Say this for writer/director/producer/editor/actor Matt D’Elia’s debut feature film American Animal: It’s a movie that understands how sometimes, when people are left alone, or when they’re intoxicated, they make funny faces and talk in weird voices, sometimes for minutes on end. The characters in American Animal are champion baby-talkers—endurance babblers. The movie takes place over 24 hours in one apartment, where two slackers played by D’Elia and Brendan Fletcher entertain their girlfriends, played by Mircea Monroe and Angela Sarafyan. The foursome smokes dope, goofs off, and has circular conversations that involve one member of the party saying things like, “I doobie-doobie-doobie do,” or, “I’m H-U-N-G-R-Y hungreeeeeeee,” or, “Are you deaf? I fuckin’ said ‘poopy,’ Fuckin’ poopy-loopy,” while the other members of the party either repeat what they’ve just heard or blankly reply, “What?” This may sound silly, but it’s not unrealistic. People really do, sometimes, behave this way.
But yeesh, is it ever excruciating to watch for an hour and a half, especially when it’s in service of a premise as skimpy as American Animal’s. The movie is ostensibly about the potential demise of D’Elia and Fletcher’s friendship, incited by Fletcher’s decision to—gasp!—get a job. D’Elia’s character is sickly, and doesn’t have to worry about money, so he thinks Fletcher’s obliged to be his sidekick in a daily endeavor to ignore society’s “rules” and just do what feels good in the moment. In the one genuinely coherent scene in American Animal, D’Elia lectures Fletcher about how Fletcher only wants a job because he wants to be like other people, not because it’s something he legitimately desires.
The problem is that this speech is delivered by a man who spends most of the movie wearing nothing but pink underpants, save for the scenes where he’s sporting a Beethoven wig and a eye-patch, or a spangly Uncle Sam coat. This is a guy who makes up his own words and uses them when people are trying to talk with him seriously—a guy who changes his name on a whim, demands that it be Christmas whenever he says, and claims that really he’s no different than his favorite movie stars. As played by D’Elia, the hero of American Animal is less of an iconoclast than an egomaniac—and a terrible nag, to boot.
As a filmmaker, D’Elia at least tries to think visually, using color and montage to enliven a set-bound piece. And he has a heck of a cast in Fletcher, Monroe, and Sarafyan, all of whom have memorable faces and a real command of their craft. In fact, it’s best to imagine this movie as a study of three good young actors trapped in an indie film project with a yammering weirdo. Seen as some kind of absurdist, meta-textual horror story, American Animal almost works. In every other way? It’s fuckin’ poopy-loopy.