Pop documentarian Ron Mann specializes in big, flashy odes to countercultural icons; they fall somewhere between cinematic fan letters and feature-length valentines. In dizzily entertaining romps like Twist and Grass, Mann's earnest, unapologetic enthusiasm for his subjects proved infectious, but in 2003's unwatchable Woody Harrelson documentary Go Further, it devolved into the worst kind of adolescent hero-worship. Go Further also suffered from an uncharacteristically straightforward approach that abandoned the hyperkinetic flashiness, pop collage, and sensory overload that's become Mann's stylistic trademark.
With Tales Of The Rat Fink, Mann's new ode to custom-car giant and Rat Fink creator Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, the bells and whistles are back, along with fireworks, sirens, joy buzzers, and other noisemakers. Where Go Further suffered from a dearth of stylistic imagination, Rat Fink suffers from an overabundance of goofy ideas. The cutesy conceits begin with having John Goodman narrate the film as Roth from beyond the grave, then telling Roth's story largely through anthropomorphized, talking customized Roth cars voiced by big names like Jay Leno, Brian Wilson, Tom Wolfe, Ann-Margret, and Matt Groening. But regardless of who's voicing them, Roth's cars tend to act like cartoon greasers. Who knew such cool-looking cars could have such boring personalities? Rat Fink follows Roth from his heady early days in drag racing to his custom-car superstardom and his creation of Rat Fink, a feral Mickey Mouse parody that became a ubiquitous fixture on T-shirts and other merchandise, as did many of Roth's other far-out creations.
Mann's assaultive visual style ensures that Rat Fink is never boring, but it does feel awfully empty. All flash and no substance, it seems custom-designed for ADD-addled children lightheaded from inhaling glue fumes from their Roth-branded model cars. For all its countercultural window-dressing, Rat Fink is at heart about a guy who was really, really good at marketing himself. Mann doesn't seem to realize that he's made a film about an icon who was commodifying outlaw-cool decades before anyone with an iota of commercial ambition began thinking of themselves as brands.
Key features: Interviews with Roth and Mann, deleted scenes, a Sadies music video, and a feature called "Painting Jam" with Roth and Von Dutch.