Mr. Show’s glory far and wide. If you weren’t bringing new members into the fold, then you didn’t deserve to call yourself a Mr. Show fan. If you were an Onion fan, you loved Mr. Show. If you loved Mr. Show, you also loved The Onion. That’s just how it worked.
If you loved The Onion back then, you sent copies of the print edition to your buddies at other colleges, just like if you were into Mr. Show, you would send your friends well-worn videotapes of seasons past. There’s something about the physical nature of that transaction that gives it additional power. Today, anyone can send you a link. But to make a videotape of Mr. Show and then spend $4 mailing it to a friend required commitment and dedication. Mr. Show was incredibly important to the people who loved it. It played a big role in defining not just their sense of humor but themselves. I felt an immediate kinship every time I saw somebody with a Mr. Show shirt. It was almost a religious thing: They were a member of the same Church Of Bob And David.
Why did Mr. Show resonate so strongly with my generation? Was it the alchemy between Bob Odenkirk’s just-barely suppressed Midwestern WASP rage and David Cross’ free-flowing Southern vitriol? Was it the conceptual ambition of having every sketch flow into the next, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes less so? Or was it because Mr. Show captured the comic sensibility of Generation X so perfectly? In that respect it was like The Ben Stiller Show with better writing and less hip grunge-rock attitude. Another factor working in Mr. Show’s favor: It’s really fucking good.
I hold Mr. Show in such reverence that the idea of writing about the feature film Run, Ronnie, Run, its sole creative failure, feels borderline heretical. To Mr. Show fans, each new episode was a gift, but that’s not how the movie industry saw its creators. To studios, they were semi-obscure writer-directors with a cheap show on pay cable that young people seemed to like. To the faithful, a Mr. Show movie radiated infinite potential. Sure, it would be a film based on a sketch-comedy show, but this wasn’t just any comedy show. This was Mr. Show. Cross and Odenkirk held themselves to impossibly high standards. Anything that sprang from their fertile imaginations had to be genius. They would not disappoint their devoted following with an It’s Pat: The Movie! or The Ladies Man. They couldn’t. A Mr. Show movie had to be great. It had to be. We wouldn’t accept anything less.
We had high hopes for a Mr. Show movie the way Evangelicals are pretty psyched about Christ’s return. For true fans, it was a matter of roughly equivalent importance. Mr. Show had given us so much. It had enriched our lives. Now it was going to give us its greatest gift of all. Mr. Show wouldn’t longer be our little secret any longer. We would now have to share it with the world. But that was okay. It was just the price we’d have to pay.
That was the dream. Here’s the reality: What should have been Mr. Show And The Holy Grail instead sat on the shelves for years before being released as the second DVD you had to buy along with The Real Cancun in order to receive a $5 rebate from the good folks over at New Line. The movie that was going to break Mr. Show wide open became a movie New Line thought the idiots who enjoyed The Real Cancun so much they fucking bought it might also enjoy. It was the final insult. Run, Ronnie, Run wasn’t just treated like disposable product. It was treated like trash.
The road from inception to the second half of a DVD double feature with The Real Cancun was long and heartbreaking for everyone involved, especially the fans. In an interview with The A.V. Club before the film’s release, compiled in Tenacity Of The Cockroach, Cross uttered words circumstances would soon render deeply ironic. In the interview, Cross assured fans, “We’ve got our creative freedom, which is paramount.”
Run, Ronnie, Run opens with an animated sequence riffing on the “Let’s All Go To The Lobby!” ads that once ran before movies. The opening takes anthropomorphization to its comic extreme by making everything in the movie-going experience an adorable Disney-style creature, even urinals and toilets. The concept is strong, as is the animation, but the jokes are strangely absent. It’s more amusing than funny, more conceptually clever than laugh-out-loud funny.
Run, Ronnie, Run is filled with bitter ironies, none more bitter than this: It opens with a sequence specifically designed for the theatrical run it would never receive. It’s an ambitious, unusual way to begin a movie that’s followed by an even stranger way to begin a movie. Once we’ve returned from our metaphorical trips to the concession stand, we’re confronted with the stern, glowering image of the self-professed “film valedictorian of Hollywood,” a dour man of a certain age who informs us that what we’re about to see is a movie and consequently not real, so we shouldn’t go around imitating it like a bunch of jackasses.
The screenwriters threw down the gauntlet by opening with two scenes that have nothing to do with the narrative about to unfold. They’ve decided to make up the rules as they go along and toss audiences into deep water with weird, conceptual comedy. That’s the message the filmmakers wanted to send. Instead, the openings announce to the world that what you are about to see is not really a movie, but rather an assemblage of loosely affiliated comic conceits, some genius, some less so.
Run, Ronnie, Run devotes a lot of its running time to throat-clearing. It opens with two fake-outs, then ushers us gently into what is ostensibly the real movie via David Koechner’s cornpone narrator, who hails the film’s title character (Cross) as “a true gentleman of Southern distinction.” He is, in other words, a redneck. The character of Ronnie Dobbs was introduced in a Mr. Show sketch about a cameraman (Odenkirk) for a COPS-like reality show who becomes obsessed with one of the criminals he filmed fleeing the police. The cameraman makes the drunken idiot his muse and writes a musical positing him as the apogee of proletarian dignity, only to grow disillusioned with his discovery/protégé once he loses his hunger for doing the drunken dumb shit that made him famous. This all transpires over the course of several minutes in the show.
