evocateur[xrr rating=2.25/5]Controversial talk show host Morton Downey Jr. was a fixture of the American cultural landscape for just under two years. Acerbic, angry and violent, Downey’s syndicated talk show was once considered the epitome of trash TV. He fancied himself the spokesperson for the white working class, and to that end invited people of color, gays, feminists and “pablum puking liberals” onto his show so he could scream and smoke and rant that they were ruining America, all to the delight of his testosterone-heavy audience.

Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, which purports to reveal a Downey we never knew or, perhaps, have already forgotten, is less documentary than clip show. Watching snippets of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” is fun for a while, like looking through an old yearbook and laughing at the goofy hairstyles, but lacks the substance needed for a full-length feature. The filmmakers are obviously fans, having produced their own homemade spoof of the show when they were teens, yet the film never becomes either fully-formed celebration nor analysis of the Downey phenomenon. If the film bothers to elaborate a point at all, it actively favors quickie pop-psychology explanations designed only to move you from moment to moment, until you start to drift off after the 15th “controversial” clip from a show that, strangely, looked the same every single day, no matter who the guest, provocateur and/or victim was that night.

Snippets of the show are interspersed with news stories on Downey, animated segments that try too hard to be salacious and interviews of fans, friends and colleagues. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of interviewees are people who appeared on Downey’s show for publicity in the late 1980s and more than likely are appearing in Évocateur for the same reason today. Though Downey used his wives and one brother for publicity during his heyday, none of Downey’s relatives appear save for one uncomfortable daughter, whose thankless role forces her to resort to Human Nature 101: Reassuring us that there was a little human inside the Morton Downey, Jr. monster.

Born into a well-known and wealthy family, Morton Downey, Jr. became a singer in his 20s, apparently with the intention of becoming more famous than his father had ever been. But for all the talk of Downey Jr.’s tenacious Oedipal complex, there is very little to show for it in Évocateur beyond one exceptional moment on a 1958 television show. The rest is speculation, quotes and anecdotes from friends and producers who, as the film wears on, seem increasingly unreliable. Certainly, Downey surrounded himself with people that shared his particular moral fluidity, people who found it easy to look up to the man regardless of his faults.

To the documentary’s credit, Downey’s obvious emulation of 1950s television provocateur Joe Pyne is noted, but no real examination of this influence is made. Like every other connection drawn during Évocateur, the connection itself is seen as enough. Analysis is not simply avoided, it’s discouraged. Amidst the film’s clips of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” are journalists like Ted Koppel, unconvincingly clutching his metaphorical pearls over Downey’s show as though it were a harbinger of the downfall of society. Évocateur, however, steadfastly refuses to engage in any discussion of the larger cultural picture, presenting these news clips as nothing more than evidence of Downey’s popularity: He was a man who made the news, and that’s all that matters.

And why would anything else matter? Morton Downey Jr. was staunchly anti-intellectual, and perhaps it’s folly to approach either the man or his legacy in any other way. Yet there’s a curious lack of point to this documentary about a flash-in-the-pan asshole who cannot be convincingly portrayed as influential or important, not even by those who have come to laud him. After dozens of clips from his show and numerous attempts at downplaying Downey’s spousal abuse, sexual harassment and violent outbursts, the film’s warm-hearted nostalgia for the good old days of trash television is entirely unearned.

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One Comment

  1. john

    June 21, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    If Morton Downey Jr. didn’t exist, John Waters would have been forced to invent him.

    Reply

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