Rating:In college, my experience with the school’s student film club involved watching a lot of peers’ shorts that took place in their apartments, not to mention inflicting my own work on my peers in retaliation, also set in my apartment. While that sounds awful, it’s also the easiest thing to do: it’s safe, nobody will bother you and you don’t have to leave the house. Because, you know, filmmaking shouldn’t be risky or anything like that. For some reason, we rarely talked about craft or how to improve one another’s films – we were probably all egomaniacs who wouldn’t accept criticism anyway, but I really wish we had talked, for one thing, about how to make our shitty movies visually interesting. Step 1: Don’t set your entire movie in an apartment. Especially if it has white walls.
It turns out that American Animal is a 95-minute film – or roughly 20 student shorts – set entirely in writer/director/star Matt D’Elia’s swanky Los Angeles apartment, which doesn’t bode well until you realize that, for all the film’s myriad problems (discussed below), D’Elia knows how to play with lighting and cinematography. What could have been an hour-and-a-half slog through a small living space actually turns out to be a colorful, visually dynamic chamber piece.
Jimmy (D’Elia) is an eccentric shut-in dying of an unnamed terminal illness, and has decided to make the most of it by doing only what pleases him. His roommate, James (Brendan Fletcher) is a regular bloke who, constantly put-upon by Jimmy, does his best to indulge his best friend. When they invite over their ladyfriends (Mircea Monroe and Angela Sarafyan) – seriously known only as Blonde Angela and Other Angela – for booze, weed and video games, addition of audience members gives Jimmy the perfect chance to embark on his self-centered odyssey of forcing the group to celebrate Christmas with him, making up nonsense languages, going through numerous costume changes and doing impressions of famous actors. All whilst having lots of temper tantrums.
Basically, there’s some Beckett, some No Exit and a whole lot of mumblecorish capturing of banality like people making stupid faces in front of the mirror and requiring other characters to repeat themselves after an abrupt “What?” But while mumblecore has a certain degree of charm because that shit’s made by poor slackers starring whoever was closest to the camera, American Animal comes off like a trust fund hipster’s version of mumblecore, where the apartments are nicer and you can cast fairly experienced actors to deliver your carefully crafted dialogue of minutia.
To his credit, D’Elia understands drama on the level of your average MTV reality show: if you’re going to put four people in one location, there should be at least a modicum of conflict to keep people interested. As such, while all Jimmy’s tomfoolery goes on, James has a paid internship at a major book publisher that he starts in the morning – a situation that should result in high fives, but instead causes friction with Jimmy, who believes James’ desire to integrate into society is a selfish attempt to shatter his egomaniacal fantasy world within the apartment.
The majority of American Animal is all about the character study of Jimmy – how he acts, how people react to him and his constant pushing of boundaries to the point where you wonder at what point do you stop cutting a dude some slack just because he’s got a terminal illness. On one hand, you kind of understand the frustration he’s acting out, but conversely it’s impossible not to identify with the other characters’ increasing frustration at his inability to act human or acknowledge that other people have needs.
As such, that kind of character requires a bravado performance of D’Elia, who’s not afraid to be one of the most irritating, obnoxious characters put to film – the kind of guy who craves attention but hates to be talked about, who points out where the reference he just made comes from and punctuates every sip of liquid with a hyperextended “ahh” as if he were in a Tim & Eric parody of a Sprite commercial. It’s a tough role to walk the line of hateable lunatic and transparently sad clown, but D’Elia’s not afraid to show off his dick – ’cause y’know, once formalities go out the window so shall pink boxer-briefs – but all joking aside, it’s the performance of an actor giving his all in service of… I don’t know what, exactly.
And that’s ultimately the problem of American Animal. It eventually succeeds in being compelling despite all it has going against it, but what is to be gained from all this cinematic rambling as it blindly stabs at existential darkness? Is it an expression of the way life goes on despite your bests efforts? Or is D’Elia trying to reach out to the like-minded? And, if he is, should these people be encouraged? No. No they should not.