In true Mr. Show fashion, the sketch rapidly cycles through a series of rich comic conceits. At its core, it’s a riff on the Warholian concept of being famous for being famous or, in its current incarnation, being famous for being infamous, a doofus revered for his sub-human penchant for getting into trouble. Leading the police on a high-speed chase is the character’s true art form. It’s what he’s good at. That’s a very Mr. Show conceit, but if you’re a film executive, it’s not a solid foundation for a commercial comedy. It’s not enough simply to have a man who becomes famous for running from the cops. That just sounds absurd and absurd tests poorly with women and older men. We must know more. Who is this man? What are his hopes? What are his dreams? Where does he come from? Does he have a girlfriend? A mother? What hardships has this man overcome? Through what trials has his character been formed?
Run, Ronnie, Run then goes about answering those questions in a way that betrays the filmmakers’ profound disinterest in them. We survey the trailer that is Cross’ castle. We meet Jill Talley, the dispirited mother of his children. We meet his moppets. We perambulate about the small town where he lives and are introduced to our narrator, roughly around the time he is encouraging a mangy old dog to eat its own vomit.
It would be hard to root for a man devoid of redeeming characteristics, so Run, Ronnie, Run tries to make its protagonist palatable to mainstream audiences by turning him into a nice guy. He scores a free game for a fat kid. He announces his intention to ask the mother of his children to marry him a third time. He stands up to a menacing sheriff. He’s half redneck joke, half Southern-fried Wayne Campbell.
Every great hero needs an origin story. So it isn’t long until Cross’ well-intentioned shit-kicker is on television uttering his quasi-catchphrase, “Y’all are brutalizing me!” Run, Ronnie, Run sometimes feels suspiciously like the pandering, sentimental dreck it’s parodying. It’s not too much of a leap from the mindless uplift of Mr. Show’s mock-inspirational movie about a man raised by mentally challenged parents to Talley looking soulfully at Cross in his prison uniform and telling him, “Everybody has some kind of talent. You just gotta find out what yours is and you gotta make something of yourself” while strings swell majestically in the distance.
On HBO, Mr. Show could talk up to its audience. But movie studios think people are stupid and should be communicated with as one would a small child: Everything must be made clear at all times. So it’s not enough that Cross is so entertaining at being arrested it’s become his livelihood and art form. We must then see the police officers laughing while they are arresting Cross, followed by shots of television production employees erupting into an orgy of ecstatic laughter at his antics. Similarly, the scene where Odenkirk’s pompous British boob introduces himself to Cross is one long gay-panic joke, as Cross looks suspiciously at Odenkirk while he falls all over himself saying things like, “I’m here to proposition you” and “I want to be the man behind the man. I realized I’m coming all over you here but it’s been building up inside me for weeks and I can’t control myself.”
Run, Ronnie, Run has a moment of undiminished triumph that illustrates what a Mr. Show movie could and should have been. Not coincidentally, it’s also largely borrowed from the show. In it, Odenkirk’s impetuous impresario oversees a musical based on the title character’s life and watches as Mandy Patinkin, looking every bit the hillbilly in his overalls, unleashes a heart-stoppingly beautiful rendition of what I like to think of as Ronnie Dobbs’ theme song, pouring every last iota of talent he possesses into lyrics like, “Can’t a man not control his wife with violence? Can’t a man not crudely lie and scream?”
There is nothing noble about the life of Ronnie Dobbs, but when Patinkin softly, sadly, tenderly sings, “Y’all are brutalizing me,” it has a certain battered dignity. It’s funny and pointed in its satire of the way Broadway romanticizes working-class despair for the smart set, but it’s also weirdly powerful in the same way watching Paul Robeson perform “Ol’ Man River” is powerful.
There are moments of genius scattered throughout Run, Ronnie, Run, from an exuberantly profane Mary Poppins parody featuring Jack Black to a Three Times One Minus One music video to a sequence exposing the precise nature of the international gay conspiracy. But they’re all tethered to a central narrative Cross and Odenkirk clearly don’t care about and don’t expect the audience to care about either. They’re handcuffed by the need to deliver the kind of cheap emotional moments they relentlessly mocked on Mr. Show. When Talley tells Cross about how “God’s magical light beams” might be leading him in the right direction, it’s unclear whether the line is meant to be sincere or a parody of maudlin crap.
A decade on, here are the facts: There was a show called Mr. Show that was important to a lot of people. These people were sad when it ended. These fans poured their considerable hopes and dreams and insane, intense comedy-geek energy into pining for a Mr. Show movie that would continue the show’s legacy the way the Monty Python films have expanded the troupe’s universe in exciting ways.
It now seems much less significant in retrospect than it once did. At the time, it felt like a great injustice had been done not just to Mr. Show but to comedy as a whole. It’s now apparent that it ultimately didn’t matter whether Run, Ronnie, Run received a theatrical release or even if Bob and David were able to release their preferred cut of the film. As a clearly exhausted Odenkirk observed in his Tenacity Of The Cockroach interview, “I’m no longer arguing for a movie I don’t really like, for a cut that’s a little better but still isn’t very good.” That sums up the sad, strange saga of Run, Ronnie, Run. Odenkirk and Cross and Mr. Show fans all fought for a sometimes funny, sometimes painful little comedy that ultimately proved not worth the fight.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco