The On Cinema universe, made up of the series and specials that star Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington (a.k.a. the singularly awful stand-up Neil Hamburger) as hapless and self-deluding amateur movie reviewers, has over the years evolved from a simple parody into an overarching narrative that might just be this decade’s finest example of ambitiously serialized comic storytelling. Which makes the OCU’s first big-screen outing, the mockumentary Mister America, feel like something of a disappointment. Running only a little shorter than the average season of On Cinema At The Cinema, it’s never as cringe-inducingly funny or inventive as the webseries that spawned it.
Part of it probably has to do with the limitations imposed by Heidecker, Turkington, and director Eric Notarnicola’s decision to venture out into the real world, for reasons that require some explanation of the On Cinema project for the uninitiated. At its center is the aforementioned On Cinema At The Cinema, a dinky, Siskel-and-Ebert-inspired show in which Heidecker and Turkington (playing characters who are also named “Tim Heidecker” and “Gregg Turkington”) offer incoherent, meandering reviews of new releases (rarely rated less than “five out of five bags of popcorn”) that are derailed by the Tim character’s schemes, right-wing diatribes, and surreal personal problems, and by the petty rivalry and one-upmanship between Tim and the dweeby Gregg. (On the most recent episode, they attempt to tackle Joker and The Current War.) These storylines in turn spill over into Decker, an intentionally incompetent action show in which Tim plays his masculine ideal, a superspy who is best described as an amalgam of Steven Seagal and Donald Trump; a series of awesomely shambolic live Oscar broadcasts; Heidecker and Turkington’s cameo appearances in the Marvel superhero movies Ant-Man and Ant-Man And The Wasp; and various Twitter feuds in which On Cinema’s obsessive fans take an active role.
Mister America, which takes the form of a faux vérité doc, follows Tim as he mounts a misbegotten bid for district attorney of San Bernardino County, California against his nemesis, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia), who unsuccessfully prosecuted him on 20 charges of second-degree murder back in 2017. (The complete six-day televised trial remains one of On Cinema’s finest achievements.) On the whole, it’s not a bad premise. Ever since his beginnings on On Cinema’s original incarnation as a podcast, the character of Tim has become an inarticulate embodiment of American self-aggrandizement and self-deception—the kind of guy who doesn’t recognize any contradiction as he rails against the authorities that tried to put him away for selling fatally tainted vape juices at an EDM festival while also promising a “one strike” policy that will ensure that anyone who is charged with a crime under his watch will be put away for life. He is an anti-vaxxer, a rube, and a member of the cult of Trump, pathologically incapable of remorse or introspection. If he has a political moment, it is now.
Schlepping around San Bernardino in an ill-fitting suit that drags on the heels of his shoes, Tim canvasses door to door for signatures, interacts with some apparently real (and confused) San Bernardinans, and melts down in a miserably under-attended “town hall” meeting. In one of the more memorable gags, he tries to get local businesses to put up signs with his campaign slogan: “We have a rat problem!” His campaign manager, Toni (Terri Parks), rarely seen without a glass of wine, turns out to have been one of the jurors at his trial; she is, to put it euphemistically, a “concerned resident” with opinions on the changing demographics of San Bernardino. (“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”) Some sequences feel overstretched; as a comic creation, the opportunistic, incompetent blowhard Tim is at his funniest when he’s doing damage control, throwing in phony sincerities and paranoid accusations, but Mister America largely finds him in comfortable surroundings, without the usual cast of bizarre supporting characters. (His quack guru Dr. San committed suicide back in the ninth season of On Cinema At The Cinema, while Manuel, his bandmate in the rock band Dekkar, has fled to Italy to escape persecution.) Sure, he’s living out of a hotel (in order to secure a San Bernardino address) and blowing whatever meager savings he might have on a low-visibility vanity campaign, but it takes until the end for him to enter a state of free fall.
One can’t help but feel that the film’s straightforward and comparatively realistic satire puts it at a disadvantage. After all, the On Cinema universe is one where conflicts and events largely happen off screen. As a result, there has never been a budgetary constraint on its grotesque and outrageous plots: the death of Tim’s son, Tom Cruise Heidecker; the Rasputin-esque machinations of Dr. San; the fires, health problems, vaping addictions, and corporate takeovers that have plagued the production of On Cinema At The Cinema. In contrast, Mister America (which was reportedly shot in just three days) feels small and frictionless, even after Tim’s regular foil, Gregg, decides to obnoxiously insert himself into the story. In the end, it comes across as an inessential entry in a canon that has often bordered on genius.